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Expert Q+A: Are We Ready for Preschool?

Blonde Toddler in Denim Jacket Standing Against Brick Wall

It's not college -- it's only preschool. But for many parents, deciding where to send your child is the first big education decision. For starters, preschool may be your child's first real time away from you, so you want to get it right. And then come the questions: Should I send her at age 2, or wait until she is 3, or 4? What kind of program? And what do kids need to learn in preschool, anyway?

Talking to other parents is a great way to get started on your search. But as with almost everything regarding kids, expect to hear lots of different opinions about preschool. For some balanced answers to parents' most-asked questions, read on to see what the early-childhood experts have to say.

Q. We are applying to preschools for next fall. My 2-1/2-year-old is still pretty clingy, and she isn't potty trained yet. How can I know if she'll be ready six months from now?

A. In a nutshell, you can't know for sure. But you can expect your daughter to make some big developmental gains over the next six months. It's true that a child who regularly uses the potty, shows signs of independence, and states her needs with words is more ready for school than a child who can't do any of these things, but most 3-year-olds fall somewhere in the middle of the "readiness" spectrum. And don't forget that a good preschool program is designed for 3-year-olds, with all their quirks, Strasser says. You may want to focus more on finding the right program for her, rather than worrying about her readiness.

In the meantime, consider these additional factors:

  1. A program that accepts almost-threes (for instance, children must be 3 by December 31) may be more attuned to the needs of young threes, such as separation anxiety and toilet training, than a program that requires children to be 3 by the time school starts in September.
  2. A school that's not licensed to care for kids in diapers will naturally be stricter about toilet training, while a school that is licensed (such as one with a toddler program) may be more flexible about a child who's still working on potty training. And remember, preschool teachers expect that kids will have an occasional accident -- that's just what 3-year-olds do.
  3. A mixed-age classroom, in which kids stay with the same teachers and classmates for two to three years, may suit a child who has a tough time with transitions, although such classes are often bigger than single-age classes.
  4. When you visit preschools, share as much information about your daughter as you can -- the teacher's responses will help you determine whether the program is a good fit.

Q. My daughter cried every day at preschool for weeks, and I don't want my son to go through the same thing when he starts. (I don't want to go through it again, either!)

A. If your child sobs or cries hysterically every time you leave him at school, you're bound to wonder whether you should take him out. "But almost all kids need some help to separate from a parent, and that's a good thing," Katz says. "It's a sign of your child's strong relationship with you."

Usually, separation is tougher for a 2-year-old, who's less articulate and less experienced, than it is for a 3- or 4-year-old. But for most kids, the adjustment to preschool can take a couple of weeks. "Stay at school for a little while, but then say good-bye, and have faith that your child's teacher will comfort him and help him get involved in something," Strasser says. Ask the teacher how long your child's tears last; often, crying stops moments after you leave. And help your child remember that you'll be back by giving him an "I love you" note for his pocket, or a photo of you or your family for his cubby.

If more than a month has passed and your child still seems miserable, you might try shortening his school day or reducing the number of days he goes to school. Conversely, some children adjust more easily when they go to school more frequently -- for instance, three or four days instead of two.

Q. I had no idea preschool was so expensive. Any suggestions for making it more affordable?

A. Preschool tuition can leave you with sticker shock, especially if you're thinking about full-day programs. Consider preschools based in churches, Jewish Community Centers, and YMCAs, which keep costs down by sharing the larger group's space, and may offer sliding-scale fees. There may also be a co-op preschool in your town; such preschools rely on parents to handle all kinds of duties, from assisting teachers to serving on the school's board. If you and your spouse both work, ask your employer about dependent-care spending accounts, which allow you to set aside as much as $5,000 of pretax income to pay for childcare, or look into claiming tuition as part of the federal dependent-care tax credit. You can only choose one; you may want to talk to an accountant about what the best strategy is for your family.

Sarah Crow, a mother of three, lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.