Before Starting Preschool: What Your Kids Should Know

Potty training isn’t the only skill your child may need to know before heading to preschool. Here are a few important things you should consider before committing to a preschool.

By Anne Zachry

All parents want their children to have a strong start in life, and preschool provides a solid foundation for a successful future in school. If you worry that your child might not be ready for preschool, rest assured that there are a number of ways to help your little one prepare for this important transition before she starts preschool.

Encourage Independence

Children learn from their successes as well as their missteps, so don’t rush to rescue your child in every challenging situation. “Socially adept children learn from parents who have confidence in their child’s ability to soothe themselves in a difficult situation and make appropriate choices when allowed to or, at the very least, [to] learn and grow from their mistakes,” says Grace Geller, the preschool director of A Children’s Carousel in Weston, Florida.

Geller recommends encouraging your child to become independent with basic self-care skills, such as hand washing, nose wiping, opening lunch containers, manipulating simple clothing fasteners, zipping a backpack, and covering his mouth when coughing or sneezing. Teach your little one how to undress at night and have him pick out his outfit for the following day. If he wants to dress himself in the morning, keep in mind that he may need some assistance.

Prime for Potty Training

“Potty training is a complex issue,” Geller says. Before selecting a preschool, ask about the potty training policy. If independent toileting is required, carefully consider if your child is developmentally ready to be potty trained. If she’s not, don’t force it. But if your child is able to keep her diaper dry for an hour, then she’s likely ready to begin training. “Preschools should be willing to assist a parent in the toilet training process,” Geller says.

Instill Organization

Teach your child how to be organized. Work with him on ways to keep his clothes, toys, and gear organized in his room. Kate Dust, an early childhood education professor at Buffalo State College, suggests using inexpensive and colorful baskets or bins, and storing similar items together.

After a play session, tell your little one it’s time to clean up and show him where each item belongs. Make it fun by singing a cleanup song until the area is tidy. Once your child knows the routine, have him clean up on his own. Be sure to praise him if he does a good job.

Develop Social Skills

Social readiness, not academic readiness, should be a priority, says Claire Haas, vice president of education at The Kiddie Academy in Abingdon, Maryland. “Going to preschool is about socialization. When thinking about preschool, consider these questions: Can your child be away from you? Is she moving out of diapers? Is she talking about school?”

Social skills that are necessary for preschool include sharing, taking turns, playing with peers, and participating in pretend play. The most natural way for your little one to learn these skills is during peer play, so have your child participate in plenty of playdates prior to the first day of preschool.

Start teaching manners early, so that your child knows how to mind her p’s and q’s by the time she starts preschool. Greeting others, using table manners, following directions, not interrupting, and saying please, thank you, and excuse me are ways your child shows respect and consideration for others. Your child’s teacher will be impressed.

Encourage Emotional Readiness

Julie Nelson, a professor of early childhood education and a former preschool teacher, believes that emotional readiness is an important social skill for preschool. It’s necessary, she says, to “help children identify and process emotions in a healthy manner. When a child exhibits a strong emotion, it is usually best not to judge, undermine, or devalue [him] with such phrases as ‘don’t act like a baby,’ or ‘you drive me crazy with your tantrums.’ A preschooler has difficulty understanding and putting labels on feelings and can feel out of control in these situations. [He doesn’t] know why [he is] experiencing certain feelings or how to deal with those feelings. Parents can help by allowing the child to express their emotions in a safe situation and labeling the specific emotion by saying, ‘Oh, you are cranky because you are so tired.’ Let the child know you will be ready to talk when they are calm,” she says. Learning to manage and express emotions in a healthy manner is not only important for preschool; it’s also an essential life skill.

Cultivate Communication Skills

Talking and listening are extremely valuable for school success, and parents have countless opportunities to develop their child’s language skills. “Whether it’s discussing what’s in a room, talking about daily routines, or chatting about what’s for dinner, parents can help expand a child’s vocabulary by introducing new words and expressions. Teachable moments come from the child’s own observations or from things they’re interested in because children are so excited and curious to learn more. It can be hard when parents are working, but teachable moments can be just a few minutes or even a few seconds. The trick is to be aware that the things that we see and do as we go through our days may seem mundane to us, but to our children they are wonders,” says Rebecca Palacios, Ph.D., Senior Curriculum Advisor for

Focus on the Basics

Prior to preschool, teach your child his full name, his parents’ names, and street name and number. She may even be ready to learn her phone number. Teach this by demonstrating how to dial the number on a toy phone and saying the numbers out loud. Encourage your child to do the same, providing prompts as needed. Also, if your child has an allergy or special health need, make sure she understands the importance of keeping the information accessible on a bracelet or note card.

Put Away the Flash Cards

Don’t address academic skills in a drill format. It’s much more fun to provide natural opportunities to expose your child to the basics such as colors, numbers, and the ABCs. Point out letters and colors on street signs and sing counting songs. “As a parent, you create the environments and experiences where learning happens, which makes you your child’s first teacher,” Dr. Palacios says. Don’t stress out if your little one isn’t an academic ace before he starts in a program. Rest assured, he’ll gain those skills in  our preschools in Hoboken or Jersey City.

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