Preschool - Everything You Need to Know

by Becton Loveless

Many parents enroll their infants and young children, usually when they're one through five, in infant and preschool education programs. These programs are usually developed by trained educators. Preschools often provide formal classroom learning, are run by professional school administrators, and have small enough class sizes, so teachers can work individually with children. Many preschools utilize set curriculum, contain classroom rules, and test children to determine what they've learned.

Topics on this page:
> Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child
> Preschool Accreditation and Licensing
> What Your Child Needs to Know Before Starting Preschool
> How to Help Your Child Transition to Preschool
> Preparing for the First Day of Preschool

Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child

Choosing a preschool can seem like an intimidating and overwhelming process. Of course you want to set your child up to succeed, and you want his preschool experience to be the foundation for a successful academic career, but with so many choices out there it can be hard to know where to start.

The best way to begin is to carefully consider what you want from a preschool program, and what style of education you believe to be best for your child. Here are a few areas to consider when making your decision:

When To Begin:

A good rule of thumb: start researching and visiting schools the September before you expect your child to attend (typically when he's 2 years old). Schools commonly begin accepting application in January, and may offer open houses even earlier, but the dates vary with each school. Remember: some schools require their new students to be at least 3 years old, and may require them to be fully potty trained as well. Check with the schools beforehand to make sure you know all the relevant requirements.

What Do You Consider Important in a Preschool Program?

Some preschools offer programs which are more academic, others offer programs which are more social. Different schools will have different approaches to teaching and discipline, which you'll want to research before making any decisions. Think about your child's personality and learning style. Does he thrive around others? Is she eager to learn and read? Make your choice based on what's best for your child's unique needs and preferences.

What Are Your Options?

Most communities have a wealth of preschools available, and you may need to sift through a number of them before finding the most appealing options. Ask any friends, neighbors, or family members who have kids and have already gone through the preschool process. They'll be able to give you some positive recommendations, or steer you clear of any sub-par schools. If your child has any medical issues of any kind, talk to your pediatrician to see if he or she can offer any recommendations. Compile a list of these recommendations, and proceed to narrow this list down to your top choices.

Educational Philosophy

Different schools ascribe to different educational philosophies, and it's important for you to understand the differences between them. Montessori schools, for instance, focus on cultivating independence in children, while Waldorf schools prioritize creativity. Bank Street schools employ child-centered learning, the High/Scope method sets goals for children, and the Reggio Emilia approach bases its programs on a child's natural development. Beyond these general philosophies, the individual schools and programs will vary a lot in terms of methodology, style, and tone.

There are other options: many churches and temples offer religious preschool programs, and community organizations such as the YMCA offer preschool for local residents or low-income families, not to mention the many programs offered by private companies or daycares. Reflect on the these different approaches and philosophies, and choose one which resonates with your family's values and your child's unique learning style.

Student-Teacher Ratios and Program Facilities

Regardless of which style of school you choose, you'll want to make sure they have a student-teacher ratio low enough to meet your child's needs. Here's a helpful guide to help you decide: for 2 1/2 - 3 year olds, there should be a maximum of 14 students in the class, and at least two adults; for 3 to 5 year olds, there should be a maximum of 20 students in the class, with at least two adults. If the ratio is higher than this, your child won't be able to get the individual attention he needs.

Make sure, also, that the school is equipped with the facilities necessary for a safe and positive learning experience. There should be plenty of clean, safe toys easily accessible for the children, and any outdoor play areas should be fenced in and free of potentially dangerous objects. Double-check that the teachers are trained in first aid as well.


Of course, knowing how your child will get to school and back each day is very important. Find out whether your school offers a bus service, or if you'll be responsible for dropping him off and picking him up each day. In general, schools which are closer to home offer more advantages to your family. The travel time is shorter, the transportation logistics are simpler, and your child will be more likely to make friends in the neighborhood.

Length of the School Day

Usually, preschools serve to ease children into the idea of formal schooling--they'll certainly be spending plenty of time there down the road. Young children don't typically thrive with long work hours, so preschool days are most often only a few hours long. The length of the school day is an important factor to consider when choosing a school. You don't want to overburden your child with extended hours, but a school day that's too short may be difficult to manage with your own work schedule. Research your options and consider what will work best for your child and for your family.

Visit Your Top Choices

Once you've narrowed your list of choices down, you'll want to go and visit the schools. Make sure to schedule an appointment; if you just drop in, the teachers and administration may be too busy to answer your questions. When you do visit the school, make sure you tour the facilities, talk with the principle and the teachers, and, if possible, observe a class. When observing a class, don't interfere with the natural operations of the room. Keep your distance from the students and the teacher, so you can see how things run when you're not around.

