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Preschool Readiness: What skills should your toddler have before they start preschool

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As parents, we need to always be thinking about what is next for our young children.  If you have watched or read any of my other content, you know I call it 'big picture parenting' meaning we are parenting with the end in mind, much like when we plan a vacation.  By this I mean that when we go on a trip, we have our end destination in mind.  We then get to work plotting our route.  Sometimes we need to make adjustments, but we always know where we want to end up working diligently to create a pathway that gets us there in a quick, efficient and (fingers crossed!) the most hassle free way.

As a parent or care taker of a young child, you have likely already had thoughts about your child's education, e.g., are you going to homeschool, do a private school, public school, etc. If you are considering a classroom based environment for your child, you are probably considering preschool.  But just what skills should your child have before they start preschool?

As an Early Childhood Interventionist over the last 25 years, I have come to learn that many parents focus on the ACADEMICS of preschool.  They work diligently with their child on identifying colors, letters, shapes and numbers.  Having worked in preschool classrooms for many years, I'm going to tell you that there are other much more important things that young children need to have in place in order to have a successful transition and lay a strong foundation and love for learning.  I'm going to break them down in a minute...

I want to be clear that preschool is where children learn to be STUDENTS.  It is where they learn about how school operates, the routines, the expectations and so much more.  It has less to do with the academics and more to do with how we interact, behave and engage with others and what it is to learn in a school environment. 

Okay, so let's get to the reason you are here:  you want to know what skills should children have in place before they start preschool.  I polled the preschool teachers I have worked with over the years and here is what skills they report being most helpful in helping young children start off on the right foot at school (there is a link below to access a downloadable checklist):

Following directions. Preschoolers should be able to follow one and two step commands such as 'get your backpack and hang it up.' Practice working on these skills with your toddler starting with one step commands such as 'get your shoes' using lots of visual cues such as pointing. For more on how to work on this with your child, check out this video.

Listen to a short story. Your young child should be able to sit for a short story. Most preschool programs include a circle time activity which involves a short story. Reading to your child regularly and going to story time at your local library are a great way to work on this skill.  If you are struggling with reading to your toddler, you can check out his video.

Sit and eat at a table for a meal. Many families have a relaxed breakfast and lunch routine with their toddlers allowing them to graze for extended periods. It is often a shock for these little ones when they come to school and they are 1) expected to stay and eat at the table and 2) learn that snack/mealtimes are usually about 15 minutes in duration. Practicing eating at the table and having a time frame of 20 minutes will help prepare your tot for meals at school. 

Use utensils independently. Continuing the theme of meals, preschoolers should be able to self feed with a spoon or fork. Starting this practice sooner rather than later gives young children the opportunity to hone a very complex motor planning skill. 

Drink from an open lidded cup. Most preschool programs offer water in an open lidded cup or milk/juice with a straw. I suggest practicing this skill during meals in the high chair or at the table using water in a small plastic cup.

Understand turn taking. Turn taking is something that needs to be taught. Practice this during play with your child frequently. Over time, they will begin to understand the concept making it easier for them to do it with peers at school.

Engage in some pretend play. Not all kids naturally move towards pretend play. Some need to have it demonstrated. Model things related to daily routines such as taking a nap, eating and drinking while playing with dolls or animal figures during play with your child.  If you want to learn more about the development of play skills, you can check out this video.

Have experience being away from you. If you plan to send your child to a school based learning environment at 3 or 4, you will want to start practicing this one early.  If your child struggles with separation anxiety, check out this blog post.

Be able to focus on a task of interest. The average attention span for a 2 year old is 4-6 minutes. The average attention span for a 3 year old is 6-8 minutes. If your child struggles with focusing on tasks, introduce sensory play activities such as a rice box or water play. Sensory play is a great activity to build attention and keep movers and shakers still for a bit. 

Have some self-dressing skills. Preschoolers should be able to pull up their own pants, take off and put on their own jackets and shoes. I know its often easier for us to rush through getting our toddlers dressed, but consider working on these tasks as a part of daily routines with your tot. 

Be potty trained. Most preschools require that students be potty trained. Having said that, you want to follow your child's lead watching closely for signs of readiness. You can learn more about these signs here. 

Be able to handle transitions. Transitioning from one activity to the next can be hard for young children. Preschoolers should be able to handle several transitions without too much fuss. If your child struggles with transitions, a visual picture schedule can be helpful and are often used in preschool classrooms. You can learn more about using visual picture schedules with toddlers by watching my YouTube video here. It includes a link to my Etsy shop where you can find a my downloadable visual picture schedule. 

So there you go, the top readiness skills preferred by preschool teacher!  I hope you found this list helpful.  Working on these skills while your child is a toddler will help to make the transition to and experience of preschool all the better!  If you want a printable checklist, click here.