Preparing for Preschool

The table is strewn with preschool brochures, newspaper articles and advertisements of the latest teaching early childhood education methods. The computer is logged into a preschool webpage. You are on the phone with the principal, asking her how much it will cost to send your child there.

Yes, it is time for preschool. It is time for your child’s first step into a social world beyond mommy and daddy and the start to a bright future.

While discerning parents are aware of the importance of preschool education and will not hesitate to give their child the best, many misunderstand what “best” really means in the first place.

In this issue’s PP Feature, we talk to Prof Dr Chiam Heng Keng, President of Association of Professional Early Childhood Educators, Malaysia; Jayawathi Perera, President of Kindergarten Association of Malaysia; and Eveleen Ling, advisor to Kindergarten Association of Malaysia on how they define a quality preschool education and what you can do – from selecting a preschool to preparing your little one – to ensure a wonderful first year for both you and your child.

So what is a quality preschool education? This may surprise you but the answer is simple: one that benefits your child. And a preschool can only benefit your child if it provides what he needs to learn at each stage of his development, not what the teachers or parents think he should know.

A quality preschool education is developmentally appropriate

The development of a child is a complex process that encompasses language and communication; cognitive development; socioemotional development; the development of critical thinking skills; physical development; moral and spiritual growth; and aesthetic and creativity. Each child, despite the similarity in age, develops at a different rate.What benefits one child may not benefit another.

It is therefore, extremely important that the approaches, activities and materials used are developmentally appropriate to each child. For instance, a child who has not mastered his fine motor skills should be given pre-writing exercises like playing with plasticine or colouring instead of being made to sit down and write pages and pages of ABCs.

A quality preschool education is holistic

Many parents tend to focus on the cognitive development of their child. They want their child to be able to think logically, learn quickly and solve problems at an early age. They want their child to be “smart”.

A quality preschool education addresses that and more. It looks at the child’s total development which covers his language and communication skills, socio-emotional development, physical development, creativity and aesthetics skills and his moral and spiritual growth.

A quality preschool education centres round play

Play is the universal language of children. Through play, they learn to construct knowledge, develop a consciousness of self and of others and handle their emotions. They learn shapes and sizes, actions and consequences, winning and losing. They are exposed to a myriad of sensory experiences that aid their intellectual development.

A quality preschool education takes an integrated approach

For a child to be interested in learning, he must find it relevant to everyday life and not just confined to the classroom. Based on this principle, the integrated approach involves various aspects of development into each activity for a more meaningful learning experience.

For instance, a child is asked to imagine going for a walk in the park and then to draw what he sees. To do this, he needs to exercise his cognitive skills and creativity to paint a picture in his mind, fine motor skills to draw the flowers and trees he visualises and language skills to communicate to the teacher what he has drawn.

About the National Preschool Curriculum

Preschools in Malaysia are part of the National Education System and governed by the Education Act 1996. They are run by government agencies, NGOs or private institutions.While each has its own methodology, they are all required to follow the National Preschool Curriculum (NPC) developed by the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC).

The NPC advocates an integrated, holistic curriculum that covers all the aspects of child development as listed above. Tailored to our local cultural context and the National Philosophy of Education, the NPC provides flexible guidelines every preschool can easily adopt when planning their activities.

Signs of a preschool your child will love

The best way to judge the quality of a preschool is to pay a visit yourself. Call up the preschool and make an appointment to observe the class in action. Avoid visiting in January when classes are just starting. Instead, go when the teachers and children have settled down and everything is in full swing. Do be discreet during your visit as children are easily distracted.Watch from afar and do not ask the teacher questions during class. Here are some things to look out for:

  1. A valid registration
    A preschool must be registered with the State Education Department, the regional arm of the Ministry of Education. Regularly monitored by the government, registered preschools meet the minimum requirements issued by the government and ensure a standard in the quality of education that is offered.

  2. Child-safe, child-friendly
    Your child’s safety is top priority. This is why it is so important that a preschool is registered as this means that it satisfies local safety, fire and hygiene requirements. In addition to this, see if other safety measures are taken: Is the outdoor area properly fenced? Are there sharp corners on the tables? Are the sinks and toilets child-sized?

    A preschool setup must be clean, cheery, well-ventilated and spacious enough for children to run around and play. The walls should display their work at their eye level.

    As open communication is important in the learning process, an ideal class-size is between 12 and 15 children with one teacher and one assistant.

  3. A curriculum based on the NPC (National Preschool Curriculum)
    Characteristics of a good preschool education as discussed earlier in this feature should be reflected in the preschool’s programme. Is the curriculum well-balanced and developmentally appropriate? Does it allocate time for lunch, snacks, naps and free playtime? All these criteria will be met if the preschool complies with the NPC.

    While you do not need to have an indepth knowledge of the NPC, the principal and teachers should know and be able to tell you about it.

  4. A right philosophy
    Because the values and behaviours your child is taught at home and in the preschool must be consistent, the philosophy to which the preschool subscribes should be similar to your own.

