Preparing Toddlers for School

We have something special this week- a guest post by Ashley Millar of  First Belle! Ashley is a  “TeacherMom.” By day, she’s in the classroom with kiddos, and by “night” (ok, late afternoons and evenings too!), she’s home with her almost 2 year old daughter.

Ashley has made it her mission to help both teachers and moms. Like me, she comes from a Title 1 school teaching background, so she really “gets” what kids need, both at school and at home. Ashley uses her experiences in the classroom to help her be a better mom (and as a result help other moms), while simultaneously helping fellow teachers have more efficient classrooms.  Ashley developed a “Toddler Formula,” which she shared with us. The Toddler Formula can be used to help prepare toddlers (and preschoolers!) for school. And, it’s easy to do at home.


Preparing your toddler for school is easier than you think! Learn simple things you can do at home to prepare your 2-3 year old for school!


Being a Teacher and a Mom is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, you have the educational background for preparing toddlers for school.  On the other hand, however, is the fact that we view our own children through a completely different lens than we view our students.   As an inclusion teacher, I was constantly on the lookout for signs of a learning disability in my daughter, and I’ll admit I was too concerned from the get-go about her reaching certain milestones.

I had to stop- there’s no way to know how she will perform in school, and the best I can do is to arm her with some solid life skills.  Children need to know how to problem solve and be independent.  If you can help them achieve this goal, they will be off to a great start!  So, I reigned it in a bit, and have fallen upon a pretty reliable formula for teaching specific skills to my munchkin.  Surprise, surprise, it closely mirrors my classroom techniques.

The basis for everything I do is self-discovery and independence.  I want kids to realize their potential and what is truly important in life.  If you can instill these qualities at a young age, you’ll have equipped them with the tools they need to be able to learn.

“When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” Jean Piaget

I am big on creating problem-solvers and independent thinkers.  In the classroom, I often take a step back as my students struggle through something to allow them the invaluable triumph of figuring something out.

Step One is to remember to allow them as much of the discovery as possible, THAT is the basis of true learning.

That said, parents are always wondering what they CAN do to prepare toddlers for preschool/kindergarten.  There are countless websites and public-school documents that outline every skill that a 5-year-old needs to be “ready” to begin on day one.  I don’t know about you, but if I have free time, I prefer more entertaining reading material (US Weekly, anyone??)

From my research in both talking to kindergarten teachers and reading our school’s materials, I know the basic concepts needed for beginning kindergarten.  Here is the Cliff’s Notes version:

  1. Recognize basic shapes
  2. Recognize and name the colors in an 8 crayon box
  3. Recognize and name the letters of the alphabet (upper and lowercase, out of order)
  4. Count to 20, count objects aloud
  5. Recognize their name
  6. Basic Literacy Skills (properly hold a book/rhyming words/turning pages/some letter sounds)
  7. Independence Skills (put away toys, raising hand, put on shoes, wash hands, basic manners)

This is a very general list.  Every child may not accomplish everything before entering school, but it’s a good guideline.  When preparing toddlers to enter preschool, or teaching them from home, we’ve got to start with the basics!

Over the last year, I have zeroed in on my Toddler Formula!  Here it is:

Repetition + Consistency + Real Life Application

With these 3 steps, you can break down nearly any skill into manageable bits and help toddlers learn.

Let’s See it in action!

Preparing Toddlers for School

The Circle Doesn’t Fit in the Square Hole- Learning Shapes

Practicing shapes is a great early math skill for toddlers.

Belle practicing shapes


Remember those shape ball toys from when you were little?  Get one!  Belle loves hers and it has been the most-used item we have for shape identification.  First, I started saying every shape and putting each into it’s respective hole, before she could really even do it.  I repeated this a lot in front of her so she understood the concept and that each piece has a name.


I didn’t do this part with the shapes concept, but if you are really on top of things, try to present the shapes to your toddler in the same order each time.  This consistency helps them know what to expect and children gain confidence from knowing what is coming.  Once they know them fairly consistently, start to mix things up a bit so they identify each out of context

Real Life Application:

Name the shape for them, but allow toddlers to push and twist the shapes until they learn how and where they fit.  Obviously, some assistance on your part will be required, within reason, but don’t just show them right off the bat every time.  If you have a Miss Bossy-Know-It-All like me, she will actually get mad if you try to help her!  Kids want a shot at the discovery, and it adds to their confidence when they know you believe in their ability.


