Going to preschool is a big step! How can you prepare your toddler for preschool?

Today I’ve teamed up with Sarah, co-director and preschool teacher at Valley Parent Preschool, to answer some frequently asked questions regarding how to prepare your toddler for preschool. Valley Parent Preschool is a premiere play-based, parent co-operative preschool in San Francisco’s East Bay. Questions below are answered both by Kristina of Toddler Approved and Sarah of Valley Parent Preschool.

How do I know if my child is ready for preschool?

Preschool should be a positive experience for a child. If starting school would cause more emotional distress than positive feelings, it may be too early, or the wrong school fit.  Typically children need to be ready to separate from their caregiver when it’s time, to be comfortable in a group setting with other kiddos, and to be able to follow simple instructions from people other than their home caregiver. 

No school, no matter how wonderful, is right for every single child. Taking time to find the right program for your individual child is well worth the time and can make the process of starting school much smoother when they are ready.


How can I choose the right preschool for my child?

Deciding on a preschool for your child is a very individual decision. What is right for one child may not be the correct place for another child. What works for one parent, might also not work for another parent.

Some children/families are interested in formal preschool outside of the home, while others feel more comfortable with a homeschool preschool set up or co-op preschool with friends.

Read our best tips for how to choose the right preschool for your child.


What is the main goal of preschool?

The goals of early childhood education are the following five things:

  1. Physical development
  2. Emotional development
  3. Social development
  4. Language and literacy development
  5. Cognitive skill development

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) indicates, “In high-quality preschools, teachers focus on all areas of learning. They pay attention to what children are interested in, and they plan themes or projects that help children expand their knowledge and skills in different areas. Children get a deeper understanding of a subject when they can make connections across several content areas.”

Teachers work with children on respecting others, working together, and build social skills, language skills, and self-control through play.

Teachers also help kids recognize and manage their own feelings and behavior.

Every state (and country) has early learning standards that describe what children need to know and be able to do at a certain age. Teachers use these standards to balance what children need to learn with their knowledge of how children learn best.


How can I prepare my child socially/emotionally for her first year of preschool?

Here’s a quick summary of how you can prepare your child socially/emotional for preschool.

  1. Form a strong and loving connection at home with your child.
  2. Talk enthusiastically about school.
  3. Let them know what to expect.
  4. Connect with a classmate or two prior to school starting (if possible).
  5. Communicate with the teacher about any questions/concerns.

Now let’s dive into those a bit deeper!

The most important thing you can do to prepare your child for preschool is something you are probably already doing; forming a strong and loving connection at home.

That strong connection will help them feel secure as they build relationships with their teachers and friends. 

You can also help by talking enthusiastically about school, even if you are feeling a bit nervous about the change too.  Let them know what to expect at drop off and show them the school or classroom ahead of time. If you aren’t able to visit (restrictions can make this hard now), ask if the teacher can send you pictures ahead of time. Making a social story using pictures of the classroom, teachers, their cubby, and a few favorite activities can help your kiddo know what to expect and look forward to. 

You can also help your child connect with a classmate or two prior to school starting. If local health regulations allow, you can meet at the park a few times before class starts so your kiddos can have someone to look forward to seeing on that first day of school.  

Lastly, talk with your teacher about any concerns and worries you may be having. As a group, preschool teachers have an incredible amount of experience in supporting families through this transition. They want this to be a positive experience for you and your child, and are here to help you every step of the way.


What are some ways I can prepare my child for the transition to preschool?

There are a variety of simple ways that you can prepare your child for their transition to preschool. Here are a few of our favorites!

  1. Read books about preschool/school and talk about it!
  2. Drive by the preschool your child will be attending or visit of possible. If you can attend a tour and play at the school, then try and bring your child along.
  3. Do some pretend play together of the preschool routines that you will be using during the year (dropping them off and waving goodbye, picking them up, singing songs, putting on their coat and taking it off, etc).
  4. Work together to pick out favorite preschool friendly clothes to wear for the first day of school.
  5. Try and create a consistent morning and bedtime routine at home as you prepare for school to start.


What sort of social skills should my 3 year old know for his first year of preschool?

Preschool is all about working on social and emotional skills. In fact, it is the most important thing preschool teachers teach!

At preschool, kids learn about problem solving, conflict resolution, reading body language, regulating emotions, forming caring relationships with teachers and peers, and being a part of a community.

If your child comes in with experience in these areas, teachers will continue to build on them. If this is their first time in a group setting, then teachers are there to help start them on their preschool journey.