    Let us say that the preschool’s philosophy is for children to be independent in self-care – to wash and dress themselves regularly, for example. The child may learn this in class but when he goes home, his mother and the maid does everything for him. They are effectively undoing everything he has been taught in preschool!

    Therefore, it is important that you ask the principal and teachers about the preschool’s philosophy. They should be able to tell you what it is and how they teach it in their classes every day.

  5. Good and qualified preschool teachers
    It is easy to spot a good preschool teacher. She is kind, cheerful and loves children. She is interested and actively involved in what the children are doing. She is dressed in clothes that allow her to kneel down to the children’s level when talking to them, run around or even crawl with them during playtime. She is sensitive and responsive – if a child falls down, she responds immediately to comfort him.

    As you are entrusting a substantial part of your child’s learning to the teacher, she must have the appropriate professional or academic qualifications. She should also be knowledgeable about the National Preschool Curriculum and be able to explain how she applies it in her classes.

  6. Happy, expressive & productive children
    The most wonderful sight in any preschool is of happy and productively engaged children. You see them working together in groups on projects, making friends and generally just having a lot of fun. They are expressive, confident and openly communicate with each other as well as their teacher during class.

  7. Preparing your child for preschool
    Preschool is a big step not only for your little one, but for you. As a parent, you are naturally a little anxious and over-protective. As long as you have done your homework and have confidence in the preschool of your choice, the initial jitters will fade. As for your child, here are some things you can do to prepare her for the big day:

    • Test the waters
      Call the preschool and make an appointment for you and your child to drop by. Introduce your child to the teachers and let her have a feel of the place. Do this several times, or as long as it takes for her to adapt.

      If your child is an only child who has never experienced interacting with other children, bring her to the neighbourhood playground and let her discover the joy of playing with others. This prepares her so that she is not overwhelmed by the unfamiliar, little faces of her peers when she starts preschool.

    • Get your child excited
      Bring her shopping for supplies and talk to her often about preschool – about the friends she will make, the great fun she will have and the “big girl” uniform she will get to wear.

    • Rise & shine early
      Start training your child to wake up early for preschool. Make it fun for her to wake up and give her something to look forward to once she does. You can have breakfast together and then, do something she enjoys. Do this for a few weeks. By the time she actually starts preschool, waking up on time will not be such a struggle.

    • Stable on the homefront
      Avoid major changes like bringing in a new maid or shifting house when your child is about to start preschool. Too many changes can be distressing for her.

    • “Wean” yourself off
      The first few days of preschool can be tough. Do not just drop your child off and leave or sneak out when she is not looking. Spend some time with her at the preschool before leaving. As time goes by, you will find that she will not need you to stay with her as long as she used to.

How to ensure a great first year in preschool

How good your child’s preschool education is depends on his teacher and on you. Some things – particularly in the first year – may not turn out the way you had hoped. Stay positive and be realistic in your expectations. Your child’s teacher wants the best for your child in the same way you do. Here is how you can work together with her for a good first year:

  • Do not stand on the sidelines. Be enthusiastic about getting involved with your child’s preschool. As much as possible, make time to attend activities and volunteer to help out. Establish a relationship with your child’s teacher and communicate often. Exchange a few words with the teacher when you pick your child up at the end of every day. Do not worry that you will offend the teacher by “quizzing” her so often. A well-trained teacher understands the need to be transparent and will know how to listen and provide good feedback on your child’s education progress.

  • Be encouraging and compliment the teacher if she is doing a good job.When voicing your concerns, do not be confrontational. Instead, find out the facts and work with the teacher towards a solution.

  • Talk to your child every day about preschool. What did he do today? Did he have fun? Did he make new friends? What handiwork did he bring home today? Ask him about his day and celebrate all the good things that have happened.

  • Safeguard your child’s self-esteem. Never compare him to other children. Every child is unique and develops at different rates. Talking about how clever his classmate is will only crush his fragile self-esteem. In the same way, avoid discussing negative things with the teacher in front of your child.

  • What your child learns in preschool and at home should not be in conflict. Reinforce the values he is taught in preschool at home. If he is taught to wait until everyone is seated before starting to eat, this should be practised and exemplified by family members at home too.

Finally, be a source of encouragement to your child. Preschool is an exciting time for him and he will have lots to tell you. Let him speak freely and do not interrupt him. While preschool is extremely important for your child’s learning and development, it should also be a time of joy, fun and lots of love. It is not about cramming in as much as possible into him before primary school or “giving him the edge” over other children. It is really about creating an environment that encourages curiosity and helps him develop a love for learning. Such an attitude will last a lifetime and serve your child well no matter what he decides to do in the future.

Extra classes

Learning does not just happen inside a classroom, so do not go over-board signing your child up for extra academic classes.

Forcing him into something he is not ready for or does not enjoy can sour his impression of learning. Instead, give him as many new experiences as possible outside preschool. He learns best when he is having fun.

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