Once you've visited the school by yourself, try to arrange another visit so you can bring your child along with you. Most preschools will be happy to accommodate you, and will be excited to meet a potential student. Having your child visit the school ahead of time will also greatly ease the stress and anxiety of the first day of school.

Above all, make your child's happiness the most important factor when choosing a preschool. There will be plenty of time for academics later on. Preschool should be a time for fun, where your child can learn to feel more comfortable and more independent, and cultivate a personal love of school and of learning.

Preschool Accreditation and Licensing

Accreditation is a process by which schools are evaluated and shown to meet high standards of quality. In other words, if a school is accredited by a reputable accrediting agency, it has proven itself to be a high quality institution. Accreditation is more common in colleges, universities, and junior and senior high schools, but it is becoming more popular in the world of early childhood education.

The typical accreditation process involves three steps. First, the school undergoes a self-assessment and reports its findings to the accrediting agency. Second, the accrediting agency (an external, third-party entity) performs an assessment. Third, the school is approved for accredited status, or must go back to an earlier stage of the process. The accrediting agency, throughout the course of the assessment, sends representatives to visit the school, conducts interviews with the teachers, students, and administration.

Accreditation can be a lengthy and involved process, often taking several years. This is why only 10% of the nation's early childhood education organizations are accredited.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is the nation's largest accrediting agency for preschools.

"Accredited" is not a synonym for "licensed." Licensure is a prerequisite for accreditation. All accredited programs are licensed, therefore, but not all licensed programs are accredited.


Preschools are licensed by the state, county, or city government. Licenses are given to schools which meet minimum health, safety, and teacher training requirements set by the appropriate governing body. These requirements vary by locality; in some areas, a license merely proves that a preschool is a registered business.

As you research potential schools, ask the school's administration to see the school's license to ensure it's valid and current. Licenses can also be verified by contacting your state social services department.

Licenses do not automatically guarantee a top-notch education, but they do guarantee adherence to basic standards of quality and safety. Accredited institutions are held to even higher standards. If a school is not licensed, don't enroll your child there.

What Your Child Needs to Know Before Starting Preschool

Preschool is a major transition for small children. Even if you're confident that your child is ready, and even if you have all the logistics worked out for getting him or her into the right classroom at the right time, there are still some areas which you may need to prepare for. Here are the most important things for you and your child to work on before that first day of preschool:

Self-Care: Potty Training and Personal Hygiene

Some preschools don't accept students unless they're potty trained (or at least well on their way). Some preschools are more lenient on the issue. Make sure you find out where your school stands ahead of time. Regardless, bathroom skills can cause significant stress and anxiety for preschoolers who haven't had much practice on their own.

You can make a big difference in your little one's school experience by making sure he gets practice in a few key skills. These include using the toilet by himself, washing and drying his hands when he's done, zipping up and buttoning his own pants, and so on. Before school starts, establish a bathroom routine at home. Be there in case he needs help, but encourage him towards independence as much as possible.

Accidents happen at preschool, of course. For a 3-year-old child, using the bathroom for the first time in an unfamiliar environment can be a very scary experience, especially if they haven't had many experiences using public restrooms before. Preschool-aged children, even those who don't typically struggle with toileting issues, don't have total control over their bladders. It's up to you, as their parent, to teach them how to recognize the sensations of needing to use the bathroom. Preschool teachers give their students regular potty breaks, and often ask if the kids need to use the restroom, but make sure your child knows how to ask to go to the bathroom, and that it's okay to do so.

If your child struggles with having accidents, or is worried about having one at school, do your best to ease his anxiety. Let him know that the teacher is there to help him, and that accidents happen to everyone.

Being Apart from You

Some students have a hard time being separated from Mom and Dad, and struggle significantly when dropped off for preschool. Other students have spent a lot of time at daycares or other such activities, and don't struggle at all. Getting your child used to being apart from you before school starts will make his experience a much happier one. Ease into the idea: start with an hour with Grandma, for example, or a close family friend, and gradually increase the amount of time spent apart until your child is comfortable being left with someone other than you.

Even if your child is comfortable being apart from you, preschool will still be a big transition for him, and it may take him some time to fully adjust. Don't stress too much; preschool teachers have had a lot of practice helping children through this transition period. If you do have any worries or concerns that you feel should be addressed immediately, though, communicate them at once to the teacher or administration.

