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Coping with Transition: Starting Preschool or Kindergarten and Final Conclusions

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

At some point during the pre-operational years, most young children will transition into their academic career starting with preschool, or kindergarten. Some children may start in preschool programs as early as age 3, while others will enter preschool at age 4 or 5. Most children are 5 or 6 years old when they start kindergarten.

Caregivers should carefully consider several factors (beyond chronological age) when determining whether children are ready for preschool. A wide range of behaviors are necessary in order for children to have a successful experience in a preschool setting. For example, children should be able to participate in group activities; listen to a story and then recall and explain the simple plot line; follow simple directions for a new game or activity; and be able to clearly express their wants and needs, and ask questions using verbal (or sign if the child is deaf) language. Physically, they should be able to hop, skip, and jump. Cognitively, they need to recognize basic colors and shapes, as well as recognize when sounds are similar and different. Another sign of children's school-readiness is their ability to join in during song singing and have some of the lyrics or melody memorized. As far as fine motor skills are concerned, young children should be able to cut paper with blunt scissors and to be able to draw simple shapes. Most importantly, kids should be toilet trained and able to take care of simple bodily needs, such as washing their hands, and getting dressed and undressed.

There are different types of preschools that caregivers can choose from. Some preschools focus more on teaching children social and emotional skills, others focus on cultivating academic skills, and still others are designed to promote children's creativity and self-expression. Head Start programs are another form of preschool for families with children who are deemed to be at risk for having difficulties in elementary school. Head Start programs work with children and their families to help ensure that children obtain skills and resources they will need to succeed.

Attendance at preschool programs is optional in most places. Kindergarten marks the beginning of formal required schooling. Kindergarten classes are offered in the public school system (e.g., publicly funded schools), but some caregivers choose to send their children to a private school (e.g., where tuition is paid out of pocket). Caregivers' motivations for sending children to a private school vary. Some like the special religious focus of particular private schools, while others like it that particular private schools may teach at a more advanced level than local public school classrooms. The quality of public schools in the U.S. varies considerably, generally following local property values; richer areas tend to have better schools.

Many caregivers debate whether to "hold back" their child a year before starting kindergarten, particularly if the child's birthdate is close to school admissions cut-off dates (e.g., some schools require that children must be at least 5 by October 31 of the year they enter kindergarten). The idea behind holding children back a year is that the extra year of emotional and social development children will experience will give them an advantage in their later academic career. Widespread though this idea is, the research suggests that holding kids back usually does not improve their school success in the long-term. Also, some children interpret being "behind" a grade as evidence of their inferiority and come to feel badly about themselves. This is of particular concern when children are left back a grade after having already started school, as their peers advance when they do not. Being left back a grade is easier on children when it occurs before they ever enter school in the first place.

Whether starting preschool or kindergarten, the start of school is typically a major transition for children. The start of school can involve dramatic changes in children's routine, structure, and expectations. This is particularly true for children without previous experience in a child care or preschool setting.

It's normal for young children to be both excited and fearful about the idea of going to school. On the one hand, going to school is what the "big kids" do, and as such it is a mark of children's advancement. On the other hand, school represents a big unknown, which can be frightening. For some children, going to school is the first time they are separated from their caregivers for any length of time. Children can be helped to mentally and emotionally prepare for this transition to school by talking about what to expect in the school environment. Caregivers can check out books or videos from the library which deal with this subject, and read or watch them with their children. In addition, visiting the school and meeting the teacher ahead of time can also make the transition less traumatic for everyone involved. No matter what preparation occurs, it is normal for both children and caregivers to cry a little bit on the first day or two.

Caregivers should strive to give their children extra love and support during their early transition to school. Children may also require additional reassurance after long holidays from school are over and they must return to school. Throughout the year, it is important that caregivers show interest in what kids are doing at school, and become involved in school-based activities as much as is practical. Doing so helps children take school seriously and reinforces the idea that learning is important and fun.

It is also important for caregivers to think carefully before they jump into pushing children to excel in the school environment. Pushing children too hard does not make them better students. Instead, it makes them anxious, fearful and depressed students and actually may hurt their performance. Spending a few minutes at night or on the weekends reviewing things that kids are learning at school is okay, but relentlessly drilling kids on facts is an easy way to drive children to dislike academics.

Caregivers should remember that children are naturally energetic, and that it requires great discipline for them to sit still and pay attention all day at school. Make sure to reserve some unwinding time in the evenings and weekends for family and fun time. It is also important that parents do not allow children's extracurricular activities to conflict with school lessons. Children who are over-scheduled with lessons and play dates can become exhausted and stressed out, and may start to perform poorly in school.

Maintaining an open relationship with children's teachers is an important caregiver responsibility. Teachers can provide parents with direct feedback on many different aspects of children's growth and development, including academic, social, and emotional growth and maturity. Teachers are also great sources of ideas for how caregivers can support young children's learning at home. For children who are experiencing difficulties in school, teachers are a vital part of planning any additional tests or services or tests that may be necessary. This is particularly the case when children show evidence of learning disorders or other mental health issues that negatively impact their school performance. The earlier such issues can be identified and corrected for, the less damage they will cause. You can read more about learning disorders here, in our Learning Disorders topic center.


This document provided caregivers with concrete knowledge for raising pre-operational stage children between 2 and 7 years old. We have provided information on how caregivers can safely and expertly meet their children's basic needs such as nutrition, sleeping, clothing, hygiene, medical care, and discipline. We have also discussed how caregivers can help children to cope with big but necessary life transitions characteristic of this stage of life, such as gaining a new sibling and starting school. Caregiving is not rocket science. However, it does require dedication, time, patience, and sharing lots of love and support with children. With these characteristics and a little knowledge such as the information we have tried to communicate here, even the most novice parent or caregiver can feel confident and secure as they help steer their children during their exciting early childhood years.

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