What your preschooler REALLY needs to know now for the year ahead

While the ABCs and 123s seem like the fundamentals of learning, when it comes to preparing your child for preschool, it’s even more elementary.

According to Joan White, director of First United Church Nursery School in Oak Park since 1977, many parents mistakenly think knowing the ABCs or counting to 10 are skills teachers will look for.

“Those are actually skills children will pick up along the way, and aren’t the most important precursors to school success,” says White. “Growing abilities in self-regulation are the most important skills for preschool success.”

“This will be evident in a 3-year-old being potty trained, being able to follow the simple routines of the classroom, and being progressively able to play successfully with other children.”

Sister Barbara Jean Ciszek, founder and principal of the Montessori-based Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center in Chicago, agrees that academics will come later.

“When beginning school, it is most important that a preschool-age child knows how to get along with others and learns to be self-motivated,” Ciszek says.

She says that in addition to playing with other children, preschool children should be able to listen to an adult, follow directions, be toilet trained and be able to dress themselves.

Kate Cicchelli, principal and chief academic officer of the Bennett Day School in Chicago, stresses that there is no magical list of information or facts that a child needs to be successful in preschool.

“The most important thing that children need to know when starting preschool is that they are loved and that the school they are attending is a safe place,” says Cicchelli.

Getting ready

As the new school year approaches, White suggests taking some easy extra steps to help prepare your preschooler.

“In the month before school starts, drive by the school and talk to your child with excitement about where they will be attending school and the fun they will have,” says White. “Borrow books from the library about preschool to read with your child. Seeing pictures of children painting at the easel and building with blocks will help your child know some of the things to expect at school.”

“If possible when you receive a class list, arrange a play date at a park to let your child make the acquaintance of a classmate.”

As the school year gets closer, Cicchelli encourages parents to help their child know they are capable of doing smaller tasks on their own, such as putting on their own coat and working on the zippers and buttons.

“Give yourself and your child the time needed to allow for this independent growth,” Cicchelli says. “No doubt it’s easier and quicker for you to do simple tasks for them, but when children are given time to be independent, they develop a positive self-concept.”

Don’t get bogged down in lists of what your child ‘should’ be able to do, Cicchelli says.

“Before your child can write, she has to be able to hold a pencil, and before she can hold a pencil, she needs playful experiences that will build her motor skills, such as manipulating playdough, stringing beads and crumpling up newspapers.”

Relax and let go

Sending your little one off on their own often can feel more overwhelming for the parents than for the child.

“Parents need to relax and your child will relax,” says Ciszek. “If you are happy with the school you chose, then your child will be happy as well.”

Cicchelli agrees that choosing the right school for your child and family is the first step to easing any parental nervousness.

“Know that your nervousness is shared by many, if not all, parents as their children head off to school for the first time,” says Cicchelli. “Your confidence and faith in the teachers, mission and school program will go a long way in alleviating anxiety about your child’s successful transition to school.”

White believes the most important thing is a parent’s positive attitude about school.

“A confident warm hug without undue lingering is the best gift a parent can give their child at the start of the school year,” White says.

Megan Murray Elsener is a newly suburban mother of three.

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