Preparing for Preschool: 4 experts address 5 top concerns of parents

Whether you’re sending your child to preschool for the first time this September, or thinking ahead to next fall, we’re sure you have some nagging questions.

For answers, we’ve turned to four experts who work in the field: Rebecca Zalit, director of the Tender Years Child Development Center in Camp Hill; Annette Cole-Gill, head of the elementary division at Milton Hershey School; and Gretchen Qualls and Jackie Stabach, lead junior kindergarten teachers at Harrisburg Academy in Wormleysburg.


Q: How can I tell if my child is ready for preschool?

A: The honest answer to this question is, are you ready for your child to go to preschool?  Preschool should be a time for your child to socialize with other children. It’s making the best decision for your family and whether or not you need or want the preschool experience.  Gretchen Qualls and Jackie Stabach

A: Think about their gross motor skills. Can they dress themselves, throw a ball, walk upstairs alone, or wash and dry their hands? They also may recognize letters of the alphabet and enjoy playing make-believe. Annette Cole-Gill

A: Many preschool programs begin at age 3 and require children to be fully potty-trained.  Socialization is also a great indicator of whether your child is ready for preschool; if he or she enjoys playing with other children, can socialize and separate from parents, he or she may be ready.  – Rebecca Zalit

Q: My child has never been in daycare and will be starting preschool next year. What should I do to get him ready?

A: Begin the process by giving him or her more responsibilities at home.  Allowing your children to pick up their own toys, help with setting the dinner table and cleaning up afterwards, putting away their clothes, and taking care of the family pet can lead to children who are eager, willing, and on the road to becoming self-assured preschool students.  Qualls and Stabach

A: For physical development, encourage regular daily activity and reduce TV and computer time. You also can make sure they go to bed at a consistent bedtime and are well-rested. Before preschool starts, have children try new food and new habits that will be introduced to them at school.

It’s also helpful to create an open dialogue with teachers and staff before your child starts preschool. Children are all different. Some have strengths in particular areas, such as a large vocabulary or the ability to dress themselves. Ultimately, the more a parent can share with their child’s teacher ahead of time, the better. That way, the teacher knows more about the child’s likes and dislikes, and they can customize what they do for that child. Cole-Gill

A: Chances are, you’re already getting your child ready for preschool. Reading, playing, and exploring together helps your child prepare for preschool activities. Work on your child’s self-help skills, such as washing their hands, using the toilet, putting on socks and shoes. Reading books about going to school, or adding school into your pretend play will help your child learn what to expect in a larger group setting. – Zalit

Q: My son has been in daycare since he was an infant. Will preschool at age 3 be that much different?

A: Preschool is a pivotal year in early childhood. In making the transition from older toddlers to preschool, you will find the ratio of staff to child changes from 1:6 to 1:10. This gives students the opportunity to be more independent and use all the skills they have been working on in their toddler classrooms such as toileting, following directions, problem-solving, and more.  Social-emotional skills also begin to blossom in preschool which is very important for school-readiness when moving on to your next setting. – Zalit

A: This really depends on the preschool you chose for your child — finding the right program is key. What are you looking for?  Play, academics, socialization or a balance of all three?  Structure and consistency are essential for a well-run preschool program.  A good preschool program is structured and focused on activities that incorporate learning throughout the day.  It also balances the idea that social skills are as important as academic skills and works to develop both daily.  Qualls and Stabach

A: Preschools can vary greatly, but what you do as a parent matters in terms of making a smooth transition from daycare to preschool. Make sure you have a routine and structure in place. Talk about preschool ahead of time to prepare them for what they can expect. And at the end of the day, engage with your child and ask “What did you enjoy?” or “What made you happy today?” Cole-Gill

Q: I’m really worried about separation anxiety with my daughter. How can I prepare her?

A: Be assured, it is normal to experience some separation anxiety in the transition into a preschool setting.  If you are worried about separation anxiety, make a drop-off plan with your child before their first day of preschool. Contact your preschool to schedule a visit to spend time in the classroom with your child before their first day.  Many programs also host a “Meet the Teacher Night” before the school year starts which is a great time to introduce yourself and your child to the teacher and other parents and students in the classroom. Also, be sure to share your feelings of excitement about preschool with your child; if you are comfortable and positive in the environment, they will become comfortable and positive, too.  – Zalit

A: As teachers, who are also parents, and have been in the profession for years, we understand that separation can be a challenge for some children and families.  Before your child begins preschool, it’s important to talk to him or her about the excitement of this new adventure.  Try not to let your own anxiety show, as children are very perceptive and can sense your worries and woes. Keep the conversations short and sweet as to not add any undue stress or worries. Be upbeat and positive when you talk about what they can expect during their school day. Reassure them you’ll be there with open arms and a smile at the end of the day. Take the time to introduce yourself and your child to the teacher and visit the classroom before the school year starts. This is a great start to helping both you and your child feel comfortable and confident that things will be OK. Qualls and Stabach

A: Children can sense if you’re hesitant about separating. As a parent, make sure you feel comfortable. Talk positively about preschool, and give them a picture of you to take with them to reduce homesickness. This helps many kids at Milton Hershey School, even older students. Also consider how you’re engaging with the teacher — children are watching what you’re doing at all times. Cole-Gill

Q: How does a preschool typically handle separation anxiety on their end?

A: As teachers, we know how difficult separation anxiety can be. The best answer for this, and it might sound harsh, is to keep your goodbye short and don’t linger.  Prepare your child before drop-off by telling him or her that you will give a hug, kiss and quick goodbye; and reassure him or her that you will return at the end of the day. We know it breaks your heart, and ours as well, when you have to leave a crying child. Please know that good teachers will be offering your child lots of love and attention. In our experience, the children who suffer from separation anxiety usually stop crying shortly after their parent is out of sight, and are soon ready to take on the day with their classmates. Qualls and Stabach

A: Many preschools will gather information about the children from parents before their first day.  This information is very helpful to ease separation anxiety; share your child’s favorite toys, games, activities, and interests to help teachers engage him or her into an activity that will ease their anxiety and allow him or her to refocus their attention.  Parents are also often encouraged to bring family photos, and a favorite stuffed animal or blanket (especially for nap times!) – Zalit

A: The preschool should try to get the child engaged right away, and make connections between home and school. Many preschools also try to establish consistent routines, so children can adapt and know what to expect when they come back.   Cole-Gill

What to expect from your preschool parent-teacher conference

Preschool primer: A playsheet of the various types of programs available


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