The start of preschool is an exciting and joyful milestone in your family’s life, but certainly it can come with anxiety and even some fear for both parents and kids. Much of the anxiety in your child develops from the unknown- your child does not know what to expect. New rules, routines and people represent challenges to their current way of life, and as we know, change can be hard for anyone! In this case, information can be a powerful tool. Visit your preschool more than once and be sure to meet the teachers and talk about school in a very matter-of-fact way. Take photos of the school, classroom centers, and the teachers before you start and use the photos to talk about school and even make up fun stories about things that your child could do in the block or imagination area- or works of art he or she could create at the easel. Be sure your child understands that he or she is going “towards” something new and exciting- not dwelling on the fact that they will be “away” from home.
As parents, we can feel uncertain that we made the right choice: “Is he/she ready to be away from home?” “Will he/she feel abandoned?” “Did I choose the right school?” Parents, too, should visit their preschool choice more than once and at different times of the day. Ask to observe the classroom your child will join for an extended period of time. Pick up on the interactions between teachers and children and between the children to be sure that your child is entering a loving community where he or she will be valued as an individual. If you haven’t given your child many experiences away from you, it might be a good idea to arrange some playdates – most schools will connect you with other families in your child’s class before the first day of school. It will be nice for both you and your child to see a couple of friendly faces during those first few days of school. Most importantly, try not to let your child see any hint of your anxiety. Keep it light, while still being sure that your child feels heard and that their feelings are normal – whether there is fear or excitement. If your child expresses concern, hear them, and then balance the conversation with questions such as “do you think there will be blue paint at school?” “what is your favorite thing about the playground?” to keep them focused on the concrete and the positive, as opposed to the “what-ifs.”
Here are some more tips about making it through those early weeks of school as tear-free as possible:
- Read The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn, a warm story about a racoon mother and son who is going to school for the first time. There are many children’s books about the first day of school, but none better than this one! Create something with your child for each of you to keep while he or she is at school, such as the heart in this story, or matching bracelets, so that you can think about each other during the day.
- Try not to linger more than a few minutes in the classroom at drop-off time, but don’t sneak out either! Arrive a few minutes before program start time so that you aren’t walking into a full room. Help your child put their things away, lead them to an interest area, greet other children together, and let them know that you can’t wait to hear about what they build in the block area when you see them after lunch (or after nap time).
- Create a goodbye ritual with your child, such as two kisses on the cheek and a high-five. Review the routine with your child in the weeks before school starts. For example, “After we wake up, first we will have cereal for breakfast, then we will get dressed, then we will get your backpack, then we will…and finally, then we will give each other our high-five.” Drawing pictures of each part of the routine can help your child learn to review the routine themselves. Don’t forget to review the routine for the end of the day, such as “after lunch you will take a nap, and then you will have a snack, and then I will be back to pick you up.” Your child’s teacher can help you pick out milestones of the day to use in your schedule.
- Create a small bag of comfort items to bring to school. This might include a small new stuffed animal (a “lovey”), a family picture, or something “special” that belongs to mom or dad that they can hold on to for “safe keeping.”
- There is nothing quite as exciting for a child as picking out a new lunchbox and backpack. Pack both together during the first few days so he or she has some familiarity and ownership over the process. Review the list of “to-bring” items that the school provides and have your child “check off” as they go in the backpack.
- Pay attention to the physical wellness of your child, especially during these early weeks of school. Adequate sleep, water, and protein can do wonders for your child’s overall wellbeing, especially if they are experiencing emotional stress.
Finally, remember that brief periods of tears at drop-off are completely normal. If you hear or see them cry when you leave, resist the temptation to go back in the room. This sends mixed messages and could actually prolong the adjustment period for your child. Call the school after you leave to be sure that your child has calmed down. If the tears last more than a few minutes or continue beyond the first couple of weeks at school, set up a time to meet with the teachers to discuss your child’s experience at school and how everyone involved can better support your child during the transition period.
Moms and dads, when you feel your own tears start to well up, take comfort in the fact that preschool is good for your child: they are developing independence, social-emotional skills, new interests, communication skills, and how to be a part of a community.