Use what you have at home! Bowls make for great color practice AND keep babies and toddlers occupied while you're in the kitchen.

Color practice by playing with Mommy’s bowls!


Use what you have in front of you!  Belle learned her colors by playing in my closet.  Every morning during the school year she was in there with me getting my clothes out.  As I picked out my outfit, I would say, “blue dress,” or “pink shirt.”  Over time, she began naming the colors on her own.


First, it was only black and pink, then all of a sudden, they all came tumbling out!  It doesn’t take much time, but the consistency makes all the difference.  Name every color you see, everywhere!  Even when they name it wrong, just tell them the correct name and move on.  Eventually, it will “click!”

Real Life Application:

When toddlers are old enough to color with crayons, encourage them to ask for the color they want, and comment on their drawings by naming the colors they used.  Also, be sure to present varying shades of the same color by the same name.  Mommy’s dress may be Navy, and the sippy cup periwinkle, but by naming them all “blue” toddlers will begin to generalize.


Chalk is a great learning tool! It's versatile, readily available, and fun.

Chalk letters! Mae is her middle name.


Letters, letters, everywhere!  Start with Uppercase letters, as these are a bit easier to differentiate.  A simple ABC book will do.  I actually taught her the letters out of order unintentionally, since she would point to the animals in the book that she liked best, then I would say the letter on that page.  Eventually, we moved on to others and made our way through the entire alphabet.  Sing the alphabet song all the time, and whenever possible, point to each letter as you say it.  


Her ABC book became the “potty book” that we read every time she sat on her potty.  Just those few minutes a day of identifying each letter for her and saying the name out loud led to big payoffs after a few weeks.

Real Life Connection:

Wherever you are, show her the letters and either name them, or ask her to.  At restaurants, we “read” the menu.  At the store, she reads the letters on the signs.  In a parking lot once she got so excited about the letters on the license plates!  So we read those, too.  Teaching them that letters (words) are everywhere, lays the groundwork for literacy skills.

Another great toy that helped for learning letters was the Melissa & Doug K’s Kids 2-in-1 Talking Ball Educational Toy – ABCs and Counting 1-10.  Although it’s called a “talking ball” it does NOT talk (thank goodness) and for some reason, Belle really took to playing with it and naming the letters she saw.  I think perhaps the novelty of seeing letters not in a book, but on a toy, made this more fun!

We have not started lowercase letters yet, but I will probably start over my Summer Break.  I plan on using the same tactic of repetition + consistency, and application.

1,2,3’s- Learning to Count!

Fun, cheap activity for counting AND color practice! Plastic Cups!

Fun, cheap activity for counting AND color practice! Plastic Cups!


In preparing toddlers to count, start off by simply counting out loud and showing them the number that you are saying.  There are tons of number books out there, but you don’t have to purchase the latest LeapFrog pad to teach letters and numbers!  Just write them on paper, stick them on the fridge and refer to them! (Preparing toddlers for school doesn’t need to cost a fortune!)


Wherever possible, count items that will have the same amount each time, such as:

  • Putting on shoes, “one shoe, two shoes!”
  • Counting your pets: How many animals? One, two, three!
  • How Many chairs at the table? One, two, three, four, five!
  • How many hands do you have?

In addition, count in sequence often, just so that they hear you. When I say count everything, I mean EVERYTHING!  We count the stairs as we walk down, the pretzels as I give them to her, the toys as we put them away, Mommy’s shoes (we don’t tell Daddy this number), literally everything.

And tedious as it may seem, their little minds need it!

Real-Life Application:

Once the foundation is there, begin to build a working knowledge of numbers by asking “how many” of something your child wants.  How many crackers? (Guide their responses first, such as “How about 3?” and counting out 3), One more jump (then count it), 5 more throws (then count them).  You get the idea!

My daughter is now counting the items I have in the cart at Target (again, something we don’t share with Daddy).

Basic Literacy Skills

Basic literacy skills for toddlers and preschoolers

Just chillin’ reading my book!


Preparing your toddler for school is easier than you think! Learn simple things you can do at home to prepare your 2-3 year old for school!

