Home to School Transition Tips for Parents
The key word here is “unhurried”. You know how you feel when you are in a rush. Now multiply that by your child’s age and you have the stress level of a hurried preschooler in the beginning of the year.
Planning for unhurried and happy transitions starts long before the first school day. There are several things you can do in the weeks, days and night before school to help prepare your child (and you) for a relaxed and comfortable start to the school year.
Plan ahead for a smooth first day.
• Countdown: Several days before your child begins the new program, start a “countdown” with him by marking the days off on a calendar. Invite him to help you collect his school supplies. Let him decide what to wear and what to take for lunch.
• Transportation: Make sure your child knows how she will get to and from the school-for example, in the car with you or another relative, in a car pool, with the driver, or on a yellow bus.
• Backpack and lunchbox: Before school starts, help her be excited about starting school by empowering her to pick out a backpack. If she is staying all day, she’ll need a lunchbox. Fill it with food you know she already likes. Keep in mind everything you have to fit in these items. In her backpack she may need pulls-ups, a special blankie or stuffed animal, pacifier, crib sheet and small pillow.
• Independent skills: If your child is staying all day, ask her to help you prepare her lunch. She can stand next to you on a stool while you give her choices such as grapes or raisins, Grape or Strawberry Jelly, and orange or apple juice. That way, she’ll feel like she has some control and will also begin to understand what is really happening that day.
• Communicate: Tell her it is okay to be afraid, but that there are always adults to help her and she can ask for help anytime. Promise her that you will pick her up in a few hours or after a certain activity at school – like when the teacher sings a certain song or reads the last book of the day.
• Practice: Take a drive or walk by the school. If possible, play in the playground. Any familiarity your child has with the place will make the transition and the “good-byes” easier.
• Pretend Play: Young children are more confident when they know what is ahead. Do a pretend practice run of the start of school. Act out getting up, brushing teeth, having breakfast, getting in the car or bus, arriving at school and most importantly, saying good-bye!
• Make an appointment to visit the preschool with your child before she starts.
Help your child list things she wants to find out about the program. For example, she might want to know the teachers’ names, where the restroom is, and whether the class takes naps. Take the list along on your visit.
Arrange to meet staff members and children so your child will know a few people by name before starting the school.
Ask what the staff does to help families prepare for a child’s first days. Are family members welcome to stay in the classroom with the child during the first week or two? Can children bring comfort items (such as teddy bears or family photographs) to keep close at hand? Etc…
After the visit, talk with your child about what you found out. For example, did he find the restroom? Did he learn the teachers’ names?
• Set up a Play Date: If possible, find out the names of the other children in the class. Perhaps you know a family and can set up a time for the children to play together before the start of school. Then when he gets to school there will be a familiar “face” to play with. Some teachers make a point of connecting families ahead of time either by email or phone.
• Play a “Go-Away and Come-Back” Game: One of the hardest things for your young child to understand is that when you go away you will come back. Play a simple game that illustrates that even when you can’t see something (or someone… like you!) it is never really gone. Place a small toy on a table. Ask him to tell you where it is. Then put a small towel or scarf over it. Where is it now? Take the cover off and there it is again. Explain that just like the toy…you will always come back and are never far away.
• Bring something to the teacher: Young children like to give gifts! A flower, a special shell you found this summer, even a beautiful leaf gathered on the way to the program’s door…all of these make a wonderful “transitional object” for your child and helps him make a connection with the teacher. Once he is engaged with the teacher it will be easier to say good-bye.
• Create healthy habits for saying goodbye.
If you bring your child into the classroom, NEVER leave without letting her know you are going, even if you know that she will be upset when you go. Tell staff members that you must leave; they can comfort her and get her interested in an activity.
When you enter the classroom on the first day, calmly reintroduce the teacher to your child, and then step back to allow the teacher to begin forming a relationship with your child. Your endorsement of the teacher will show your child that he or she will be happy and safe in the teacher’s care.
If your child clings to you or refuses to participate in the class, don’t get upset — this may only upset your child more.
• Kisses, Kisses, Kisses. Read a good book such as The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn (Tanglewood Press) and talk about how many kisses your child will want before you go. Create a kissing ritual. Or trace his hand on paper, add a lipstick print of your kiss and give this to your child to take to school. He can kiss it whenever he misses you!
• Take your time: A hurried start to the day gets everyone rattled. Get up early, plan for a good breakfast and joyfully head out the door. You can also ask your child to choose the clothes and toy he wants to take to school the night before. This saves time and avoids arguments.
• Keep you attention on your child: Once you get to school it is important to not be distracted by talking to other parents. At this point in the year he needs your full attention before you leave. Remember, young children have an amazing ability to know if you are getting anxious to leave and will start to cling.
Young children can pick up on their parents’ nonverbal cues. When parents feel guilty or worried about leaving their child at school, the kids will probably sense that.
The more calm and assured you are about your choice to send your child to preschool, the more confident your child will be. Make the whole experience as fun as possible. Tell her stories about when you were a little girl and how much you liked school. Sing songs. Try a spin-off version of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Make it, “If you’re excited to go to school, clap your hands!” Be excited, smile a lot, and be happy for her.
• Share an activity together: Many programs will provide simple activities for parents and children to do together before they say their good-byes. For example, you can draw a picture together, put together a simple puzzle, read a favorite (short) book together, or have “tea” in the dramatic play area. It is helpful to encourage another child to join in so that your child has someone to play with when you leave. Let your child know that when the activity is finished you will go but will be back at the end of the program.
• When will you come back? This is one of the hardest questions to answer since young children are just developing a sense of time. Saying “in three hours” means nothing but “after snack” makes some sense because it is related to an experience that means something to him. Ask the teacher if you can make a time line book of the activities in school from the beginning of the day to the end. You can draw pictures or take photos for each event (circle time, art, music, story time, snack, playground, going home) and put them together in sequential order in a little album or book. That way when your child wonders if it is time for you to come back he can look in his book and see how many more activities are ahead until you come back to get him!
• Listen and watch. If you stay calm and centered and take time to appreciate your child’s personal experience of this important transition you can learn a great deal about your child. Appreciate his process and timing without having your own agenda for how you want the separation to go.
As you well know, our little ones are great teachers that can help us see what is truly important in life.
About the Author
Set up your own First American-format preschool, preschool in India, Play School, powered by Prof. Ellen Booth Church of USA.