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.
The Lesson: Following Instructions
Why it matters: Teachers expect preschoolers to know the classroom rules and to carry out simple commands, such as lining up, sitting in chairs, and putting craft materials away.
Get prepped: "Let your child help you with your day-to-day household tasks," says Dr. Berman. For instance, you can ask him to hand you the soap or join you in putting away his stuffed animals. (Don't forget to say "Please" and "Thank you.") Build up gradually to giving him two-step instructions, such as, "Please put away your crayons, and then close the toy box."
It's also important to have simple rules at home, such as "Close the door quietly" and "We brush our teeth every night." When he follows them successfully, acknowledge this so he'll want to repeat the behavior. Wana suggests framing house rules as a choice so that your child feels he has some control. You might say, "It's time to get ready for bed. Would you like to start by putting on your jammies or should we brush your teeth first?"
Extra credit: A great way to practice lining up? Try playing a game of follow the leader.
The Lesson: Sitting Still and Listening
Why it matters: It's not easy for an active toddler to stay put and pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time, but many preschool activities, like circle time, require kids to do exactly that. Developing strong listening and conversation skills builds a bigger vocabulary and aids in language development -- huge advantages as your child continues in school.
Get prepped: Go to story hour at the library so your child can practice being part of a group and paying attention to an adult other than you. At home, model listening without interrupting, suggests Wana.
"When you're having a conversation with your child, ask her, 'Are you done talking?' before you respond." Encourage her to show the same courtesy to you and others.
Extra credit: Test your child's listening skills by asking her questions about a favorite book. You might say, "I forgot the name of the lion's mom. Do you remember?"
The Lesson: Separating from Parents
Why it matters: Having to say bye-bye to Mommy or Daddy is often the most challenging part of starting preschool. The image of your kid clinging to you, crying, and refusing to enter the classroom may be among your worst first-day fears too.
Get prepped: If you're a working parent, your child has already adjusted to spending some time apart from you. If not, arrange to have him stay with a babysitter or another family member while you go out for a couple of hours. "These short separations enforce the message that you'll always come back at the end of the day," says Dr. Berman. In the weeks leading up to preschool, find out your school's separation policy. Does the teacher prefer that you linger in the classroom for the first few days or drop your child off and leave quickly? Then let your child know what to expect.
Extra credit: Read books about kids who overcome their school separation fears, such as I Love You All Day Long, by Francesca Rusackas, and The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn.
Great Apps for Preschoolers
These games, all for pre-readers, teach a variety of skills to help your child succeed in the classroom. Note: You should plan on playing together, at least in the beginning.
My First Tangrams
Your kid will love solving these puzzles (you use all the pieces to form a given shape). $2 for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Android
Write the Alphabet
Learn capital and lowercase letters by tracing them. Older kids can try cursive. Free for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Android
Have your child match facial expressions to different emotions. $2 for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, and $1 for Kindle Fire and Nook
Sid's Science Fair
Use a magnifying glass to find patterns and organize pictures. $3 for iPhone, iPod touch, Android, Kindle Fire, and Nook
Monkey Math School Sunshine
A lovable monkey guides kids through simple counting problems. $2 for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Android
This app teaches rhythm, pitch, and note-reading basics. Bonus: Kids can create their own music. $2 for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch
Toilet Training Made Easy
Another major skill you'll need to work on with your child: how to use the potty. Although some preschools change diapers (especially those that start at age 2), most insist that a student be capable of going to the bathroom with little or no help by age 3. If you're finding the training process daunting, check out our videos at the link below for step-by-step advice from Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.