Your child is about to start preschool! This is a wonderful opportunity for your child to develop new friendships, gain new skills, and grow in independence. Of course, this transition can be a time of mixed emotions for both you and your child.
Like so many things in life, preparation is key. Here are some ways to help prepare your little one for their big transition. Try to keep your efforts low-key and lighthearted-conveying excitement and confidence in your child’s readiness for this next chapter.
One or Two Weeks Prior to First Day of School
Visit the preschool if possible. Ideally, your child will have explored the environment and met their teachers before their first day of school. Ask about arranging such a visit if one is not offered. Note: often these visits happen well before two weeks prior to the first day of school and that is perfectly fine.
Read books about going to preschool, take advantage of any opportunities that arise to talk about the feelings the character in the book and/or your child might be feeling. Some of our favorite “first day” books include The Kissing Hand, Llama Llama Misses Mama, and Bye-Bye Time.
If possible, you can also make your own book including pictures of your child’s new preschool: the entrance, the indoor and outdoor environments, the teachers, etc. Photos such as these can often be found on the school website, and if you can snap some during the visits with your child in them, even better! You can also add to this book as the year goes on. Having a personalized book such as this can make a huge impact for a young child’s sense of belonging in a new space. It also allows a natural way for the child to reflect with you about their day.
Allow your child to select any necessary school gear such as a special backpack, lunchbox, or nap mat of their choosing. Write your child’s name on their personal items together.
Start adjusting your child’s bedtime and morning waking if need be. Try to get them on their “school schedule” prior to their first week if possible. You can adjust the timing by 15 minute increments each night/morning for a smooth transition.
The Day/Night Before Preschool
During daytime hours, mention that school will be starting the next day. Answer any last-minute questions that may arise. Explore feelings if need be, acknowledging and normalizing ambivalence or mixed emotions. Convey confidence in your child’s ability to handle change.
Let your child choose their outfit for the first day of school if that is something that works in your home. Some children do better with fewer choices, you know your child best.
Create a visual routine for their morning including breakfast, special time (see note below), getting dressed, bathroom, teeth, shoes, etc. This visual checklist can work wonders to give your child a sense of ownership and independence during this daily transition out the door.
Pick a bedtime that gives your child a good night’s rest before his or her first day. Keep the bedtime routine soothing and relaxing.
At bedtime don’t focus too much (or at all!) on the first day of school unless your child initiates the topic.
The First Day
Wake up early enough to allow ample time for your morning routine so you and your child don’t have to rush to get to school on time. If possible, leave enough time for some floor time or special time with your child before you head out. This emotional connection with you can help to ease the morning time transition and “fill their cup” for a day independent of their parents.
Make breakfast for your child and, if possible, sit down to eat together.
Review the day’s routine: what preschool will be like, who will be dropping off and picking up.
Let your child choose a special stuffed animal or blanket to bring to school with her. These “loveys” can help children make the transition from home to school, and can also make naptime easier, too. You may want to send your child with a family photo or favorite book as well. These familiar objects can help if she feels lonely during the day.
Plan to stay a little while. Staying for up to 15 minutes on that first morning can help ease the transition. Together, the two of you can explore the classroom, meet some other children, and play with a few toys. When you see that your child is comfortable it is time to leave. If he is having a harder time getting engaged you may want to ask your child’s teacher to stay with your child as you say good-bye so when you leave he can turn to another caring adult for support.
Think about creating a special good-bye routine. For example, you can give your child a kiss on his or her palm to “hold” all day long. Or, the two of you can sing a special song together or read a book together before you leave. Good-bye routines are comforting to children and help them understand and prepare for what will happen next.
DO NOT SNEAK AWAY. It might be tempting to sneak out when you see your child is occupied, but your little one will feel more afraid and insecure if you suddenly disappear.
Say goodbye. Keep your tone positive and upbeat. Children pick up on the reactions of the trusted adults in their lives. Try not to look worried or sad (even if you are), and don’t linger too long. Say a quick, confident good-bye and reassure your child that all will be well. “Mommy/Daddy always comes back”.
Resist the urge to rescue. It is natural for your child to feel a little sad. If you hear your child crying try not to run back in the classroom to help them. Instead allow the teachers to comfort your child and get them acclimated. If you run back in it could send the message that he is only okay if you are there, and it will likely prolong your child’s distress and make it harder for them to adapt. Even if you have to run to your car afterward and have a good cry, it is important to display confidence in your child, her school, and her teachers while you are in front of your child. After all, they will take their cues from you about how comfortable they should be with this transition!
Rest assured, teachers are adept at helping children adapt to their new environment. They will typically contact you if your child seems too distraught for an extended period of time.
Take care of yourself! Emotions can arise for parents too, especially if you have left your crying child behind. Express your feelings to a trusted friend or partner and practice good self-care during this time of transition for yourself as well!
Wishing you and your family a smooth and happy start to the school year!
-Karin Appleton and the ECM team