Going to school for the first time can be difficult for children and for parents. Whatever the reason you decided it was time for your child to begin school, whether it be their age, that you have to work and need childcare, that they could benefit from more social interaction, you want them to be ready for kindergarten, you want them to learn more about social and environmental responsibility, rest assured that preschool is a positive experience for children…even if it brings about some hesitation in you (totally natural) and some struggles with your child (totally normal). I’ve created a list of things you should know about preschool and separation as well as some tips and tricks for you to handle this transition. School is like a job and it’s just as important for you to teach your child that school is a positive part of life, as it is for us to show your child that learning is fun. They are getting prepared for a long educational journey and together we are setting the tone.
Tips for a successful entry to school/separation from parents
- Talk about school in advance. Tell them why they are going to school (because that’s what big boys/girls do/so you can learn/so that you can have fun with friends/so that mommy can go to work). Tell them you carefully chose this school because you know it is safe and good for them. Tell them that their teachers are fun people you trust to keep them safe. Liken going to school with your work.
- Parents should make a calendar highlighting their child’s school days. This will help them realize that not all days are school days, and what days are school days. The night before school days, especially the first one, refer to the calendar. Use this calendar for a variety of events planned such as grandma’s visit, when they will go to the zoo, what night you have agreed to go out for ice cream. This calendar will help your child feel they have understanding and thus control over their time. It could be an invaluable tool for you and your child.
- Warn them that it might be hard to say goodbye and plan a special ‘goodbye’ routine…a special handshake, a note in their cubby basket, a special whispered phrase, waving through the window-be creative! Remind them you will ALWAYS come back for them. NEVER sneak out! ALWAYS say goodbye, even if it brings about tears…it’s okay for them to feel sad…teachers will help them process their feelings while at school. We have an interactive feelings chart that helps us to talk about feelings with your child. You can talk about their feelings after school, too.
What if coming to school becomes an issue?
- Remind your child why you carefully chose this school…because you know it is safe and good for them. Tell them that their teachers are people you trust. Liken going to school with your work. Remind them you will ALWAYS come back to get them.
- The morning of the school day reiterate this message and give your child lots of choices…what to have for breakfast, what to wear, what snuggly item to bring, would they like a photo of mom and dad to put in cubby, which photo, if she would like to say goodbye inside or outside the classroom door, and keep the subject on all the choices she/he DOES have. When fussed that she/he doesn’t want to go…mom and dad can say that’s not a choice, but you CAN choose…your pink shirt or your brown shirt/the picture of mommy and daddy alone or the one with baby, etc.
- Bring your child (even if she/he is kicking and screaming because at this point she/he may go ‘all out’ to see if she can change mom and dad’s mind as if her life depended on it) and do as planned…do your special goodbye routine and then leave her with the teacher even if she is upset. If you need it, teachers can call or text updates throughout the day.
- Pick-up time: talk about how proud they are of her for going to her ‘job’ (school). Give lots of appropriate choices at home.
- The key is to bring the child to every school day from that point, without letting the child be in charge of that but giving her more appropriate things to be in charge of (lots of choices). Being in charge is scary for preschoolers, and they will actually feel better and safer knowing that the grown-ups are in charge and are confident in their choices. Refer to your child’s calendar often-hang it somewhere nice like her bedroom or in a common area. Add other things to the calendar…when they are going to the zoo, when grandma comes to visit, when her doctor appt. is, etc. The calendar will be a tool she can use to feel she has control over her time at the same time, knowing that there are things that are going to happen that are not negotiable.
- Schedule a conference with your child’s teachers and the director. Talking openly about the issue will bring about understanding on both sides. We want your input, it will help us understand your family and your child and how to help. Please always feel free to ask for our help. We are here for you!
Possible reasons your child might begin to protest going to school
- Things are different at preschool. Preschool has a different set of rules, routines, and there are some things in preschool that are non-negotiable. At Sprouts Academy Preschool, we follow the childrens’ interests and learn through play, but within a structure that is not as loose as the home environment. For example, children do not have the freedom to be alone. They must be supervised at all times. A child that enjoys being alone in his room at home may take time to become accustomed to being around people all day. He may say he doesn’t like school but not be able to verbalize why. We need to be thinkers and detectives to help them process their feelings and needs. “How is home and preschool different?” is a good question to explore. Take a look at our schedule to see. If necessary, volunteer to stay one whole morning to get a feel for the structure. You may find out a way to help your child at home in dealing with the transition to school. The child who spends time alone in his room at home may just need time alone when they get home from preschool to decompress from being around people all day. Of course a preschooler probably wouldn’t be savvy enough to know this, figure this out, or to express this.
- Children aren’t always aware of their feelings and especially often not aware of WHY they feel a certain way. Your child may not want to go to school but not be able to tell you why. “Making separation” can bring your child moments of unpleasant emotions such as sadness or worry. There could also be a realization that school will be a regular routine, not just play-dates or a special event. Sometimes this realization happens a few days or weeks into school. Parents may be looking for a reason why their child doesn’t want to go to school. Did something happen? Is my child not ready for school? Just remember that they may not be able to tell you why…it may be too complicated or feelings-based.
- Temperament is different for each child. Also, reasons for ‘acting out’ are different for different children. According to Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, (who writes books and has a website dedicated to guiding child behavior that I would highly recommend), there are two common reasons that children act out…to seek attention to feel belonging, or to seek power to feel belonging. If having power/being in control is how your child feel like they are loved/important/belong, they can show quite difficult behavior around the matter of going to school, really digging their heels in if they decide they do not want to go or use school as a test of their power and control. There are some things that children need to know are non-negotiable. Children feel safer knowing that they have boundaries than they do when they run the show. Being in charge at such a young age confuses and scares children on a deeper level. Choices are extremely important at this age for all children, but especially for children that seem to feel the need to control things. Choices over many aspects of their life: dressing themselves, certain meal choices…”this or that” choices are great because they give the child a choice without it being too much. Before any issues arise over water at the park, a choice of “Would you like to bring your own bottle of water to the park or drink from the drinking fountain?” is one of a thousand examples I can think of. Always offer appropriate choice…build it in to your day and your child will feel and be appropriately powerful.
With a particularly difficult situation
Occasionally with difficult separations, I will suggest the creation of a social story to use at home or at school or both. Creating a social story about your child’s particular situation with guiding words, helping them understand their role, what to expect, what adults expect, and the choices the child has, can be immensely helpful. It is a story all about them, for them. It is a tool. It is read regularly to help instill an understanding of their situation, reassure, and guide behavior. Your teacher may suggest one if the situation calls for it, but certainly let us know if you feel one is needed.