by Hope Niman Prosky
Years ago children entered nursery school at three years old. The idea that a two-year-old could sustain a life removed from home was considered radical akin to pushing the baby out of the cradle. Grandparents were horrified and critical of children attending school so young, making first-time parents feel doubly insecure. However, as more mothers returned to work, the idea of school for two-year-olds grew.
Now programs for two-year-olds are flourishing in many parts of the country. Parents begin to consider these programs even as their child starts to walk, wondering what a good program is all about. It is important to keep in mind that a successful early childhood experience is the foundation, the bedrock for subsequent school experiences. If school is perceived by a young child as a happy, welcoming place where socialization, trust and love of learning thrive, the positive values are in place for future educational experiences.
When parents look at a prospective school for a two-year-old, it may be the fall or winter before their child will start the program. Parents may question whether it is too soon to begin their child's school experience. They may say, "He is so young, so impulsive, negative, non-verbal, not toilet-trained. Am I doing the right thing?"
Some parents ask, "Why can't my two-year-old wait and attend school at three?" I say, "Of course a two-year-old can wait a year." However, many parents who work and are away from home for long days are concerned that their child be actively engaged, meet other children and have a schedule of activities. Young children are often over-scheduled with a myriad of swimming, music classes, and art classes. I believe it is better to put your eggs in one basket and find a two's program that is consistent for the child and not confusing in terms of a multiplicity of adjustments.
Whether a child is ready for school at two depends on many factors. Have there been many changes at home? A new baby, a move, a parent going back to work should, if possible, not occur exactly as school begins. Children need their home nest to be predictable so they can venture out to their new world of school with confidence. If at all possible, try to plan changes well before or after school begins.
If you wonder whether your child will be ready for school next fall as you tour a school, remember that development happens amazingly fast, especially under the age of three. Often at a little playgroup organized by the school or at an individual school visit, the director meets with the child and family as part of the admissions process. At this time, development is taken into consideration, and readiness is gauged by the experienced eye of the director or admissions person with input from the parent.
When looking at a two's program, a parent must be sure certain principles are in place. It is important that the school understands and respects the needs of very young children. Especially crucial is the need for a gentle separation process so the transition from home to school is handled with care and sensitivity to the needs of each and every child. This process cannot be rushed. In our hectic, hurried world, a child's needs cannot always be convenient and must be respected. Parents looking at a two's program need to ask themselves, "Am I willing to allocate substantial time and patience to make the process work?" Parents will see that the proper beginning to a school in the fall is crucial to ensure a successful year. As trust grows, self-esteem and peer relationships flourish. A growing sense of autonomy makes the adjustment to school a positive experience.
A good classroom for two-year-olds is clean, well-organized and full of light and color. Toys are put out invitingly; there may be a simple art or cooking activity at a table surrounded by little chairs. There are puzzles, Duplo, other manipulatives, housekeeping and kitchen areas with dress-up clothes, plastic food, dishes and cutlery. Teachers encourage the children to choose an activity and settle into play.
As you investigate two's programs, this check list might be helpful:
- How is separation handled? Beware of being pushed out the door too abruptly. The process must be gradual. School should be entered in baby steps by two-year-olds.
- What are the credentials and experience of the teachers? What is the ratio of teacher to children? (There should be at least two teachers to a group of eight or more children.) Is there extra help for the phase-in process? Teachers need extensive course work in early childhood edu-cation and years of experience with this age group. A novice teacher should not head a two's program. Wisdom, humor, training and experience are essential components, plus love and respect for little children and their parents.
- Is curriculum presented attractively, and is there consistency in planning the day? There may be a work period at first, and then clean up, snack, a story, meeting time where children sing and dance led by a teacher. A schedule should be posted for visitors and parents. Children thrive on routine and consistency. Transitions need to be handled skillfully.
- Do the children go outdoors to a play yard or roof? Is the area safe and well-maintained? Is the equipment scaled-down for the physical needs of very young children?
- What is the policy on toilet training? Two-year-olds should not be required to be toilet trained. Accommodations must be made for diaper changing and toileting.
- Can parents visit and/or help in the classroom once the group has accomplished a good separation? It is fun for parents to cook, read a story, play an instrument, share in their child's school day.
- Is there a newsletter for parents? Are there planned parent/teacher conferences as well as the ability to speak to your child's teacher informally as questions/problems occur? Positive feedback on a day-to-day basis is especially important for parents. For parents who do not take their child to school, a feedback phone call can be planned relatively often.
Parents must feel comfortable and trust their child's school. Upon entering the building there should be a person to greet a new family, colorful bulletin boards and children's art work, a time for questions, a sense that children are cared for lovingly. It is important for parents to look at several schools to see what appeals to them. Is the school's educational philosophy akin to theirs? It is important to keep in your mind and heart that you are entrusting your child to a place you must feel good about. Often that institution will be a place you will savor as your child grows to be three, four and five. Your new school should be a second home, an extended family where the early childhood years are shared by parent, child and staff. After leaving pre-school, children return, remembering the fond experiences of their nursery school years. It was where the first big steps out of home began. Parents and children should delight in the process.
Hope Niman Prosky is the Director of the Grace Church Nursery School in Brooklyn Heights and a NYS licensed school psychologist.