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A young Black woman teacher sits at a classroom table smiling at kindergarten-aged children of various races
With child care becoming increasingly harder to access, California parents are having to navigate kindergarten readiness on their own. Here’s a guide to help. (Getty Images)

How to Prep Your Kid for Kindergarten if They Haven't Been to Preschool

How to Prep Your Kid for Kindergarten if They Haven't Been to Preschool

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t’s a harsh reality that the first few years of being a parent, when you’re operating on little sleep and learning a completely new set of skills, are some of the most important years in a child’s brain development.

America’s child care shortage makes the first few years even trickier for parents to navigate. Seventy-four percent of parents who responded to a nationwide survey in 2022 (PDF) reported that child care was difficult to access. In 2018, The Center for American Progress found that about 51% of Americans and 60% of Californians lived in a “child care desert,” where the supply of licensed child care is not enough to meet the demand.

Finding child care could get even harder when stabilization funding from the federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) ends Sept. 30. One estimate found that funding loss could cause more than 13,000 child care programs in California to close and more than 84,000 kids to lose child care.

That loss in care will likely affect elementary classrooms down the line because child care programs, including preschool, play a huge role in preparing children for kindergarten, and influence kids’ academic performance throughout elementary school.

Many parents want to place their kids in child care, but don’t qualify for state-subsidized care and can’t afford private care. Others either don’t have care close by or the available care doesn’t match up with their work schedules.

So how can parents be sure that their children are growing and learning at a healthy pace without the help of early childhood educators?

No matter the situation, there are still lots of things California parents can do to prepare their children for kindergarten, even if child care and preschool are not viable options. We created this guide with those parents in mind, to help connect them to resources so that they don’t have to face the school readiness challenge alone.

Keep reading to learn why preparing a child for kindergarten is so important, and about the tools available to help California families. Or jump straight to:

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Preparing for kindergarten without child care

California is in the process of expanding transitional kindergarten to include all 4-year-olds, which will help close the school readiness gap for children who don’t have access to private preschool. There are state and federal no-cost or subsidized child care programs for families that receive CalWORKS benefits, for children experiencing homelessness and abuse, some foster children, and for families who meet low-income requirements.

But for the many Californians who don’t qualify for public programs and who cannot find or afford early childhood care on their own, there are some parenting resources and support systems in place.

Statewide initiatives like Early Start and First 5 California offer developmental assessments and tools to help build early literacy and numeracy skills at home. And state programs often contract with local nonprofit organizations to provide culturally-relevant programming. These resources can help parents navigate the first few years when child care is hardest to find and when kids’ neural networks are developing at a rapid rate.

One example of a culturally-relevant resource is the Pasitos program, started by Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County in 2006 to help boost school readiness for the county’s Latinx communities. Resources like Pasitos are especially crucial in Sonoma County, where the supply of licensed care has been decimated by repeated natural disasters — the devastating Tubbs Fire in 2017 resulted in the loss of 15 programs, displacing 444 children practically overnight.

At Pasitos, parents and their kids attend weekly classes, taught in Spanish, at numerous sites throughout the county.

“We are celebrating the ending of the first school year for these children,” said Ingrid Arceo as she looked around at the toddlers swarming the play structure at a neighborhood park in Santa Rosa. “They are in our Primero Pasitos, that’s when they’re 16 months to two years. For some of them, this is their very first time they’re attending a playgroup for any social setting.”

One way that Pasitos prepares students for school is by getting them familiar with routine and structure.

“They have free play at the beginning of their class and then they gather for a circle with the teacher where they sing and read books,” said Arceo. “They talk about different themes every week, like weather, or animals. And then they have an activity that the teacher plans.”

Kids also get a chance to play and work through conflict with other children. That’s especially important because social and emotional regulation is a large component of kindergarten readiness.

A link to early intervention

When Samantha Carranza and her husband calculated what child care would cost, they decided it made more sense for Samantha to stay at home full-time rather than return to work. Carranza and her husband are now celebrating their daughter’s graduation from Primero Pasitos, something they wish they knew about when they were first-time parents.

