When should I start looking for a preschool?

Do you smell new pencils, apples for teacher, and that unmistakable scent of brand new backpacks and lunch boxes with cartoon characters on the front? Is it time for Baby to start putting the school in preschool? Well, that depends on a few things, but one of the biggest ones is what you and your partner think they are ready for.

Toddlers can start preschool as early as two years old or as late as four, and can stay in preschool for one to three years – and some toddlers don’t go at all, they just skip straight to kindergarten when they’re ready.

What’s the difference between daycare and preschool?

Daycare is often set up as a question of what’s right for a given family, and a balance with parents’ work lives, while preschool is seen as more of a question of a toddler’s education. There is some truth to that idea – daycares are generally more focused on childcare, and about getting babies’ and toddlers’ needs met. On the other hand, preschools tend to focus more on helping toddlers and young children build the skills they’ll need for pre-K, kindergarten, and the rest of their educations as they grow.

However, some centers have less of a clear line between daycare and preschool, and others treat preschool as the next level for young children who have aged out of daycare. Preschool is set up to be educational, but it’s not the only place where toddlers and young children can work on the skills they’ll learn there. Preschool can be great for building social skills, language skills, and motor skills, but toddlers and young children can also build these skills through free-play, taking classes, and having play-dates with a variety of other children, or even just by playing with older siblings.

The learning in preschools is generally a bit more directed than learning in daycares, or in free-play at home, but preschools do and should still leave plenty of space for children to play independently, just like at home, since this is how they generally learn a lot of the skills they’re going to need moving forward. Preschool can be a great way for children to start to build social skills, and start to feel like part of a community, even outside of their families. Preschool teachers can be especially good at encouraging toddler social relationships, because they’re experienced in talking to toddlers about what they and other children might be thinking and feeling, which can be helpful in getting young children to start to connect with each other better. Mixed-age preschool classes can also be helpful in getting toddlers’ social skills moving because imitating older children is a great way for younger toddlers to start to learn how to relate to one another.

Preschool can be great for building these skills because preschool teachers are trained in promoting these skills in age-appropriate ways, and home and family structures can be great for building these skills because parents and caregivers know their children best, and can have interactions and activities that are specifically suited to their children’s needs and skills. Many children learn best in a combination of these environments, which is part of why many preschools offer sets of classes that are either two or three half-days a week.

How to find the right preschool

If you decide preschool is right for Baby and for you, the best time to start to look for the right one is often about a year before you’re hoping for them to start, especially if you live somewhere like a big city, where admissions for preschools can get competitive. Like most things involving toddlers, picking out a preschool can be unpredictable – even if the school you like the best is full, there’s a good chance there will be last-minute openings, so it’s generally worth checking if there’s a wait-list.

There’s no one way to tell if a preschool will be a good fit for you and for Baby, but there are a few factors that can be helpful in figuring it out.

  • Student-teacher interactions: Some preschools can put a lot of focus on different educational philosophies, like Montessori, or forest schools, but often, these distinctions make a lot less of a difference than simply how well preschool instructors get along with their students. Evidence about some educational philosophies being more helpful than others in a preschool setting is muddy and contradictory, but the factors that make preschool valuable for kids – the targeted interaction, active engagement with caregivers, and chance to build language and social skills, as well as practice motor and cognitive skills – are things that are present in any good daycare program. You may find a school or philosophy that fits your family’s values or Baby’s personality better than others, but you’ll get a better sense of this by visiting the school and seeing that philosophy at work in the specific classroom Baby will be learning in than you will by researching what the philosophy is all about.
  • What your toddler is ready for: Whether it’s more days a week than your little one is prepared to be away from home, or a requirement that students be potty trained before Baby is ready to be out of training pants, some schools might not be a good fit because of the expectations they have for students.
  • Accreditation: There’s no guarantee that an accredited school is a good school, or the right school for Baby, but it is a sign that the school needs to meet certain standards, including student-to-teacher ratio, which can give you a better sense of what Baby’s experience there would be like.

You can start to get your toddler ready for the idea of preschool by playing pretend to introduce the idea of school, and reading books about characters in preschool, as a way of introducing the concept. You can also get them started practicing the self-care skills they may need in preschool, from simple ones like putting on their own jacket to more complicated ones like potty training.

  • Marie-Claude Geoffrey, et al. “Association between nonmaternal care in the first year of life and children’s receptive language skills prior to school entry: the moderating role of socioeconomic status.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 48(5): 490-497. May 2007. Retrieved July 17 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3283573/.
  • Marie-Claude Geoffrey, et al. “Closing the gap in academic readiness and achievement: the role of early childcare.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 51(12): 1359-1367. December 2010. Retrieved July 17 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3283580/.
  • E.M. Tucker-Drobb. “Preschools reduce early academic-achievement gap: a longitudinal twin approach.” 23(3): 310-319. March 2012. Retrieved July 17 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22368155.
  • “A Good Preschool for Your Child.” naeyc for families. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved July 17 2017. https://families.naeyc.org/accredited-article/good-preschool-your-child.
  • “Preschool Prep: How to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE, February 8 2010. Retrieved July 17 2017. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/78-preschool-prep-how-to-prepare-your-toddler-for-preschool. 

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