Preschool can be a great first step in a child’s education. Prepare yourself and your children for the years of growth and learning that are ahead.

Support for preschool has been a hot topic recently across the nation. As a parent, this might make you wonder even more if your child needs to go. The straight answer? No, not necessarily.

However, preschool can help your child keep up with other kids when she starts kindergarten. Beyond that, numerous studies including a recent Harvard University study of Boston Public Schools free pre kindergarten program published in March show that children who attend preschool can also acquire lifelong advantages; for example, preschoolers who learn to focus on a task and complete it have a 50 percent greater chance of graduating from college according to a study from Oregon State University.

I advise parents to start looking at programs when their child turns 3. Kids under the age of 3 play side by side and observe one another, and when they do engage, it is often to vie for a coveted toy in a toddler version of Survivor. Yes, your child is ready to become a socialized and civilized human being really! During playtime, she can learn to share and respect others. In an instructional preschool setting, children can also learn some important pre-academic skills like listening, paying attention, sounding out letters and words, and counting.

When looking at prospective preschools, be sure to visit several programs. Ask the director about teacher-student ratios and teacher certification. See how the schools curriculum and philosophy will fit with your child’s temperament or learning style. Then, trust your instincts.

In an instructional preschool setting, children can also learn some important pre-academic skills like listening, paying attention, sounding out letters and words, and counting.

Of course, children who have spent most of their lives with a parent around may be anxious about leaving the nest. Here are some practical tips to give your child roots and wings:

Routine is king. Practice the new routine of getting ready and going to school before the first day. The more prepared everyone is, the better. Children perform best when they know what to expect.

Meet and greet. Set up a time for your child to meet her teacher and see the classroom. Some preschools have teachers conduct a home visit or have students visit the school to explore the classroom. Setting up a play date in your home with a future classmate is also a great way to make that first day go more smoothly.

Calm fears. Ask your child about anything she might be afraid of. Explain that other kids feel the same way and that’s fine.

Be comforting. Reassure your child she will have fun and believe it yourself.

Make your exit short and sweet. Don’t linger once you say goodbye at the classroom door.
Honestly, parents often have more trouble with the transition than the child does! Here are some things you can do:
Keep informed. Touch base with your child’s teacher regularly.
Get involved. Participate in school functions.
Be positive. Even if your child had a bad day, find one thing she enjoyed.
Have a routine. Preschool helps regulate schedules for naps, bedtime and wake-up times.
Have a backup plan. Prepare to have a child who cries or melts down at preschool. Ask your teacher if it is OK to bring a comfort object. Inquire if there is a quiet space in the classroom for your child to go to if she needs to calm down.

Get those shots. Licensed preschools follow state vaccination requirements. Be sure your child’s shots are up to date.

For some children, preschool just isn’t the right fit. Can your child still get into a top-notch school if she doesn’t go to preschool? Absolutely. Making the most of your time together during that period in their infancy can be invaluable. Get down on the floor with your child and take advantage of teaching moments but don’t think you need to drill her with flash cards or teach her three foreign languages before she is potty trained. For example, when your child is building a tower of blocks, count how many she can stack up before it falls.

And what if your child is not ready for preschool yet, but you both need a break? Look for other parents in your neighborhood, religious community, local library and community center. Join a play group or start one yourself. Seek out Parent and Me programs that include activities such as music, art, sports, language or just basic motor skill development. You can find out about these gems from other parents or listings in local parenting magazines.

Whether your child is enrolled in preschool or an enrichment program, the point is for her to experience new things, enjoy fun activities and come across hobbies and interests that she can try at home. And don’t forget the added bonus getting a little down time!

Dr. Ari Brown, M.D., FAAP is an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician and author of the best-selling 411 parenting book series including Expecting 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for your Pregnancy, Baby 411 and Toddler 411. Trained in general and developmental/behavioral pediatrics at children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School, she has served as a medical adviser for Parents Magazine, as a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and has appeared in numerous national print and television media including NBC’s Today Show, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.