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Beginning the Process
When Should My Child Start School?
If you are thinking about sending your child to preschool, you may be wondering at which age your child should start. Most early childhood programs offer parents a choice. With preschool, this is an important consideration. Of course, day care is another matter—many parents choose day care as child care for their children from infancy onward, and age doesn’t need to be a factor in this decision. When it comes to preschool, however, we believe that parents should send a child only when that child is able to take full advantage of a school experience. The right age varies from child to child. Some two-year-olds are able to express themselves verbally, enjoy new experiences, and are comfortable with unfamiliar adults. Other children need more time to develop before they’ll be ready. If a child isn’t ready yet, this doesn’t mean he’s less advanced than other children or that he’s going to fall behind. It simply means that he’ll be ready to benefit from school when he’s older.
For most children, three is the natural age of readiness. Children of this age are curious about their peers and the world around them and have enough facility with language to communicate with their teachers and classmates. In hindsight, Nancy can see that her son, Michael, really wasn’t ready to attend school at the age of two. Although he had good language skills, he wasn’t particularly interested in interacting with a group of children. By the time he was three, he was more intrigued by his classmates and more interested in experiencing what the school had to offer. At this age, children are also better able to understand the concept that parents come back at the end of the school day. A three-year-old will be able to imagine you at work or home, shopping, or being with the baby; he can retain a mental picture of you while you’re away from him, and this will help him to handle the separation.
Although three is an ideal age for most children to begin school, the practical reality is that in areas where preschool places are limited, many parents feel the pressure to send a child to school at age two, rather than waiting until he’s older when there may be fewer places available. If you do live in an area where there is competition for places, this is going to be a consideration. However, it’s very important to balance considerations about your child’s future against what he needs now. Remember that in order for him to have a positive first experience at school, he must have enough language to communicate his needs and feelings to teachers and he must be able to separate from you. If your child has difficulty making himself understood, if you’ve never left your child with a babysitter or relative, or if he regularly shows signs of distress when you leave him, you may decide to put off school for another year. Two-year-old programs are not a prerequisite for attending school at age three.
In our years of working in early childhood education, we’ve observed that many children under the age of two and a half are not yet ready for a meaningful school experience. For example, Andrew, who began school at the age of two and three months, really wasn’t ready and struggled throughout his first year. At this age, Andrew was too young to communicate his needs to the teacher. Instead, he either dissolved in tears or hit the other children in frustration. He was inconsolable when his mother left in the morning because his lack of language ability made it difficult for him to adequately express his needs to his teachers. This did not make for a happy beginning to school for Andrew, his parents, the teachers, or the other children in the class. Over time, with the teachers’ support and his mother’s help, Andrew’s ability to cope with frustration and to communicate improved. He was able to tolerate being at school, but he wasn’t able to enjoy the experience and neither was his mother. Andrew wasn’t the only very young child we had watched struggle in this way. Since Andrew attended the nursery school, we’ve changed the age for the youngest children in the school to two years and six months.
Rather than sending a child to school before he’s ready, you can always choose to wait a year and enroll him in other programs instead. Most communities have classes appropriate for two-year-old children. “Mommy and me” gym, music, art, and cooking classes are good alternatives. In this environment, your child can be introduced to social experiences with you or his caregiver in attendance, and you can meet other parents with children the same age. In truth, you shouldn’t even feel compelled to sign your child up for classes. Two-year-old children thrive on one-on-one attention. Being at home with Mom, Dad, or a caregiver is just fine at this age. Informal playgroups with other parents and children are another good idea.
Above all, know your child and respond to his needs and the needs of your family. It may be hard to do this when all of your friends and neighbors are making other choices, and you feel the pressure to keep up. But if you keep your focus on your child instead, we’re certain he’ll benefit and so will you.
When Should I Start Looking?
While it’s essential that you learn about the appropriate times to apply to the schools in your area so that you don’t miss any deadlines, there’s rarely a need to call the school minutes after your baby is born. In some cities, parents are encouraged to apply months before school begins; in other places, you can sign up the week before school starts. A good rule of thumb is that you should probably start finding out about schools a year before your child is old enough to attend. Before this, you are not going to have enough knowledge of your child and his needs to be able to make decisions about where he goes to school.
From the Hardcover edition.