Eating By Himself

Most preschools serve a snack or a meal at some point during the day, so you'll want to make sure that your child practices some table-time skills before the school year begins. He may need some extra help with getting the straw into his juice box, using utensils, or opening bags or plastic wrappers. Make sure he knows basic table manners: using a napkin, saying please and thank you, and so on. As he is practicing these skills, make sure you pay attention. This way, you can pack him snacks and lunches which he can enjoy independently.

If your child has any food allergies, clearly communicate them to your preschool. Also make sure that your child know which foods he can and can't have.

Getting Along with Others

For some children, preschool is the first time they'll spend significant periods of time in a group of other kids. Make sure you teach them some basic social skills beforehand, so they can walk into the classroom as confident and prepared as possible.

If your child is shy or anxious about meeting other children, try to ease his concerns as best as you can. You could tell him a story about your own time at school, and how you were nervous to make new friends too. Get him some practice before the big day arrives. You could go to the park, or to a class at the local library--anywhere that he can get a chance to play with some other children. Teach him about sharing, being kind, and cleaning up, and provide lots of positive reinforcement for good social behavior.

The School Bus

The school bus can be quite frightening for children, which is why some preschools offer practice rides before the school year starts. Check to see if your school is among these, and take advantage of the opportunity if you can. This will ease your child's anxiety a great deal when the first day arrives. If your school doesn't offer practice bus rides, take a little trip on a public bus together. It's not exactly the same as a school bus, of course, but it should make the whole idea of riding a bus much less alien to your child.

You'll want to double-check that your child knows about bus safety. Does your preschool's bus have seat belts? Does your child know how to put a seat belt on by himself? Your preschool will likely hold an orientation meeting which will go over these details. The more you can prepare your child in advance, the smoother the transition will be.

How to Help Your Child Transition to Preschool

Starting preschool is a big transition for small children. Understandably, many preschoolers struggle at first, especially if they're not used to being away from Mom and Dad. Separation anxiety is a very common problem for preschoolers, especially during the first few days and weeks. Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to make the transition as smooth and painless as possible:

Discuss It Ahead of Time

Children often feel scared and anxious because the idea of school is completely unknown to them. What will happen to me? Will Mom ever come back? Will the teacher be mean? Talking to your child about what school is like will help the idea seem manageable, maybe even exciting.

Tell your child why you chose the school you chose, and about what fun things he's going to be able to do there. It's best to be vague, though. If you get his hopes up for a specific activity and the class doesn't do it on the first day, you may have a problem on your hands. For example, instead of promising that he'll get to play hide-and-seek with his friends, just tell him he'll get to play. In general, be positive, upbeat, and excited for your child, and chances are he'll pick up on your emotions and feel that way too.

Make sure you explain that you're not going to stay there with him. This is often the most difficult part of the process: the moment when you say goodbye for the first time. Many children react with terror, crying and clinging to your leg. This is usually because they didn't know what to expect. If you kindly and gently explain that Moms and Dads don't go to school with their kids, and if you explain that you'll be back in just a short time to pick them up, the transition should be a lot easier.

Object Permanence

"Object permanence" is the concept that even if you momentarily can't see something, it's still there. If a toy is behind a chair, it hasn't ceased to exist. By reinforcing this concept with your child, you'll help him get ready for that big moment when you leave him at school. Obviously, you won't want to use the words "object permanence" with your 3-year-old, that's a bit much. Use simple illustrations, perhaps with his favorite toy or stuffed animal. Place his teddy bear behind a book, and ask him if he can find it. When he finds the bear, say, "See, buddy? We couldn't see your bear, but he was still right there for you. When you go to school, I won't be right there with you, but I promise I'll be right back for you." This will help him grow to become stronger and more independent.

Visit the School

Bringing your child along on a site visit is an excellent way to get him excited about going to school. If your child can see the school, the classrooms, and maybe even play on the playground, his anxiety about that mysterious new "school" place might just turn into excitement and optimism.

Make sure you call the main office and arrange an appropriate time for a visit. Check to see if they have an orientation meeting for new students and their parents. Your little one may even get a head start on making new friends this way.

Social Skills

Before the first day of school, you'll want to help your child get lots of practice with basic social skills, such as sharing, cleaning up, and saying "please" and "thank you". If he understands these concepts before they're expected of him in the classroom, he'll have a much easier time and will serve as a good example for his friends.

It's particularly helpful to have your child practice these skills with other children his age. Set up playdates and playgroups with other kids in the neighborhood, visit the local playground, or go take a fun class at the library or community center. Ideally, the kids would be going to the same preschool, but it's not at all necessary. What's important is giving your child an opportunity to practice getting along with other children, and acting appropriately in social situations.