How do I prepare a sensitive/shy child for his first preschool experience?

If it’s possible to meet your child’s teacher one-on-one before school starts, it may help a reserved child feel more comfortable on the first day. Building trusting relationships is important for all children, but can be even more so for children who need a bit more time to feel secure.

Role playing, social stories, and helping your child feel comfortable letting the teacher know if they need something can help your child to feel more settled at school.

If your child is sensitive to noise or high activity levels, you can also talk ahead of time about what they can do if they start to feel overwhelmed. Classrooms often have a quiet area, or they can identify a place with their teacher where they can go if they need a moment to themselves. Being shy and sensitive is not a bad thing and shouldn’t be looked at as a negative in the classroom. 


Read more tips to help sensitive children adjust to preschool and manage anxiety here.

How do I help transition my toddler to going by himself to preschool?

The suggestions above apply here too, but I would also add that you know your child best. Most kids do best with a quick and loving goodbye, but some really do best with a more gradual departure. Talk with your teachers and form a plan that best supports your child.

Most importantly though, we suggest never sneaking out. It may feel easier in the moment, but we are working hard at building close, trusting relationships with our students and it’s important that they know they can trust us. Sometimes there are tears in the beginning, but teachers comfort, hold, listen, and help them get engaged when they are ready.  Chances are teachers will be sending you a picture of a happy, playing kiddo a few minutes later! If teachers feel like your child would do better adjusting with you at school, they can call you and let you know. You can always call to check in too!


RELATED: Read some of our separation anxiety tips for toddlers here.

What if my toddler can’t sit still at preschool?

Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t built to sit still! They need to move! High quality preschool programs will build movement into your child’s preschool day and are well aware of what’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers.

When children start preschool they may need some time to adjust to sitting for story time or an activity time. Typically at the beginning of the year teachers keep stories and activity times short and increase them as kids build more stamina and attention throughout the year.

Kids learn about the world around them through movement and exploring. It is perfectly natural for preschoolers to want to move.


What should a 4 year old know by the time they attend pre K?

Kiddos come in to Pre-K at so many different places and every one of them is okay. There are no prerequisites in an early childhood classroom! For some children, this is their first time away from their families, and for others, they have already been in school for a year or two. Both are great!

If you’d like to work on specific skills before Pre-K, it can often be helpful to offer opportunities to practice self help skills such as using the restroom independently, putting on their jacket, carrying their tote bag, and now being able to put on their own mask (if that is required at your preschool).


How can I keep my kid engaged and not bored in pre-k if he just missed the cut-off for kindergarten?

This is a common concern. My suggestion would be to look for a strong play based, emergent program where children have long periods of free choice time, open ended materials, and teachers that focus on social emotional development. Programs like this allow for each child to come in and grow at their own level. Teachers scaffold their learning appropriately and make sure each child is getting what they need. Long periods of free play in well prepared environments lead to incredible opportunities for learning, developing their attention span, and creativity!


What can I do at home with my child in addition to sending her to preschool?

PLAY! PLAY! PLAY! If your child is craving additional enrichment activities or you or your child’s teacher feels she needs supplemental support, then you can also add that in based on your child’s individual needs.

Here are a few enrichment resources you can try:


If students are masked and social distanced… is there really any point to sending them to preschool?

This is a great question! One of my biggest worries going into this school year was how children would adjust to wearing masks. I had many sleepless nights about it. After nine months of teaching masked, to masked preschool and pre-k students, I am so pleased to share it is a total non issue! We have to speak a little louder, but masks truly have been no big deal, and we have never been healthier! 

Regarding being physically distanced, I would look at your families needs. If you are looking for a part time program for social and emotional development and play, and your child will be expected to stay physically separated from other children, then personally I might choose to wait a year and instead connect with a few other families with young kids who have similar pandemic safety feelings and do a small playgroup instead.


Choosing the right preschool for your child is an individual decision based on what your child and family needs. How to prepare your toddler for preschool will also depend on your child’s needs!

Preschool should be a positive experience for your child, so work together with your preschool teacher to help make it a successful experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and communicate with your child’s teacher.

Do you have additional questions about preparing your child for preschool? Ask in the comments!

This article was co-written by Sarah Bradford, co-director and teacher at Valley Parent Preschool and Kristina Buskirk, founder of Toddler Approved, mom of four, and former teacher. Valley Parent Preschool is a premiere play-based, parent co-operative preschool in San Francisco’s East Bay.