To Preschool or Not To Preschool
I’ve read your column for years now and always love the advice you give. So, after weeks of indecision about preschool, I decided it was time to ask the expert. I have an awesome 4 year old son. He has a September birthday, so he missed the deadline for going to Kindergarten this coming year. Right now he is going to a mommy-based preschool with some friends from church. Four kids total, each mom takes a turn to teach two times a week. Overall it has been awesome. But! He hasn’t learned anything. He knew his letters, sounds, numbers, etc. before he started. He loves going and being so big with his backpack and playing with his friends is awesome, but he really hasn’t learned anything. So here we are looking at one more year of preschool ahead of him and I’m trying to decide what to do. An in-home preschool around here costs $150-$175/month, for two-three days a week depending on the teacher. At a public daycare-type preschool it’s about twice that. I’m a stay at home mom with a three-year old and 4-month old as well.
Adding an extra $150/month expense to our budget would be a huge financial hit to us. Yes, we could do it, but I feel like we would be sacrificing a lot in order to make it work. But yet I feel like my son WANTS to learn more than what he’s getting from this little mommy group and another year of repeating sounds and numbers is not going to help him and might even bore him. And even if I wanted to do the mommy preschool again, all of the other kids are enrolling in a more formal preschool, so at this point it’s not even an option.
So I go back and forth. Is it worth the money and sacrifice to put him in a “real” preschool? Or do all kids just even out by mid-kindergarten anyway so no one can tell who had preschool and who didn’t? I feel like I have to do something for him, he’ll feel so left out when all of his friends are going to school next year and he’s not anymore. Should I send him to Kindergarten a year early? I’m positive he would pass the screening, but I don’t want to be that mom that tries to prove how smart her kid is, so let’s bump him up a grade! I don’t want him to be at a disadvantage because he would be younger than the other kids, but yet I feel like if I don’t do SOMETHING for this next year then I’m also putting him at a disadvantage. I just want to do what’s best for my son and my family as a whole. Oh goodness, I’m completely overanalyzing this, I know. So, just tell me what to do so maybe I can get some sleep tonight.
Preschool Drama Queen
“You will never regret any money spent on your child’s education.”
That’s the advice I got — and ever-so-thankfully followed — a few years ago, when we were debating whether to send our oldest to a private, special-needs preschool. Also a screamingly expensive one. (If you’re looking at $150 a month for preschool, I guess that means we paid for…133 months’ worth. GAH.) It was a huge financial sacrifice, and at the time I had real doubts over whether it was worth it or necessary — we were already getting a half-day of special education preschool for free through the school district! — but we eventually decided to go for it. I wasn’t even 100% sure where the money would come from, so it was very much a “leap and the net will appear” kind of decision.
We do not regret it. At all. It was probably one of the best decisions we’ve made for him. Absolutely life changing, for all of us. If we HADN’T sent him, I’d still be regretting THAT choice and kicking myself for it to this day, because I always would have wondered what he’d be capable of if we’d just tried that program. And the advice I got was absolutely true, even for my other “typical” children who will also have three full years of preschool under their belts before kindergarten. I don’t regret spending any of that money, either. (Though I’m certainly looking forward to getting down to one tuition payment next year, when my second goes to kindergarten, and then being freeeeeeeee in two years or so.)
So, obviously, you asked this question of someone who is hugely, overtly biased and very pro-preschool. My kids were all enrolled in some level of preschool before their third birthdays — my youngest wasn’t even two! I think it’s fundamentally important and not even a little optional and the fact that we don’t guarantee every child in this country at least a year or two of preschool makes me rage-y, because it’s SO GOOD FOR THEM.
My two oldest boys also have September/October birthdays and juuuust miss the cutoff. Pushing them ahead, however, was not ever an option I considered — they’re both quite smart but socially and emotionally? No way were they mature enough at four and and just-turned-five for kindergarten. I hate to gender-generalize, but boys in particular seem to benefit from an extra year of maturity pre-kindergarten.
And that’s the thing. Kindergarten is…intense. I sense we live in very different areas of the country ($150 A MONTH? I’M SO JEALOUS I COULD CRY.), so it’s possible that your public kindergarten isn’t the pressure-cooker environment that it is around here in my Washington DC area/suburb. Here, kindergarten is full day, five days a week, and is basically what you and I would have considered first grade, growing up. Maybe even with aspects of second grade, in terms of academics and structure. Preschool basically IS kindergarten now, and everything else has shifted up accordingly. It’s a brutal transition for just about every kid I know, even for those with plenty of preschool experience. (And yeah: a few kids who did not attend preschool were quickly singled out and put on the remedial/pull-out services track, usually for reading/handwriting.) We upped our second son’s preschool enrollment to full-day this year, in hopes of easing his transition next year.
So I’d encourage you to arrange an observation visit to your local kindergarten and see what it’s like. Obviously, it’s late in the year so you’re not going to get an accurate view of what these kids were like back in September, but you’ll at least get a sense of the class size and social environment and how much sitting and structure will be expected of your son. Kindergarten might be a completely different, laid-back animal where you live, but I think it’s important information to have before you make a decision. (I visited our kindergarten in January a few years back with a group of parents, and I believe our collective reaction was one of OMGWTFBBQ MY KID IS SO NOT READY FOR THIS.)
Academic readiness is really only one small aspect of preschool, honestly. I love how much my kids have learned at preschool, but the social piece has always been just as important. Manners, following rules and directions, working within a group, conflict resolution, hands to yourself, use your words, all that. So if you were, say, to skip enrolling him in a formal preschool in favor of a homeschool curriculum (which might be worth looking into anyway, for your three-year old), you’d definitely want to find some way to get him regular exposure to a structured group setting as kindergarten prep. Which might be difficult to do for free if all his peers are enrolled in preschool, but even just some kind of art or sports class would be good for him, if you can find a reasonably-priced one.
If preschool really will be a financial hardship for your family, investigate every available option you can find. Are there any co-op schools nearby? (Which would be similar to your mommy-run preschool, but possibly with a “real” preschool teacher in charge while parents simply fill in the aide role. They’re typically the most affordable option around here.) The YMCA? Check out Head Start, maybe, or contact your school district or Early Intervention or find out if your county has a childcare referral/voucher program. Our district has a great special education preschool program (PEP), and one of the options is called PEP Pilot, where high-functioning special needs kids attend preschool with “typical” peers. Those typical peers attend for free, and get the benefit of a preschool program designed with the public school kindergarten curriculum in mind.
A homeschool curriculum (you can find a lot of good ones online) might also be more affordable and provide him with a more personalized, academically challenging program — your three-year old can join in as well! — provided you can find some good community resources to get him interacting regularly with peers. Again, a visit to your local kindergarten will be helpful, since you’ll know if he’ll be in a class of 12…or a class of 30.
Anyway, yeah. I personally think you should send him to preschool. It certainly won’t be the end of the world if you don’t — he’s clearly bright and has a loving, involved family and will be JUST FINE, I’m sure — but…you won’t regret it. The sacrifice will be worth it. That I can pretty much guarantee. And if there’s even the slightest chance that you might regret NOT sending him…well, this sadly isn’t one of those situations where you get a do-over.