Ready for Preschool

“After my son’s third birthday next month, he will be eligible for specialized classes at our local school,” wrote one mom. “What can I do to help him get ready for that experience?” Other parents, teachers, and therapists have asked for some specifics about the skills a pre-schooler with autism might need to develop before regularly participating in group activities. The world of school is very different from home, so it is probably wise to equip our youngsters with some basic skills as they enter that new world.

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The nature of early childhood education requires youngsters to function in three different worlds, each of which necessitates different skills.

CIRCLE TIME. These teacher-directed group activities or group learning experiences require youngsters to come to the area of the activity and to stay in the area of the activity. In order to get the most out of Circle Time, a youngster would want to participate in group activities. It helps if they pay attention to the teacher’s words and actions as well as multiple visual cues. Circle Time activities also require some measure of impulse control – waiting for the teacher, waiting their turn, keeping hands to self, following directions, and tolerating lots of sounds, sights, and people.

FREE TIME. Many children love recess, but sometimes our friends with autism really struggle with the lack of structure inherent in free-time play. Free time requires them to make decisions about filling that time, to share space and objects with other kids, to play cooperatively or at least tolerate the presence of other kids, and to play independently with minimal supervision and direction from adults. To some extent, the popular technique of having independent play centers or independent learning centers in early childhood classrooms can raise some of the same challenges for youngsters with autism.

TRANSITION. Dealing with the transition between self-directed and teacher-directed activities is a fine art that requires some expertise. A youngster needs to learn to stop what they are doing and come when called, to stand and wait in line, to follow classroom routines without much supervision, to deal with multiple directions, to follow the social cues of their fellow students and of their teachers, and to focus on a task and complete it with minimal assistance.

Yikes! This list makes it sound more challenging to start pre-school than to start graduate school! We will discuss some fun and effective ways to help your pre-schooler with autism learn these classroom survival skills in upcoming podcasts. Meanwhile, just relax and take time to read to your child, to explore and talk about the world around them, and to enjoy each day as it comes.

NOTE TO LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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