Date: August 1, 2009
Good beginnings are important: Until now, a preschooler has relied on parents and other trusted individuals. Now she will be asked to function independently. She will have support from nurturing teachers, but they will be limited in their knowledge of and availability to Jill. Furthermore, the routines, frustrations and expectations of classrooms will require new levels of competency. Your preschooler will be reaching deeply into her back pocket for confidence and strength.
Beginning school is a transition with capital letters. Lucy Daniels Center educators and clinicians suggest parents manage by: preparing children; promoting children's activity; understanding children's perspectives and needs; and managing your own reactions.
Prepare children for the change
Changes are stressful because they are unfamiliar. Preparation increases familiarity and thereby decreases stress. Here are some ways to help prepare your 3-year-old:
- Visit the school. If possible, meander about the playground, walk in the building and visit her classroom.
- Share a photo of the new teacher(s), perhaps from the school's Web site. It is terrific when a child, accompanied by a parent, can meet a teacher in the classroom - just the three of you. Your child will see her teacher's investment in learning about her interests and favorite snacks, and will know that she is being left in the hands of a nurturing person who is getting to know her and Mommy or Daddy.
- Get a copy of class schedule and explain that "you will have play/work time, snack time where you sit with your classmates at tables, and circle time where you sit as a group with the teacher and learn." Perhaps you can play out some of these activities.
Promote children's activity
Children manage challenge better if they play an active part in addressing the situation. Here are a few ideas:
- Make a list together about what to expect (how many children, boys/girls, cubbies, bathrooms, saying good-bye to Mommy/Daddy, what to do about missing or lonely feelings).
- Encourage your child to choose items such as backpacks or lunchboxes.
- Have your child think about what comfort object she might want, if they are allowed. Find out before talking about this possibility.
Understand children's perspective and needs
Your child will have ideas about this strange new undertaking. She might have some unexpected concerns such as, "What if I need to go to the bathroom or don't like the snack?" Her ideas will be an amalgam of her immature cognition, imagination, hopes and experiences. She will undoubtedly have some sense that she will be expected to manage without you. You will help if you encourage her to share her thoughts. We recommend you respond to her concerns by:
- Correcting factual misconceptions.
- Balancing an acceptance of the concern, confidence that she can handle these feelings, and optimism that she will find a way to work them out.
- Engaging her in finding solutions to her concerns.
The following vignette illustrates this approach: Three-year-old Justin, about to begin preschool, worriedly told his mother that he wouldn't have friends. Rather than simply reassuring him that he would make friends, his mother replied, "I understand. It is hard to make new friends. But you are learning to be a good friend, and you will find ways to make friends at school. Sometimes you can make friends by playing a fun game with someone. Can you think of anything that you might like to play?"
In all likelihood, Justin understood that his mother believed his concerns were reasonable, he could continue to have those concerns, but he could also handle his worries and gradually find ways to solve them.
Manage your own reactions
You, too, are facing a huge transition. Undoubtedly proud of your child's growing abilities, you are also leaving the special parent-child intimacy of the earliest years and allowing a stranger to become an important figure in your child's life. This is difficult and painful. You must find a middle ground between excessively holding on and prematurely checking out. Self-awareness and self-acceptance, and support from family and friends, will enable you to support your child through your own growth.
Your preschooler will benefit from your careful attention and support as she leaves the family womb. Your support for her first flight will provide a sustaining model as she continues to stretch her wings in the coming decades.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The specific question may be a composite or illustration of questions families ask Lucy Daniels staff.
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