Every parent wants what’s best for their young child, but parents are often in the dark about the skills their child needs before entering kindergarten. Today, more than ever, the pressure is on to prepare children for what used to be a fun introduction to social skills, exploration, and listening to stories. And that means that school districts are requiring more as children come into their first year of elementary school.

With all this pressure, it’s no wonder preschools and parents alike are eager to be sure children are prepared for school. Unfortunately, many well-meaning preschools are bringing what used to be kindergarten or even first grade expectations into the classroom.

 “When I was looking for a preschool for my son in our new hometown, I found one that looked great on paper. They claimed to be developmentally appropriate and it sounded like a great fit. It turned out to be much more pencil paper work than I had expected and they even had required homework,” said Maureen McCourt Boylan, author of Celebrate Reading, former kindergarten teacher and mother of five. “I wish that I had taken the time to observe in the classroom before I signed my son up. I would have known it would not be a good fit for my child.”

How can parents tell whether their child’s preschool is adequately preparing him for school, or placing way too much pressure on him? While every child is different, and some can handle more “academic” work than others, here are some warning signs that your preschool program may not be teaching the way young children learn best, and putting too much pressure on your child.

Too Much Paper

While it’s nice to have paper “work” to take home occasionally, young children learn best through hands-on, playful activities that involve multiple senses. If your preschooler brings home lots of worksheets, it may be a sign that there’s too much pencil-and-paper work going on at school.

A worksheet on which your child has written 10 letter A’s on dotted lines might make you feel proud, but your child may well have been frustrated by writing if his fine motor skills are not ready for writing on the small lines provided. A more appropriate activity may involve children writing letters in trays of salt, shaving cream or finger paint. Although you will not see the end product, this multi-sensory activity allows your child the opportunity to practice writing without the pressure of making mistakes. This way, your child is learning how to form the letters rather than focusing on connecting the dots or making sure the letters fit inside the lines properly.

There will be plenty of worksheets in elementary school! For now, the important thing is to provide children with hands-on learning that’s also fun.

Too Much Peace and Quiet 

Preschool is a time for learning to cooperate and develop longer attention spans, but some teachers unintentionally place elementary-level expectations on preschool children to sit still and be quiet.

Sitting and listening to a story, having calendar time, and checking the weather are all part of what's called “circle time” in preschool. This 15-20 minute sit-down period is best if it also includes some singing or movement activities to keep children engaged. Asking preschool children to sit longer than 20 or 30 minutes (depending on their age) is an unrealistic expectation, especially if they are not allowed to get their wiggles out in between.

Hands-on games and activities are much more effective at helping young children learn letters, numbers and the other basics of the preschool curriculum, as opposed to long periods of quietly sitting. Ideally, your child should spend most of the day engaged in active (and even noisy) learning and free play rather than sitting at desks or listening to the teacher talk.

Too Much Pressure

Instilling in young children a love of learning is one of the most important aspects of preschool. When preschools become too focused on making sure children are learning advanced skills—especially using methods that are more suited for older children— children can become frustrated and bored by school. Your school shouldn’t be turning your child off to all that he can learn and explore at such a young age. He should be excited to go to school—and he will be if he is being taught in ways that are both engaging and appropriate for his stage of development.

How can you tell if your child is enjoying preschool? It’s normal to have some separation anxiety, especially if preschool is your child’s first experience away from you. However, most children learn quickly that school is fun and will adjust to the routine in the first weeks of school. If your child is refusing to go to school, it may be a sign that the school is not a good match for your child.

Preschoolers’ brains are like little sponges, and they’re capable of memorizing large amounts of information. But your child will spend plenty of time working on academic skills when he gets to elementary school. An introduction with hands-on components is fine, but drilling children to memorize math facts is neither a good use of time nor a fun introduction to learning for young children.

Developmentally appropriate programs meet children at their level and help them learn in ways that are best suited to their learning style. If your child seems to be having trouble adjusting, ask to come and observe class to see if he seems frustrated or bored by what he is being asked to do. It may be that he would benefit from an extra year of preschool … or it could be that the teacher’s expectations are unrealistic for your child.

If it seems like the expectations are too high, express your concerns and ask the teacher or director to explain the philosophy so that you can better understand the methods that are used. You can then make a good judgment about whether the school is a good fit for your child.

Preschool should be a time of learning, but it should also be fun! A preschool that provides your child with the opportunity to learn in ways that encompass his natural desire to engage and explore will provide him with all he needs to be prepared for kindergarten. While he may not have first grade math facts memorized or be able to read, your preschooler's love of school and learning is the most important skill to take into kindergarten.