Gearing up for preschool can be an exciting time for parents and toddlers. There are pint-sized backpacks to pick out, new friends to meet, and once they’re safely in preschool, coffee that you can finish in one sitting without needing to microwave it for the 100th time!
But even with all that excitement, starting preschool can be tough for toddlers who struggle with separation challenges. Whether this is the first time your child’s been out of your care or if they have been in childcare since birth, it’s normal for young children to feel anxious during the first couple weeks of preschool as they adjust to being away from their parent.
The good news is there are a number of strategies you can try to help take the edge off of this big transition.
First Day Jitters
A huddle of sad children hugging their parents is a pretty common sight at preschool drop off. Saying goodbye to your darling little one while they are begging you not to leave can pull hard on your heartstrings. A child with separation challenges will:
- Cling, cry, and protest when their parents try to leave.
- Appear terrified or worried.
- Bargain, plead, ask for five more minutes with you or one more hug.
- Some preschoolers will cry from joy (or relief) when their parents return.
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for babies and toddlers and preschoolers. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense that a young child would want to stay close to his or her primary caregiver: they provide love and comfort, food, shelter, and everything in between. The goal is to teach your child that their new teacher can provide those things in your absence.
A young preschooler starting school for the first time might think their parents are not coming back for them. It can take days, weeks, or even months in some cases before a preschooler’s anxiety reduces and they can have fun at school, knowing their parents will pick them up when school is done.
In the meantime, there are ways to help:
- Start with a talk. Several weeks before preschool starts, talk with your child about their school: “Soon you will be starting preschool at Sunny Patch School. Your teachers are so excited to read books with you and paint pictures. You will make new friends and have lots of fun!”
- Ask to schedule a visit to the school with your child. While your request may not be granted, some teachers are able to meet for a few minutes to show your child the classroom and make introductions. While there, take some photos of the classroom with your phone or camera so you can look at them with your child the days leading up to school starting.
- Create a social story. Young children like to know what’s coming next. Creating a daily schedule chart or social story that shows what your child will do at preschool. Many preschool teachers use a visual schedule at school, which you could ask to duplicate. Here is a sample social story.
- Plan playdates. If possible, get to know some of the other preschool families over the summer through playdates at your home or at a local park.
- Read books about starting school. Scholastic.com, as well as the Eugene Public Library and Springfield Public Library, offer a great list of books about getting ready for the first day of preschool.
- Create a goodbye ritual like a special handshake or “hug, hug, kiss, kiss, high five, goodbye.”
On The Big Day
When the first day of preschool arrives, tell your child what to expect: “When I take you to Ms. Lindsey’s classroom, we are going to say hello to her and the other children. Then, you will choose a toy to play with. I will give you a big hug and kiss and say goodbye. I’ll come back to pick you up when school is over.”
At the school, help your preschooler get started on an activity you know she likes. When it is time for you to leave, remind your child where you are going and when you will return: “I am going to work now, but I will come back right after your class eats snacks.” Don’t try to slip out the door when your child is distracted unless you have already said you are leaving. Always make sure you say goodbye.
At pickup, show your child how excited you are to see them. Ask questions about what they did, or take a few moments to read a book together.
If your child needs some additional support around this transition consider:
- Reading a book with them in the classroom before school starts.
- Keeping a family photo in your child’s backpack.
- Enrolling your child in a preschool with a high teacher-to-student ratio, so your child can have access to more teacher support.
- Leaving love notes, paper hearts, or stickers in their lunch box.
Starting preschool is a big adjustment for both children and parents. It may take 3 days or 3 weeks to adjust to the new routine. Stay consistent in your approach and offer additional love and support at home as your child navigates the new, exciting world of preschool!
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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