5 Tips to Start the Preschool Process

Children playing with toy laptops in class
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Preschool (or prekindergarten) is a broad term used to describe curriculum-based early childhood education. Research shows that quality preschool education produces gains in a child’s learning and development, particularly for economically disadvantaged children. But in the U.S., the amount and type of preschool children attend varies widely — some kids attend one year of partial-day preschool before entering kindergarten; others are in full-day, school-like settings beginning at age 2; some children don’t attend preschool at all.

On top of the choice of whether or not to attend preschool, at what age and for how long, parents also have different educational philosophies to consider — like Montessori, play-based programs, and Waldorf. For parents, the process of determining what is best for your toddler when it comes to early childhood education can be daunting. To get you started, Laura Gradman, a licensed professional counselor, education consultant, and owner of the Chicago Preschool Pro, has provided tips to help you navigate these choices.

Family Considerations

While all parents want the best for their little ones, it’s OK to make a choice about preschool based on the needs of the entire family, not just the child’s.

According to Gradman, who helps families through the complicated process of preschool admissions in Chicago, “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the best age to start preschool?’ Honestly, my response is, ‘It depends on what works for your family.’”

That can mean if you’re getting ready to welcome a new baby into the family, a toddler who has stayed home with mom or dad full time might benefit from a partial-day preschool program. Or, a child who has been in a home-based day care center may be ready for a more curriculum-based program. Often, preschool options can easily be eliminated based on how long a center is open and able to provide child care, particularly if your family has two working parents.

Preschool Readiness

Young children entering preschool programs are often at very different stages of development, which can make your job as a parent attempting to determine your child’s preschool readiness difficult. But rest assured, most preschool programs expect children to display a range of developmentally appropriate behaviors and skills. 

“You’re going to see a huge spectrum of behaviors in preschool, which makes sense because at age 3, you’re looking at a kid who was born in September and comparing them with a child who was born the following August,” said Gradman. “In three years, one of them has had 11 more months to learn how to do things. That’s OK. Most schools look at that as a diversity of experiences and a range as far as what the kids are capable of. Every kid brings something different to the table.”

Special or Different Needs

Not all preschools are created equal. While your child may be “ready” for preschool, he may not be a good fit for every early childhood education program out there. Some programs might be more nurturing for a child who is less verbal and more introverted; other programs may have more patience with a younger child who has not yet learned self-control with certain behaviors.

Therapeutic preschools, which cater to families who need comprehensive services that support children with developmental challenges, are also available. It’s important to meet with teachers and administrators to talk about your concerns and determine if the preschool program is right for your child.

The Potty Training Factor

It can sometimes seem like being potty trained is the stick by which your child’s preschool readiness is measured. And while some schools mean business when it comes to only accepting children who can use the potty, others are less strict and some programs will even help you train.

“Some schools will say, ‘We’ll work with you and help your child change if she’s has an accident.’ But others won’t. That’s a question you should always ask when you go into a preschool,” said Gradman.

It also depends on the age your child is entering preschool. According to Gradman, programs that start at 3 typically want your child to be potty trained, but if the program starts at 2, it’s not something the school will be looking for.

If your child is struggling with potty training, the best thing to do is to ask the school.

“I would say, ‘We’re working really hard on it, but school is coming in a month. Is this hard and fast, needs to be potty trained, or are you willing to help my child change if he or she has an accident?’” said Gradman.

Educational Philosophies

As parents begin to look for preschools, they will likely encounter different educational philosophies — Montessori, Waldorf, academic, play-based and even a newer philosophy known as “unschooling,” are among the more popular choices.

For a child as young as 3, it’s difficult to know what might work for them. Typically, I advise parents to choose what resonates with them,” said Gradman.

The most common preschool philosophy is play-based, which is an umbrella term for a progressive philosophy of education that research shows are the most effective versus a traditional or academic curriculum. In a play-based preschool program, the classroom includes toys and areas that encourage children to use their imaginations and engage in various activities. While it may seem like they are "just playing," kids are actually gaining problem-solving, early math and literacy, and social skills.  

But how do you know what resonates with you?

"I encourage clients to read through either the philosophy or the mission statement on the website of the school," said Gradman. “Even if they don’t know the different philosophies by name, just read through it because it’s going to give insight into how teachers are interacting with your child, how they will discipline your child, what their expectations are, how the day is structured, everything. Once you read that it will sort of either resonate with you or not."

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  1. Reynolds AJ, Ou SR, Temple JA. A Multicomponent, Preschool to Third Grade Preventive Intervention and Educational Attainment at 35 Years of Age. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(3):247-256. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.4673