Self-Care Skills

If your child struggles with basic self-care skills (potty-training, hand-washing, taking shoes on and off, buttoning up his own pants, etc.), he may feel stressed and anxious about going to school, where he won't have you there to help him. Take time to practice these skills well before the first day of school. The more prepared he is in this area, the easier his transition will be. Of course, he may not perfectly master every little thing in time. Make sure he understands that it's okay to ask his teacher for help, and that he doesn't need to be afraid to do so.

Watch for Regression at Home

Even children who respond positively and enthusiastically to preschool may still show signs of stress as they transition. A common manifestation of this is regression in other areas of their life (baby-talking, for instance, or clinginess, or moodiness). This is perfectly normal. Preschoolers are incredibly bright, energetic, and curious, but they're not great multitaskers. The switch to preschool is putting a lot of new pressures on their developing minds, and they may not adjust absolutely perfectly every step of the way.

The best way to help is by being positive and supportive. Talk to them often about what they're doing and learning at preschool, and what they love about it. Give lots of hugs and encouragement, and make sure they know they're loved and cared for. Provide positive reinforcement such as praise or rewards when he displays appropriate behavior, and be patient and understanding as he works his way through the transition. With your love and support, he'll get through this time and learn to thrive.

Preparing for the First Day of Preschool

So, you're all enrolled, you've been practicing some independence skills with your little one, and you feel like he's going to do a great job. Now it's only a matter of ensuring that you have everything he needs for a successful first day at preschool. Here are a few items to check off your list before the big day actually arrives:

School Supplies

Here are some helpful items you'll want to send along with your child:

A Backpack Tag: This will help your child's teacher immensely as she tries to learn whose backpack is whose. Don't hang the tag on the outside of the pack! Fasten it on the inside, so it's visible when you open the zipper. Make sure your child's name and phone number are written clearly on the tag, as well as your child's teacher, room number, and school phone number.

A Picture or Lovey from Home: It's pretty common for preschool-aged children to get anxious and homesick when they first begin school. Send a photo or a small item from home in your child's backpack, so that he can look at it if he starts feeling scared or sad. It's a good idea to check with your teacher before you do this. Generally, it's not encouraged for children to bring toys from home, but for the first days of transitioning to preschool, teachers will usually be pretty accommodating.

Supplies Requested by the Teacher: You'll probably receive a list of these things before school starts. The list will likely include (washable!) art supplies, pencils, etc. A folder is a good idea, even if your teacher didn't specifically request it; your child will likely be coming home with notes, art projects, and other papers on a daily basis, and you'll want a place to put them.

Extra Clothes: Preschool is a pretty messy place, by nature. Children fingerpaint, play with clay, eat snacks, and so on. Not only that, accidents are pretty common for preschool kids, even if they've been potty-trained for a long time. A change of clothes can be a lifesaver for the teacher, and will save your child a lot of embarrassment.

Wet Wipes or Tissues: These are in constant demand in a preschool classroom. Your teacher will be most appreciative if you send some in!

What NOT to Bring

Homemade Snacks, Particularly Those with Nuts: Food allergies are becoming more prevalent in children across the nation, and it's hard to overstate the potential health risks some foods may pose. This is why many schools have banned any snacks or treats that aren't store-bought and individually wrapped. This goes double for anything with nuts! In general, let the school handle snack-time.

Hand Sanitizer: Although it may seem counter-intuitive, hand sanitizers can cause big problems in preschool classrooms. Once again, allergies play a part in this. What's more, many children have tried to drink it and have gotten sick, and teachers have a particularly hard time monitoring its proper use. It's best just to leave it at home. Rather, teach your child good hand-washing skills, so he can use the warm water and soap provided by the school.

Toys: Above, we recommended you send in a picture or lovey from home to ward off homesickness. That's probably okay, but you don't want to send in your child's favorite action figure or toy car. Toys such as these can cause problems in the classroom: your child may become too fixated on it to follow directions, for instance, or it may cause jealousy and fighting with other children. Also, it's easy to lose a toy in a preschool classroom, because there are so many toys there to begin with. Unless your teacher specifically requests it, it's better to leave the toys at home.

Backpacks with Wheels: While these seem like a great idea, they usually don't work so well in a preschool setting. Your child generally shouldn't need to carry too much home from preschool, and rolling backpacks are often too big to fit in preschool cubbies. They also present a tripping hazard for other kids, when the class is walking in a line. When choosing a backpack, avoid rolling backpacks.

