At a glance
In preschool, kids develop at very different rates.
There are a few areas to look at to know if your child is ready for preschool.
Kids usually need to be potty-trained to start preschool.
There isn’t a checklist of must-have skills kids need to start preschool. That's because young children develop at very different rates. But there are some areas you can look at to see if your child is ready for group learning.
These areas form a handy acronym: Here’s how to tell if your child has the “PIECES” of preschool readiness in place.
Not all preschools require children entering preschool to be toilet-trained, especially if they’re 3 years old or younger or if they have special needs.
But most programs for 4-year-olds and for public pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) expect kids to be out of diapers. Don’t worry, though, if your child still needs help with washing up or has an accident. That’s not uncommon and is supported at this level.
Kids ages 3 and 4 aren’t expected to do everything on their own. They don’t have to solve problems all by themselves. But a little independence is key.
By the time kids start preschool, they’re expected to play games or do projects with other kids for a short period of time (5 to 10 minutes) without needing constant redirection from an adult. They also need to feed themselves and find their way around the classroom once they’ve had time to get to know the space.
Many preschool programs have set times when kids have to pick a learning center (like a table for drawing or a building-blocks area) and interact with it for a short period. Preschoolers have to be independent enough to choose an activity center without the teacher’s help.
To be ready for preschool, kids need to be able to express themselves in a way that an unfamiliar adult can understand.
That doesn’t mean your child needs to be speaking in full sentences. But kids do need to have an appropriate way of getting their feelings and needs across. That can be with words, with gestures or sign language, or with the help of technology.
Kids who are expressive can understand what other people say. They might not yet follow directions with multiple steps, but they understand basic words and directions like “sit down” and “follow me.”
Preschoolers are also expected to have a basic understanding that other kids have feelings and needs.
The ability to concentrate looks very different in a preschooler than it does in older kids. It also varies from child to child.
Most preschool-ready kids can pay attention to a short picture book being read aloud. Activities are typically limited to 10 or 20 minutes in a preschool classroom. Preschoolers have to concentrate on an activity for this amount of time.
Preschoolers need to follow directions most of the time and to focus on tasks without getting too distracted. But a little distraction is typical, especially if this is the first time your child has spent every day around a group of other kids.
E: Emotionally ready
Emotionally, there are a few things to look for when considering whether your child is ready for preschool. The first is the ability to say goodbye to a parent or caregiver without too much anxiety. It’s common to be a little nervous. But kids who cry the entire day might not be ready to go to a full preschool program.
That said, many kids cry when you say goodbye on the first day or even throughout the first week.
Kids who are emotionally ready are more eager to go to school and want to make friends. They might not have the skills to make friends yet, but wanting to make them is a good start.
Children need a lot of physical and mental energy for preschool. Kids who aren’t used to following a routine and being engaged can have a harder time adjusting to preschool.
One way to know if kids are ready is to look at their nap schedule. If they still take a long morning and afternoon nap, they might not be ready yet. To get your child ready, you can try merging your child’s morning and afternoon naps into one longer afternoon nap.
Putting these “PIECES” together makes it easier to know if your child is ready for preschool. If these aren’t all in place, try practicing some of them at home.
Most preschoolers are still working on readiness skills when they start preschool.
Being able to follow instructions will help your child be ready for preschool.
You can practice preschool readiness skills at home.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Kristen L. Hodnett, MSEd is a clinical professor in the department of special education at Hunter College in New York City.