“My daughter has the advantage of coming to this program and it’s night and day,” said Carranza. “Even a small program like this, when we come for a few hours a week, it’s made a huge difference in my children.”

A table top with with a blue table cloth and cardboard graduation caps and paperwork reading "Primeros Pasitos: Congratulations."
Graduation gifts and certificates ready to be handed out to participants of the Primero Pasitos program in Santa Rosa on May 17. 2023. (Amanda Stupi/KQED)

Carranza’s son has a speech delay. She said if she had enrolled in Pasitos when he was younger, she would have sought help for his delay earlier because the program taught her about developmental timelines.

“I knew that it wasn’t normal for a 2-year-old to have no words,” said Carranza. “When I brought it up to his pediatrician, she said, ‘Well, it’s the middle of the pandemic and he’s a boy. Boys talk a lot later.’ In a way, dismissing me. But at the time it was kind of what I wanted to hear.”

After learning about speech therapy from another parent, Carranza connected with the North Bay Regional Center, part of California’s Early Start Program that offers evaluations and services to kids under the age of 3 who are at risk of having developmental or intellectual disabilities.

“I didn’t really know how serious it is to really make sure that your children are hitting certain milestones,” said Carranza. “And I think a lot of us, we don’t know.”

The advantage of a peer group

Amy Westling, executive director of the Association of Regional Center Agencies, said parents with kids in child care or preschool have an advantage when it comes to identifying developmental differences in their kids.

“When you see children who are about the same age as your child, doing things that your child hasn’t done, it sometimes triggers families to think through perhaps there could be a challenge that their child needs some additional support with,” said Westling.

Similarly, a preschool teacher or caregiver can offer a second opinion when a doctor raises or dismisses concerns.

When doctor visits fall short

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children have preventative check-ins, often called “well visits,” at 12 different times between birth and 3 years of age. These visits should continue once a year after a child turns 3.

AAP recommends that kids receive developmental and behavioral screenings during the 9-, 18- and 30-month well visits, and that kids be screened for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at their 18- and 24-month visits.

But studies indicate that many kids are not being assessed and that developmental delays are being missed. Research shows that white children and children of wealthier and more educated parents are more likely to be screened (PDF).

Early Childhood Education and Care

Westling says that pediatricians and other healthcare providers often don’t have enough time with patients to complete an adequate assessment.

“They often see them for 10 or 15 minutes every three months or so,” said Westling. “They may rely upon families’ identification of concerns to really trigger a more in-depth exploration. But their families don’t have the awareness that the child may be falling behind same-age peers. They may not flag that.”

Families on Medi-Cal should be especially concerned about short visits, says Westling.

“Pediatricians who accept various types of insurance, particularly Medi-Cal, have to make their practices financially viable, oftentimes through high volume.” said Westling. “So it may be that children who have Medi-Cal as their primary insurance may find that their appointment times are shorter than children who have private commercial insurance.”

Sometimes even if a pediatrician takes the time to conduct an assessment, a child may behave differently in a clinical setting, making it harder to discern between a developmental delay and a scared child acting timid.

A kindergarten-age white child high-fives a young Black woman teacher in a classroom
Developmental milestones are important to track because the earlier a child receives help, the more likely they are to overcome a challenge. (Getty Images)

Resources to learn about developmental milestones

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a developmental milestone as something that 75% or more children can do by a certain age.

The milestones help parents and doctors track children’s growth across physical, cognitive, language and social-emotional areas. Examples of milestones include a child’s ability to hold their head up, to point or to string a certain number of words together in a sentence. If a child misses a milestone it could be an indication that they need extra help to fully develop in one area or that they face a more serious disability or health problem.

Milestones are important to track because the earlier a child receives help, the more likely they are to overcome a delay or challenge.

“The most important thing for people to realize is that children can make incredible progress,” said Westling. “And they make the best progress the earlier we can intervene in their lives and in their development. Their little minds are like sponges.”

