Christine McAllister welcomes 20 new preschoolers every August into her classroom at L. P. Waters Early Childhood Center, in Greenville, Texas. And every year, something becomes apparent almost immediately. "I can tell within 30 minutes which kids have parents who helped them prepare and which ones have been less fortunate," she says.
What exactly makes a new student stand out from the pack? Here's a hint: It's not necessarily being able to count to ten or recite the ABCs. "Children should enter pre-K with social skills and the ability to communicate with their peers and adults," says Parents advisor Robert Pianta, Ph.D., dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Even if your child's first day of preschool is a year or more away, there's plenty you can do now to get her ready. We asked experts to share the lessons that will help your kid get off to a strong start.
The Lesson: Playing Nicely
Why it matters: Preschoolers learn and interact in groups, so teachers expect them to understand concepts like sharing and taking turns.
Get prepped: Arrange group playdates with three or four kids, and test your child's independence by staying in the background as they interact. Even if your child is a playgroup vet, she needs to mingle with kids she doesn't know well. Having experiences with different personalities goes a long way toward helping children get along with future classmates. So consider enrolling her in a music or an art class where she can interact with new faces. "Having these encounters will help your child begin to understand that her view of the world isn't the only one," notes Dr. Pianta.
Extra credit: If you see your child sharing, say, "It was kind to let Emily use your toys," says Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child.
The Lesson: Adapting to a Routine
Why it matters: The classroom is a disciplined environment in which kids can't play or snack whenever and wherever they want.
Get prepped: Set consistent times for meals, naps, snacks, baths, and bedtime, and try to stick to them. This will get your child used to delaying gratification and help prepare him for the structure of preschool, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.
Extra credit: Post a daily schedule with pictures so your child can "read" it without your help. Point out all the things he's going to do.
The Lesson: Focusing on a Task
Why it matters: Preschoolers sometimes work independently on puzzles, art projects, and other activities during class. To complete them successfully, your child needs to be able to stick with one thing and avoid getting distracted.
Get prepped: Attention is a learned skill; working on it is like building a muscle, notes Dr. Berman. The more time your kid spends concentrating, the more adept she'll become. At home, encourage her to spend quiet time drawing, playing, or looking at books. Also limit the amount of time she spends in front of a screen, since research suggests that the constantly changing images can make it harder for her to focus.
Extra credit: Make sure your child sits at the dinner table for at least ten to 15 minutes, even if she's done eating in half that time.