I could honestly write an entire post JUST dedicated to literacy skills, (and I probably will now that I think about it!)  But in the meantime, focus on modeling proper book etiquette:

Show them how to hold a book and which way to turn the pages.

Read the title aloud with the cover showing, and at the end of the book say “the end” out loud as you close it to the back cover.

Show toddlers that we don’t treat books like toys, they should always be on a shelf or bin when not in use, don’t throw them around.


Read to your children every day without fail!  Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes, it will build their vocabulary and communication skills exponentially more than if you didn’t.

Have a set story time each night!  Reading is always recommended as part of a nighttime routine to settle down, and if you can add other times in throughout the day-before naps perhaps- all the better!

Real Life Application: 

Visit the library.  Point out how the books are organized and how the other children are treating them.  Have your child pick out a book to read together and return it to its proper place.



Whew…that’s a LOT of information!  If you’re still with me, congrats because this one is my personal favorite!

Independence and Social Skills!

Goal: To raise a human being that is not derailed by minor inconveniences or when things don’t go his/her way. To raise someone who is kind to others.

Basically, I don’t want to raise a butthole.


The specific skills needed for school can be practiced and rehearsed, but it won’t mean a thing if your child can’t do anything for herself when you leave her.  I know it’s hard, I catch myself all the time, but STOP CATERING TO YOUR CHILD’S EVERY WHIM!

We are often so quick to head off a tantrum that we will run around the house like a crazy person looking for the correct paci, or rushing to their aid when they fall. It is not helping our kids.

In our house, we repeat the phrase, “I’m tough!” with Belle all the time when she tumbles down.  As she looks to see that we are not freaking out, she decides she doesn’t need to either.  She is learning how to manage her emotions and reactions via OUR emotions and reactions.  Repetition is key to everything, so certain words/phrases should be echoed all the time for toddlers to pick up on them.

Phrases that should be on a loop:

  • Please
  • Thank you
  • I’m Sorry (parents should say it, too!)
  • I love you
  • Share, please
  • Help, please

Repeat them in all applicable situations, and ‘give them a script’ when needed.  Teach your children what to say and when, so they are able to communicate needs and wants respectfully.


Even when it’s inconvenient, remain consistent with your discipline and wording.   It never fails that right before we have to leave the house, Belle dumps the dog’s water bowl out.  Ughhhh!!!

If I am late to your party, it was probably because I was making her sit in time out. Then say “I’m sorry” to the dog, give her a hug, and having her help to wipe it up.

Which brings me to…

Real-Life Application: 

Cleaning up after playing with Mommy’s bowls!

Even as toddlers, they can learn to clean up after themselves!  And they should!  If your toddler spills something, show them how to wipe it up.  Obviously, it won’t be super helpful, but the mindset that you have to help clean up when you make a mess will develop over time.

In addition, small “chores” are a great way to build responsibility and independence in little ones.  Some age-appropriate tasks are:

  • putting toys away when finished
  • placing books on the shelf
  • putting clothes in the hamper
  • feeding themselves
  • closing doors/drawers when not in use
  • putting a dirty plate in the sink (with help)
  • throwing small trash items away

Bring the social skills outside the home, too!

When you’re at the store and the nice old lady comes to pinch their cheeks, guide them to say “hello” and/or “thank you” when appropriate.


To sum up 2,000 or so words, allow your child the process of learning.  It is 100% okay for a child to be frustrated for a few minutes as they figure something out.  Guide them, but try not to rob them of the discovery.  This is how they will remember what to do next time.  This is how they will truly learn.


Through repetition, consistency, and application, toddlers will learn the skills they need for kindergarten, but remember that independence and problem-solving will carry them farther than any one skill.  Prepare toddlers for real life, and they will figure out the rest!


I hope you enjoy teaching/playing with your munchkins this summer!  While you’re outside, grab some chalk and use this Teaching With Chalk guide for some fun learning activities you can do in your driveway!  Click to download!

Teaching your child with chalk is fun, easy, and educational. FREE printable from It's a great way to prepare your toddler for school.


Don’t you just love this advice and Ashley’s insight?! Read more of her helpful tips over at First Belle and check out her FREE resources. You can also find Ashley on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.