Your 3-year-old is facing new challenges at preschool -- and creating new ones at home. Here's what's going on in her young mind.
girl with pig tails making funny face

Your Little Preschooler

It happened almost overnight, didn't it? Instead of enjoying uninterrupted hours with your 3-year-old, these days you're more likely to be racing to get him to preschool on time. After school, your child comes home chatting about building block towers with "my friends" and demonstrates new cognitive leaps as he proudly recites his ABC's and counts out the forks you need for the dinner table.

Still, as your small wonder starts this first leg of his academic journey, you can't help but feel anxious. What impact will preschool have, now that your child spends so many hours in a group with a teacher and kids whose names you don't even know?

Why Preschool Matters

Studies show that all children reap benefits from preschool, receiving a boost in math and language skills, according to Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, researchers who mined a rich collection of data gathered from 14,162 kindergarteners, their parents, and teachers by the National Center for Educational Statistics. That's very good news.

Academics and Social Interaction

The impact of preschool on a child's social development is less clear -- and just as important. To achieve academic success, young children "must be able to understand the feelings of others, control their own feelings and behaviors, and get along with their peers and teachers," according to a recent policy report on preschool prepared by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

You would think that preschool would give kids a leg up socially. After all, it provides the perfect setting for your 3-year-old to interact with his peers, especially with the teacher there to supervise. Plus, this is the age when many children start demonstrating greater "self-regulation" -- the ability to identify and control emotional outbursts -- and he may even start showing empathy. There is a physiological basis for this newfound ability to dampen impulsive behaviors and play by the rules, according to the NIEER report: Studies show that self-regulation among young children is linked to the brain maturation that typically occurs during the preschool years.

Hindered Social Development?

But studies have found that preschool doesn't necessarily bolster kids socially. In fact, when Stanford and UC Berkeley researchers analyzed the same data source, they made this shocking discovery: Attendance in preschool centers, "even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage in classroom tasks." They measured the preschoolers' social development based on behaviors like bullying and aggression; interpersonal skills like sharing and cooperation; and self-control while engaging in classroom tasks.

Researchers don't have enough data yet to understand why this is so. Certain experts speculate that negative social behaviors are probably the result of lower-quality preschool programs. Others, like teacher Laurie LeComer, MEd, author of A Parent's Guide to Developmental Delays (Perigee), believe that's too simplistic an explanation. "How your child's social development is influenced by preschool depends on a complex combination of temperament, home life, the peer group he's placed in, and prior experience with other kids," she says.

Transitions and Playing by the Rules

A Time of Transitioning

Kids who've been in daycare since infancy, for instance, are less likely to be shocked by having to take turns in a preschool setting, while children who have been at home up until now may be so stressed by this new group setting that they regress emotionally or act out. "Once your child starts preschool, you're bound to see some personality changes," notes Vivian Lennon, MD, medical director of primary care for Children's Health Care of Atlanta.

Plus, all children learn by imitation, Dr. Lennon adds. "Up to this point, your child has probably been alone with you at home or with just a few children at daycare. Now she's being exposed to lots of different behaviors she's never seen before." This is a good thing if your child decides to copy the classmates who sing along with the teacher when it's time to pick up toys, but it's less than ideal if your child chooses to copy a classmate who bites or hits.

This is a "big transition time" for children, points out LeComer, as they experience the positive and negative aspects of forming new relationships and learn important lessons about getting along with their classmates and others. "Preschool isn't just about learning letters and numbers. It's a window of opportunity for social and emotional development," she says.

The Rules

As your child approaches her third birthday, you may find that she is often more reasonable and better behaved than she was even a few months ago. This is partly because

3-year-olds have a greater capacity to understand and obey rules and may even understand why certain rules exist. For example, "instead of knowing only that she has to hold her mommy's hand while crossing the street or Mommy will get mad," says Vivian Lennon, MD, of Atlanta, "your child now understands that she should hold your hand because there are cars and she could get hurt if she doesn't stay close to you."

Your child has a firm grasp of house rules too: She knows that she can't play with the kitchen scissors and that she shouldn't eat candy before dinner. What's more, your 3-year-old has the impulse control to refrain from breaking the rules much of the time. She is also more in tune with others' needs: For instance, she'll often want to please you by doing things like helping feed the dog.

Understanding what the rules are, and even repeating them to others, can satisfy your 3-year-old's sense of order and control over her environment, "making this one of the honeymoon periods in parenting," says Dr. Lennon.

Language Development, Month-by-Month Growth

Increased Vocabulary

Around age 3, there's an upsurge of activity in two of the brain's major language-processing regions. The evidence: Your preschooler's vocabulary will snowball from about 900 words to 3,000 before kindergarten. While it's fun to hear your 3-year-old test out new phrases and give voice to her observations, be prepared for some not-so-nice exchanges now and then.

"I hate you!" your waist-high whirling dervish may scream as you bustle him into his pajamas when he wants to stay up and watch TV. "You're a bad mommy!" Even worse, he might pepper his sentences with swears or potty talk, especially if these words can provoke a rise out of you -- or make his siblings giggle.

Don't worry: "Your child doesn't really hate you," points out Lennon, "but children this age process their emotions faster than words. It can still be hard for them to put labels on their emotions."

These language zingers are an important advance in development, showing that your child has learned how to use words to express himself instead of lashing out at you with his fists or feet.

What Your Child's Doing...

Month 34

  • Throws a ball overhead
  • Understands "now" and "later"

Month 35

  • Can run smoothly, turn sharp corners, and stop suddenly
  • Knows colors and body parts

Month 36

  • Jumps off one step
  • Pumps a swing

Holly Robinson, a mother of five, is a writer who lives outside Boston.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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