Q. I'm concerned about starting my daughter in nursery school this month.

She is only 32 months old but will, of course, be placed with the 3-year-olds. Besides possibly being the youngest child in her class, she also is small for her age and timid around bigger, aggressive children. Will nursery school (twice a week for 2 1/2 hours) benefit her or will it be better to wait another year?

I still feel quite guilty about going back to work and worry that maybe it's made her more insecure, instead of independent -- perhaps because I had such a hard time leaving her at home.

A. Nursery school is probably A. just what your little girl needs.

A good one has activities for the gentle child as well as the rowdy one. Every temperament and interest is welcomed. The variety of activities not only will teach her how to do many things better but will help her discover that her strengths are stronger than she thought and that she has others she never knew were there.

This will give her more confidence and with it, more self-esteem. Most of her confidence, however, will come from her competition with other children. The encounters she wins will be all the sweeter for those she loses.

It's hard for an only child to get this same sense of success from her parents, who are such pushovers, or from most surrogate parents, who may love well, but still don't challenge her. Your child needs to test her mettle against her own kind.

The schedule you have is especially good because it only calls for her to do this testing twice a week. This is an ideal way to begin nursery school -- a toe in the water, as it were -- and it will be made even better if you give her a little extra time when she doesn't expect it or ask for it.

Nursery school will occasionally be hard for her until she finds her niche and learns to deal with the tougher (and more glamorous) classmates, but it should stop being scary in a few weeks.

If it doesn't, the solution is simple. There's nothing written in stone that says your child has to keep going if she's unhappy, or that she has failed if you take her out. You and her dad are the only ones who can give her that idea.

Your reactions are more obvious than you think, for a child is born with a special radar. Her antennae pick up your feeling -- feelings you hardly admit to yourself -- and when they're strong enough for you to notice, you can be sure they register with her.

If you still feel guilty for going out to work, she might think something's wrong about the going. Because a 2-year-old is an egocentric soul, however, she might figure that you don't want to go, and that somehow she's chasing you away. And if you're afraid for her to go to nursery school, she's going to have a sense of unease about it, for fear is more contagious than anything else. By giving her trust, you're telling her that you respect her enough to send her off on her own. This in itself had made many a child feel independent.

If it works out, she can escalate to a 3-day week next year, and then to a different 5-day nursery school or pre-kindergarten the following year, so that she starts kindergarten at 5 3/4 and first grade at 6 3/4. And that's really the crux of your concern: The timetable of your child doesn't quite mesh with the world. That's why you draw your own.

It's almost always wiser for a child with a late birthday to start elementary school the following year. This would be especially true if you had a boy, since boys usually need an extra six months to be mature enough for school.

Like the big frog in the little pond, a slightly older child has an edge over her classmates. School work comes a little easier, socializing is more comfortable, stamina is better and bodies are big enough to stay upright in most pushing matches on the playground.

Since your child is a January baby, however, the question probably won't be considered. Today most schools require first graders to be 6 by January 1st if not sooner (and kindergarteners must be 5). Even if your daughter could start school early, you can say no, and without regret. An extra year in pre-school will be fine, as long as it keeps her interest.