When I sent my first child to Pre-K, every step of the process felt nerve-wracking. Despite the fact that I have an advanced degree in child development, the preschool transition was bewildering.

You probably already know that preschool, or Pre-K, has great benefits for children—they learn to get along with others, follow the routines of a classroom, and explore a world of new learning opportunities. But how can you find a good program and make it work for your child?

There are things you can do before, during, and after your child’s transition to making Pre-K the best experience possible.

Before you outfit your child with her first backpack, look for the right preschool or Pre-K program. The two terms are often used synonymously, although Pre-K typically refers to programs that serve three- and four-year-olds in public schools or city-run programs. Programs vary wildly in quality, and studies show that children only benefit from high-quality classrooms.

To check out a program’s quality, try to visit during school hours so that you can see how teachers interact with the children. That will tell you almost everything you need to know—some programs emphasize their fancy facilities or expensive decor, but those things actually don’t matter much for children’s learning.

What does matter is that the teachers...

  • Seem enthusiastic and happy to be there
  • Encourage kids to be curious
  • Ask them about their ideas
  • Talk about letters and numbers without drills or tests
  • Allow kids to touch and explore things
  • Hang children’s artwork on the walls
  • Remain positive and nurturing, even when children are acting out

Good teachers have consistent routines, crouch down to be at eye-level with little ones, explain why the rules keep everyone safe and give guidance about what to do rather than what not to do

Parents sometimes ask me if their children are ready for Pre-K. That’s an individual decision for each family (often it is the parent who doesn’t feel ready), but there is no specific set of skills children need. After all, developing social, emotional and cognitive skills are the goal of preschool!

But you can help get your child off to a good start by encouraging their self-regulation skills, like expressing their feelings in words, sharing and being kind, and trying to wait for their turn. No young child has mastered those skills, but it’s helpful to introduce them. The most important thing is to get your child ready and excited for the idea of school. Take them for a visit, play school with them at home, and read books.

Transitions are a process, not a one-time event, and it’s helpful to know how the school handles them. Good teachers know that transitions are challenging for children and parents, and they don’t view parents’ worries as an imposition.

I remember my son’s preschool director calling me fifteen minutes after drop-off on day two to tell me that he had stopped crying as soon as I left; that call was a lifesaver.

After you and your child have settled in, stay connected. You’re being helpful, not pushy, if you provide information about your child, like how they deal with meeting new kids, or if they haven’t been sleeping well.

If you have a concern or are curious about something, bring it up and try to work together with the teacher to find an answer. Telling the teacher what to do is intrusive, but asking her to help solve a problem is not.

You can reinforce what your child is learning by finding out what they’re doing at school. Ask teachers questions like, “What are you focusing on with the kids right now?” or, “Does Will seem to love a particular book?” Ask your child questions, too, like, “What songs did you sing during circle today?” and, “What are you excited about doing tomorrow?”

Some children don’t like to talk about their school day, and that’s ok. You can also get clues by encouraging them to play teacher, or asking them to show you one of their favorite games from school.

Before, during, and after the transition, preschool should be fun.

Many days I wished I could stay in my son’s classroom and drive trucks through paint instead of going to work. The joy we all felt was how I knew we had found a good program. In time, my son would learn to read, ride a bike, and devour math. But those later accomplishments were built on a foundation of learning to love school and relish learning—a foundation that was built in preschool.