Any Shoes Other Than Sneakers: Your child's shoes should fit well, and should allow him to run and play on the playground and in the gym. Tiny sandals, Crocs, or high-heels may look great, but they're not so functional in a preschool. In fact, many schools have made wearing sneakers a matter of policy, and have banned any other type of shoe.

Read Children's Books About Starting Preschool

Books are a great way to teach children what to expect from their first day at preschool. There are a number of titles available on the subject. Some of the most popular titles include Preschool Day Hooray! by Linda Leopold Strauss, Froggy Goes to School by Jonathan London, Maisy Goes to Preschool by Lucy Cousins, and Going to School by Anne Civardi. With a quick online search, you'll be able to order these and many more titles, or you can take a trip to the library with your child and find a number of great options there.

The Evening Before

Every child reacts differently to the idea of going to school for the first time. Some are giddy and excited, others are anxious and afraid. Talk to your child to get a sense of how he's feeling about the big day ahead. Make the conversation light-hearted and carefree--you certainly don't want to add any stress or tension. You may also want to tell a story or two about your own experience of going to school for the first time. Help your little one feel as comfortable and excited as possible.

Also, ask your child what he expects will happen at school. Does he know you aren't going to stay there with him? Who does he want to drop him off at school? If you discuss these things ahead of time, you can avoid a lot of uncomfortable surprises, which could result in problems, resistance, and even full-blown meltdowns.

Make sure his backpack is put together with all the things he'll need for the day. If you do this the evening before, you'll save yourself and your child a lot of stress and hurry the next morning.

Plan your morning routine, and make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to accomplish all the things you need to do. Discuss this routine with your child the evening before, so he feels comfortable and isn't caught off guard by too much to do in too little time.


Of course, many children put up quite a fuss when it's time to go to bed, especially when the next day holds the promise of a big, exciting change. Hopefully, you've established a bedtime routine before the night before preschool. It's important that both you and your child get a good night's rest before the big day.

Give your child some advance warning before bedtime; usually, a 10-minute warning works great. The whole bedtime process typically lasts an hour, so plan accordingly. During this hour, your child can choose what bedtime activities he wants to do: read a story, for example, or play a quiet game. Letting him choose will help bedtime become a harmonious, happy time together, rather than a power struggle. Of course, some things--such as brushing his teeth--are not optional. If you'd like, and if your child responds well to rewards, you can create a bedtime chart with all the important items listed, and you can place stickers next to each item once they're completed.

Once he's tucked in and you've said your goodnights, promise that you'll be back shortly to see if he's asleep. You want him to be able to fall asleep without your constantly being present, but he also needs to know that he's safe and you're nearby. Keep your promise, and come back a few minutes later.

Establishing a bedtime routine will help you and your child get the rest you need, and it will take away the stress and conflict of going to sleep.

The Big Day

When the big day finally arrives, you'll probably encounter an obstacle that most parents encounter: the crying game. Your child may be just fine until the moment you try to leave, and then, panic! The sobbing starts, and before you know it your child is clinging to your leg in total terror. This is perfectly normal and understandable. Preschool is a big, new, unfamiliar place for them, and they may not be used to the idea of being apart from you. Even children who have spent lots of time at daycares and other such activities may experience this sudden anxiety when dropped off at school for the first time.

Your own attitude is crucial here. Children are finely tuned antennas which pick up on your emotions with surprising accuracy. If you're anxious or sad or scared, your child probably will be too. Do your best to keep an upbeat, positive attitude about the day. Help your child feel optimistic and excited, and you'll have much less to worry about.

It's also very important to trust your preschool teacher. Children crying on the first day is nothing new to them. They've surely had lots of practice helping children work through this difficult transition, and at some point you'll need to make your exit and trust in the teacher's experience, knowing they'll work to make your child's experience a positive one.

Whatever you do, don't remove the child from the classroom. This reinforces the behavior in exactly the wrong way, basically teaching them that if they cry, they don't have to go to school. If you take them out of the room, it can be incredibly difficult to get them back in.

Also, don't sneak out if your child becomes momentarily distracted. This can make your little one feel abandoned and alone, and exacerbate the problems. It may be difficult, but it will be much better in the long run to confidently say goodbye to your child's face. You'd be surprised: teachers are often so skilled at handling this situation that children stop crying moments later. You may return a few hours later to find your child happy and content, and excited to see you.

Unfortunately, the crying game may not fully end after the first day. In fact, it can sometimes take weeks for children to become comfortable with being dropped off at school. Don't give up, though. Be kind and firm, explaining that this is all part of getting bigger and smarter. With time, your child will be happy and thriving in his new school.

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