Resources to learn about kindergarten readiness

There’s no single, standardized checklist for kindergarten readiness skills, largely because there is no state or federal requirement for schools to assess them.

Among the school districts that do track kindergarten readiness, several different assessment tools are used. Sarah Crow, managing director of the First 5 Center for Children’s Policy, says 35 states are in the process of implementing assessments and that 25 counties in California currently track kindergarten readiness.

Most experts agree that kids entering kindergarten should have some exposure to language and reading, numbers and counting, logic and sorting, and some practice regulating emotions and playing with other children their age.

“Readiness, as it’s sort of been defined and studied, is about literacy and numeracy knowledge,” said Crow. “But it also refers to things like the ability to listen and ask questions, express your thoughts and communicate and demonstrate some self regulation, like sit on a rug in a kindergarten classroom.”

Child care providers trained in early childhood development incorporate these skills into daily activities. Similarly, parents may already be teaching these skills without even realizing it — every interaction has potential to be educational for babies and infants (PDF). Still, intention goes a long way and experts have tips for how to incorporate numeracy and literacy into your day-to-day.

Statewide resources for early learning and development

When it comes to finding resources related to child care and child development, three California programs will be key: the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, First 5 California and Early Start.

California Child Care Resource and Referral Network

Each county in California has at least one agency that’s part of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. These offices focus on helping parents find child care and recruiting and training more family child care providers: people who care for small groups of kids in their homes. Even if you’re not looking for child care specifically, these agencies can be a good place to contact.

Sometimes the organizations that have resource and referral (R&R) contracts provide other services as well — think play groups, parenting classes and financial assistance. Each agency varies, but chances are the people working at your local R&R center know about many of the resources in your community.

Look up your local resource and referral agency within the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

First 5 California

First 5 California is a statewide organization with a presence in each county. First 5 was established in 1998 when voters approved Proposition 10, which imposed a tax on tobacco products. The collected funds are divided between First 5 at the state level and a First 5 commission in each county. At a statewide level, First 5 advocates for policies that support children up to 5 years of age and their families. First 5 operates a resource website for parents that’s worth checking out.

Like R&R agencies, each First 5 county commission varies in focus, depending on what challenges families in the region face. Local efforts range from parenting groups to child development classes to tracking kindergarten readiness. Again, if your local First 5 office doesn’t offer a service directly, the people working there likely know who does.

Find your local First 5 office.

Early Start

Early Start is California’s early intervention program for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or those at risk for having a developmental disability. Most people interact with Early Start through one of 21 regional centers throughout the state. Regional centers are agencies contracted by the state to manage services for families with children under 3 years old who have or are at risk of having a developmental disability or delay. Some families are referred to regional centers immediately after birth by a neonatal intensive care unit. Other families may be referred later on by a pediatrician, and still other parents call on their own.

There is no cost for an evaluation, and one is supposed to be conducted within 45 days of when a parent first contacts the center. This FAQ by the California Dept. of Developmental Services is straightforward and may answer many of the questions you have about calling a center (PDF).

Look up an Early Start regional center near you.

Bay Area resources by county for early learning and development

Scroll down to find your Bay Area county below. This guide focuses on programs that can help parents without access to child care make sure their young children are kindergarten-ready. The classes and playgroups here do not require the time or financial commitment of more traditional child care or preschool.

In addition to the local outposts of the larger statewide organizations mentioned above, parents looking to bolster their kids’ school readiness should check out their local libraries and recreation departments.

Bay Area libraries offer much more than traditional storytimes. Kids can dial a number and have a story read to them in English or Spanish — another library has worked to place books in barbershops — and several libraries have project kits that kids can check out.

Most recreation departments offer some kind of financial assistance for classes, but that information is often not easy to find. If cost is preventing you from registering for a class, call your county’s recreation and parks department and ask about scholarships.

Alameda County

Contra Costa County

Marin County

Napa County

San Mateo County

San Francisco

Santa Clara County

Solano County

Sonoma County

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