Do kids who go to preschool do better than those who don’t? Is there a tried and tested formula for choosing the right preschool? Sudha Umashanker asks the questions on every parent’s mind.

Pampered childhood seems to be a thing of the past. Many parents are under pressure to get back to work. Grandparents cannot be asked to parent again (they are not young, can’t relocate and put their life on hold). The joint family is a rarity now. Household help is hard to come by and not in the least equipped to fill in for a parent. The intrusive idiot box has to be strictly regulated and is by no means a companion for a child. In this kind of a scenario, preschools answer a real need. But, are children being packed off too early?

Bina Bakshi, Principal, SERRA International Preschool Bangalore, says, “Preschool begins at the age of one-and-a-half years. In the traditional family system the child at this age would begin to interact with a variety of people, i.e. grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins, but in today’s nuclear family structure the child has a very limited scope for interaction with people other than his immediate family. The preschool provides the child an opportunity to interact with other children and develop his/her social, emotional, physical and intellectual skills. Mother-toddler programmes which start as early as six months cater to the mother and child together. They provide a range of stimulating activities for the child and help strengthen the mother-child bond besides creating for both an opportunity to socialise with other mothers and toddlers. Swapping stories and learning from each other’s experiences is one of the best ways for first-mothers to grow into their role. Thus the preschool occupies the void left by the joint family/community living system.”

Lina Ashar, founder and mentor of Kangaroo Kids Preschools and Billabong High International schools, points out that “The question is not what the appropriate age for a child to be sent to preschool is,  but whether the child is going to an age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate preschool with qualified staff. It has been proved that between one and three years of age, the brain is most receptive to multiple information. The stress should be on activities which make learning fun. Learning should be as per brain development zones which help physical, co-operative, cognitive, linguistic and social skills.”

Dr. Chitra Sankar, Consultant Development Paediatrician, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore, says, “I do not believe that it is a good idea to send toddlers less than two years of age to preschool. At this age they learn from and interact most with parents and family members. Some children experience separation anxiety from the mother even up to two-and-a-half to three years. This is seen in crying and throwing tantrums on being taken to school.”

Ask parents why they made the choice to send their children to preschool, and the responses are clear and convincing. Pavithra Jaivant, a chartered accountant and management graduate, currently on a sabbatical, says she chose to send her two-year-old son Vishnu to preschool following a mother-toddler programme “because he likes to be with children his age which is something I cannot provide for him at home.”

Ashwini Vaidya Gupte, a textile designer, whose daughter Roshini goes to a preschool says, “The environment at a preschool is intimate and children get better attention. The first school environment for a child has to be something warm and in which a child feels safe before being thrown into the academic jungle.”

Priya Gupte, a corporate executive, wanted “structured activities and interaction with other kids and adults” for her daughter Tahira. “She is very good with family but with strangers she is a little shy. As for the activities we did at home, often it would depend on her mood and my work. I wanted a routine.”

Safety, hygiene, a good teacher-student ratio, a caring environment that engenders trust and warmth are some of the things that parents look for while choosing a preschool. But standards like safety and hygiene vary from school to school. And much also depends on what is practised at home in the case of the latter. As for safety, railings with wide gaps, balconies and randomly converted premises, sharp or very small objects are some of the potential dangers.

Says Renuka Lamech, “After the Kumbakonam fire tragedy in 2004, the Government has brought in rules about fire safety and structural soundness. Separate toilets for boys and girls and backdoor entrances are some of the other measures in place. We ensure that all environments are monitored by a teacher and that all teachers are well-versed in basic first-aid. One never knows when a child might choke on something or sustain an injury.”

The activities vary from school to school depending on the methodology adopted. Some follow the tried and tested methods, a few others the Montessori system and yet others follow the multiple intelligence approach and the higher order approach — each with its own merits. Unfortunately parents don’t always do their homework before admitting the child in a school of their choice

Chitra Ravi, founder and CEO EZ Vidya, who has developed the Chrysalis pre-primary (KG) curriculum says, “The focus should be on the development of the four domains — socio-emotional, cognitive, physical and language and communication. Drawing from both traditional and contemporary approaches, her curriculum seamlessly integrates multiple intelligence methodology with opportunities for collaborative learning and higher order thinking and features of the Montessori (like a strong foundation in literacy, numeracy, communication, and self-help and sensorial activities).

Underscoring the role of parents, Lina Ashar says, “When a child is sick, parents should make sure that the child stays home and the infection does not spread. Similarly hygienic habits should be affirmed in the house like washing hands before eating, after using the washroom, using a handkerchief while coughing. Also if a child is sick and still attending classes, parents should send a letter so that the school is aware and takes care of the child while at school. On the part of the school there is always a doctor on call and non-teaching staff who are trained in first aid.”

Do kids who go to preschool do better than those who don’t? Dr. Chitra Sankar believes that “preschool education definitely helps in overall development of the child and prepares the child for the demands of formal schooling.”

Is there any tried and tested formula for choosing the right pre-school? Turning the spotlight on the primary focus, Bina Bakshi says, “The objective of any philosophy of education should be to prepare the child to be an independent thinker, lifelong learner and a compassionate human being. With this knowledge one should easily be able to select the most suitable preschool. Besides the curriculum, the cost, timings, provision of after-school child care, presence of experienced teachers should be on your check-list while deciding on a preschool.” To make the transition from home to preschool easier, some of the schools start by working for shorter hours and allow the parents to accompany the child and be around for a while, initially. Gradually the duration of the work day is extended, with parents fading from sight.

Bina Bakshi suggests that parents alter the sleep pattern/schedule to match school timings for a few weeks before school starts   and arrange play dates with a friend for a short while to get the child used to being without the parent. “Talk positively to the child about the school and the fun he/she will have there. Staying calm and positive and knowing that an occasional bout of tears is normal and is the expected reaction of a child to a new environment will help.”

Renuka Lamech advises parents to be consistent in their actions. “Do not lie to the child saying ‘I am right here’ and don’t bribe the child. The child won’t settle if parents hang around outside the school gate. Even if the child takes time to understand, it is fine.”

According to Dr. Chitra Sankar, “Familiarity with the school environment and staff will reduce the child’s anxiety a great deal. Unnecessary threats (teacher will punish you if you cry) should be avoided.” She adds that even before starting preschool, parents should spend adequate time with the child in developing the child’s language, speech and general understanding. “Reduce TV-watching; instead concentrate on talking to the child and playing with him using picture books.”

 Lina Ashar says, “Stay connected with your child. Discuss what happened at school. Children are wired to the latest gadgets these days, so turn them into communication tools.”

Summing up the feelings of most parents, Bina Bakshi says, “As a parent myself, I would say that nothing can prepare you to calmly watch a piece of your heart walk away, but the knowledge that he/she is safe, cared for and being prepared for life can ease your worries and pain.”