It's that time of year again; little ones will be venturing out, some for the first time, to a new and exciting place, PRESCHOOL! For those children who have never attended child care or been away from parents for an extended amount of time, this can be a fun yet a little scary experience. But there's a lot you can do to get ready for the big day. Keep your efforts low key; if you make too big a deal of this milestone, your child may feel more worried than excited. Also, here are a few things you can do to prepare your child; and yourself too.
Start by reading stories about preschool. Choose books that include typical preschool activities, as well as those that deal with separation. Point to the pictures and ask your child how the different characters might be feeling. Don't be surprised if they want to read these books over and over. This is how children process new ideas and work through feelings.
Help your child picture what preschool will be like. Take turns playing the roles of Mommy, kid, and teacher. Act out saying good-bye to Mom and hello to the teacher. When you get tired of that scenario, add other activities, like snack time and finger painting.
Schedule a visit to the school. Seeing the classroom, meeting the teachers, and playing with the toys can make this transition easier. Familiarity helps children feel safe.
Answer your child's questions, even if they're difficult. It's important to respond honestly, in language they can understand. ("Yes, I will leave you for a little while, but I will come back to get you at lunchtime" or whenever their program is over for the day).
Prep your child about the day's routine. Talk about what preschool will be like, how your child will get to school/come home, and what they will do during the day. If your child is bringing lunch, pack their favorites. Let them choose a special stuffed animal or blanket to bring. They can leave it in their cubby or near their coat hook. Just knowing it's there should be a source of comfort for them.
Stay, play, and say good-bye. Plan to hang around for about 15 to 20 minutes on the first day. Together, you and your child can explore the classroom and meet other children. Find an activity they enjoy to ease the transition. Once they're involved in the activity, it's time to go. Let the teacher know you're heading out. Sometimes separation is easier when another caring adult can provide support when you leave.
When you say good-bye, stay positive. Your child is watching your reaction to figure out how they should feel. If you appear worried or upset, they may feel more fearful. Say a quick, upbeat good-bye, tell them that yes, you will both miss each other, but they will have a great day. And remind them you'll (unless someone else will be picking them up, then let them know who that will be) be coming back to get them when preschool is done for the day.
Resist the rescue. Don't run back to the classroom if you hear your child crying. They may, quite understandably, feel sad and a little scared. But if you return to the classroom, you might prolong their distress. Have confidence that the teacher knows how to deal with these situations. If you're worried, call the school a little later to see how they are doing.
There may also be times when they say things such as "Mommy, don't go" or say they don't want to go to school the night before. Toddlers have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings, so when they say "I don't like school," it can mean many things: I had a bad day; I don't know how to ask other kids how to play; I miss you. Or it could mean something else entirely - maybe they really don't like the program. Sit down with your child's teacher, share what your child has told you, and ask how things have been going. If there are indeed challenges, brainstorm together how to make the school experience a more positive one. Just remember, it will get easier as long as you are supportive and consistent, and follow the same routine/schedule each day.
As your child sets out for her first day of preschool, remember that ups and down are normal. But with time, they will not just adapt but will thrive, making friends and delighting in new discoveries. Before you know it, the problem won't be crying when you drop them off, it will be crying when you pick them up - because they're having so much fun and don't want to leave!
On a more personal note; I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Mayor Gene Beach. Gene was always so supportive of the work many of the programs and myself do for very young children. Never did he turn me down when I asked him to attend an event to show his support; and even went above and beyond many times. He was very encouraging also of the work I do in my position and also to me as a person which meant so much to me, especially when I first started. Not being from this area, he always made me feel welcome whenever we ran into each other. Mayor Beach will be greatly missed.
Sue Junge is an Early Childhood Support Specialist for the Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area and is a Thursday columnist for the Times-Republican. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don't necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. For more information, please visit www.iowarivervalleyeca.org.