Early childhood education has been around for decades, but in recent years prekindergarten has emerged as a natural warm-up for a traditional K-12 education. Some states offer preK right in the same building with elementary grades. In other states, prekindergarten programs are found in child-care centers, YMCAs, churches, and other community facilities.

The goal of prekindergarten is to prepare students for kindergarten, which has become much more academic in recent years. In fact, kindergarten today looks a lot like 1st grade of yesteryear, and today’s preK looks the way many parents remember kindergarten.

Still, preK is optional, and many families choose not to send their children to a formal school at age 4. In a few states, such as Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma, preK is free for anyone who wants it. Other states offer preK for children from lower-income families, so they can catch up to their more affluent peers in vocabulary and social skills.

Parents considering preK may be overwhelmed with the choices: Go or not? Is my child ready? Will my child be behind if I don’t enroll her? Which school?

The best way to assess a preK program is to visit, observe, and ask questions. Some parents want a warm environment and are most concerned with helping their child build social skills. Others want their child to have the opportunity to start reading if she’s ready. A site visit and conversations with other parents will help you decide whether a preK program is right for your child.

You can also check the school’s accreditation. Many carry the seal of approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Others may be certified by state or regional accreditation agencies. By visiting the websites of the accrediting agencies, you can find out the minimum standards.

Kristina Gawrgy Campbell of the NAEYC responds to some commonly questions.

Why would a child need preK? Isn’t it OK to start school in kindergarten?

Many children enter kindergarten without the foundation they need to succeed in school. High-quality early childhood education, including prekindergarten, ensures that children have a better chance of succeeding in school, work, and life. This is especially true for children from low-income households.
[Read “How To Choose a Prekindergarten Program” for guidelines on what to look for.]

Some parents worry about separation anxiety when their child starts preK. Are there ways the parent can prepare the child for preK that would lessen the child’s anxiety, especially for a child who had been cared for at home until now?

The parent should be honest and talk to their child about what they are about to embark on and how the day will go. The parent should also try to lead by example. If the parent is calm and positive about the experience, the child will likely be positive, too.

Some parents worry that their child is less mature compared with other kids his age. Can a child who is developmentally a little behind benefit from preK? Or will he get left behind by his more able peers?

A child who is developmentally behind in any way can benefit from entering a high-quality early childhood education program. High-quality programs focus just as much on the social and emotional development as they do the cognitive development. Staff in high-quality settings should be willing and able to work closely with the parents and families to communicate the assessment and progress of the child.

Some parents are concerned that preK is too academic for such a young child. Is it beneficial for a child to do what used to be done in kindergarten at a younger age, such as pre-reading and early math skills?

This is a balancing act that is in constant debate in the field. However, NAEYC has for years backed the philosophy that there are developmentally appropriate ways to teach children based on their age and individual needs.

If a child is developmentally behind and does not master all the preK skills, will she be held back? Is it possible to “flunk” preK?

It is NAEYC’s position that it is the responsibility of the program, in conjunction with the family, to provide what the child needs to develop and learn. If a child enters a high-quality program, he should have no problems moving on to kindergarten. The year at which a child enters kindergarten should be determined by the child’s age. If the child meets the age requirement set by the state or district, then he or she should enter kindergarten. The kindergarten program and staff should be able to meet that child at her developmental level.

Do children still get to play and have fun in preK?

Absolutely. In a high-quality prekindergarten program, play is an essential part of the curriculum.

Some preK programs are full day, 8:30 to 2:30. Is this too long for a 4-year-old? How can a parent prepare his child for a full day of school?

It is not too long if the program knows how divide the time effectively for a child of that age. If the child is actively engaged in learning, he or she will be fine. According to [NAEYC guidelines for] developmentally appropriate practice, “teachers should organize the daily schedule to allow periods of alternating active and quiet time, adequate nutrition, and nap time (for young children in full-day programs).” NAEYC would also recommend at least 60 minutes of extended time for children to be deeply involved in activity and sustain dramatic play, construction, and other activities at a complex level.

What if a parent thinks her child might have a learning disability? Is preK too early to screen for learning disabilities?

No, preK is not too early. Again, high-quality programs and teachers will be equipped to know how to pick up on the signs of a disability, but parents should also feel comfortable going to the teacher if they suspect anything. In fact, children get the best education when the program is not only ready and prepared for them but also prepared to involve and work closely with the parents and families.

Finally, are there things parents should do at home to prepare their child for prekindergarten? For example, reading books about starting school or talking about school in a fun, positive way.

Those are two very good examples. Parents should be reading to their children as early as possible and always share a positive outlook on preK and school in general.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.