Preschoolers 101: Understanding Preschooler Development

Your toddler is now preschool age -- learn what behaviors to expect and how to nurture independence during the preschool years.

What defines a preschooler?

A child of 3 or 4 is considered a preschooler. So whether or not your child is attending a formal preschool program, he is no longer a toddler. Preschoolers are different from toddlers in that they are developing the basic life skills, independence, and knowledge that they will need as they enter their school years.

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What should my preschooler be able to do at this age?

Preschoolers are learning many new skills and stretching their cognitive abilities. Meg Meeker, M.D., a pediatrician in Traverse City, Michigan, and the best-selling author of six parenting books, breaks down what your preschooler should be able to do below. Though these are the major skills to look out for, be aware that every child develops differently, and yours might accomplish one skill earlier than others. Don't worry about small differentiations from the norm, but if you have concerns about the overall development, consult your pediatrician. "At 3, he should have the fine motor skills to dress himself and the gross motor skills to pedal a tricycle. Compared [with how he is at age] 2, a child is more interested in interactive play rather than parallel play. Kids at 3 should be asking deeper questions and be inquisitive about their environment," Dr. Meeker says. By age 4, a child should be able to dress and undress himself, cut basic figures out of paper and paste them on another piece of paper, draw little stick figures, name four or five colors, understand your jokes, and joke with you. At age 5, Dr. Meeker continues, kids should be able to count, draw a person with the arms, legs, and body in the right places, exhibit imaginary and pretend play (sometimes with an imaginary friend), ride a two-wheel bicycle with training wheels, and articulate well enough to be understood.

How can I improve my preschooler's behavior?

Every parent has been warned about the "terrible twos," but many parents find that it's actually the threes and fours that are more challenging. When it comes to temperament, "some kids can actually have a more difficult time during the threes than the twos," Dr. Meeker says, as children this age want to assert their independence. They are more aware of their own needs and desires -- and also aware when those needs and desires aren't being met.

Is your preschooler's behavior driving you crazy? Put a stop to tantrums and meltdowns by focusing and giving enough attention. "The most important thing is emotional connection, giving your child one-on-one attention," says Amy McCready, a discipline expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. Once an emotional connection is made, through spending special time alone with your child, "the most important thing to work on is training," McCready continues. "If we take the time to teach them how to do things, from personal care to helping with dinner, they will feel more empowered and less likely to act out. The more time we spend on training, the less time we have to spend on correcting negative behavior."

How can I help my preschooler become more independent?

The preschool age is a time for rapidly growing independence; your child learns to separate from you in preparation for attending school. During the preschool years, she will learn essential life skills, like dressing and feeding herself. Because children learn best when there are clear rules and expectations, establish regular routines. The morning routine can involve going to the potty, getting dressed, and eating breakfast -- all skills that your child will eventually be able to do on her own. Give some specific tasks that will make her feel important and empowered, like feeding the dog or putting dirty pajamas in the hamper. Simple chores can help her feel as though she has a daily contribution to make.

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How do I know if my child is ready for preschool?

Preschool can be excellent preparation for kindergarten and the school years beyond, but just because your child has reached the age requirement for a school program doesn't mean she is ready. Kids develop at different paces and have different needs for social and intellectual stimulation. If you are considering preschool, think about your child's listening, socializing, and communicating (or language) skills. Many preschools require that children be potty trained, so keep your child's toileting needs in mind. Dr. Meeker suggests assessing your child's personality to determine if preschool would be a good fit: "If a child has a lot of energy, and you feel she's bored with you during the day, or if she's not as tired during the day, she might be ready to go to preschool." A child's need for social stimulation is a factor, too. "If you have a very social, extroverted, outgoing child, it's nice for [her] to be able to interact with other kids," Dr. Meeker says.

How Should I Prepare My Preschooler for School?

Which learning environment is best for my preschooler?

There are many options for school environments and it's possible that no school is the best option for your family. Preschool isn't required by law, so you can put off school until your child is old enough for kindergarten. If you do enroll in a nursery school or child-care center, there are many factors to consider. What is the ratio of children to teachers? Do the children have enough time to play or is it strictly academic? Is the tuition affordable? Do you agree with the educational approach? Some preschools follow certain educational methods, such as Montessori or Waldorf, so you should also learn about these approaches. Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child, warns that selecting a preschool isn't an easy job. "In addition to finding preschools in your area, you'll want to understand their educational approaches, evaluate the differences between programs, and spend time visiting the schools to determine which ones you want to apply to." Once you've narrowed down possible preschools, take tours of a few to see if they'd be a good fit for your child.

How can I prepare my preschooler for kindergarten?

Many parents begin worrying about kindergarten well before their child is old enough to go. Even if your child is in a preschool program, sending him off to kindergarten can seem like a big step -- his first venture into big-kid life. Many parents want to make sure their children are prepared, so a lot of time is spent drilling them on kindergarten learning basics such as numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. But the truth is, you don't have to use flash cards or teach your child to read a novel to prepare him for kindergarten. Instead, try to develop a general love of learning by reading aloud to him every day and encouraging his interests, academic or not. According to Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, the essential parenting guide from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "the crucial factor that determines whether a student will do well or poorly in school is not how aggressively he was pushed early on, but rather his own enthusiasm for learning."

There are some basic assessments of what educators call "kindergarten readiness," however. By the time your kid enters class, he should have a good handle on fine and gross motor skills and speech, so if you have concerns about these areas, talk to your pediatrician. Make sure your child can grip a pencil or crayon correctly when preparing to learn to write, and help him develop basic self-care and social skills that will be necessary in the classroom, like dressing himself and following instructions. Most children begin learning to read on their own in kindergarten or first grade, but you can set the stage for reading success by raising a reader at home. Keep lots of books around to get your child excited about reading and plan trips to the library to spend time reading aloud. If your child begins kindergarten with an already-developed love of books, he's sure to have an easier time in class.

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How can I keep my preschooler safe and healthy?

Accidents inside the home are the greatest risk for toddlers, but with preschoolers it's important to be alert outside, especially on sidewalks and streets. Between the ages of 3 and 5, children start riding scooters and bikes, so helmet safety is critical. Be sure to supervise your child when she's playing outside, but dangers can exist inside as well, so continue to child-proof your home, and keep poisonous materials away from curious preschoolers.

To keep your child healthy, maintain good hand-washing routines. Teach preschoolers to clean their hands with soap and water after they use the bathroom, and before and after eating. This is also an important time to develop good nutrition and exercise habits. Preschoolers need space to run around several times a day; give them enough opportunities for physical activity so that they don't sit for more than an hour at a time. As your little one's palate develops, pay careful attention to choking hazards. Young children should continue to avoid any foods the size of a nickel -- or foods that are round and about the size of the opening of the throat -- such as small chunks of hot dogs, hard candy, whole grapes, and cherry tomatoes. Help your child make healthy food choices so that she'll develop positive eating habits and her growth will stay on track.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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