When your baby is a newborn and dependent on you for everything, you can barely imagine the day when you leave her to fend for herself in the big new world of preschool. Will she be miserable in unfamiliar surroundings? Will the teachers know how to meet her needs? What happens if she jumps right into circle time without so much as a backward glance?
Preschool is an exciting time for children and families, but it can provoke major anxiety as well. It might be the first time you don't know every single thing your child is doing during the day. Your child will be exposed to new peers and get used to doing things on a schedule. But you can take several steps to make the transition easier, even if it won't erase all the tears (yours and hers) on the first day.
Heidi Raker Goldstein, a mother of a 16-, 13- and 10-year-old from Haworth, says she felt it was important that separation be handled in a gentle and deliberate way. She also found a school with an attitude toward separation that was compatible with hers.
"The separation process was handled in a very pragmatic way," she says of her children's nursery school in Tenafly. "We enrolled for Mommy and Me class at 18 months, and the school sent literature about nursery school home in advance. Once school started, the parents were to go to the back of the classroom and read a magazine, and they knew not be disruptive. When my children were ready to play with other kids, we knew they were ready to separate. They became ready to interact and deal with the rhythm of the classroom."
What to Expect
Dr. Punam Kashyap, associate chief of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center's Joseph M. Sanzari Institute for Child Development, says separation anxiety in preschoolers is very common and considered to be within developmental norms.
"This can go on until children are 7 or 8 years old," Kashyap says. "Going into an unknown place is what causes the anxiety."
And of course, if you are very sad that your little one is leaving the nest for the first time, you can influence your child with those feelings.
"Parenting is a very hard job," Goldstein says, "and if separation from your own parents wasn't so positive, you may be clingier to your child because of what you experienced."
Kashyap says parents should be concerned if a child appears to be highly distressed about going to preschool or continues to cry for prolonged periods every day or after being in preschool for weeks.
"Parents need to rely on their intuition to know if something's not right," she says. "What is not a good fit at 2 1/2 might be fine when the child is 3." She suggests a conversation with your pediatrician to discuss the situation.
Work with the School
Lynn Ann Miller, owner of the Learning Experience in Waldwick, says schools can do several things to make separation easier, and parents should think about that when selecting their child's first educational environment.
"The school should invite the child with the mom or dad to meet the teacher," she says. "It's important for child and for parents to bond with the primary teacher. You want the preschool to be a home away from home."
Danielle Schwartz of Park Ridge, mother of 3-year-old twin boys and a first-grader, says, "You have to go to the school and really get to know it. You are investing in this place, and it has to be right. I like to go and have a few visits to get the feel of a place and then have my children have a gradual introduction. If a school doesn't want to do that, it's not the right fit."
Sometimes schools will help connect families of children who attend the same school. "This can be helpful because then your child has made a friend before school starts," Goldstein says.
Kashyap says a preschool's staff has to prove to parents they are confident and competent at handling normal preschool problems.
"They are the ones that need to tell the parents who are doing long, operatic goodbyes that yes, your child will be all right, now you must really go," she says.
Saying goodbye is never easy, particularly when you have been your child's primary teacher for so long. But early school experiences are important for a child's growth and development.
"The reality is that this is a good thing for them," Schwartz says. "When you are the only adult giving discipline or doing other things for your child, it can be a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, you have to know that you are doing the right thing for your child."
Kashyap adds that parents should trust their instincts in responding to separation anxiety, but that dramatic daily goodbyes are not helpful.
"Short and sweet is good," she says. "Give a big hug to start the day. And when you say mommy will be back at a certain time, don't be late!"
Lynn Ann Miller of the Learning Experience suggests you check for the following when looking for a preschool:
• Consistent routines that are followed by all adults in the school
• The school has a schedule a child can understand when it is explained to them (so they know what is coming next)
• There is an open-door policy
• There is a home-school connection
And if your little one refuses to go to school at all...
• Get advice from the teachers at preschool. They have seen it all before, and if you tell them a bit about your child's temperament, they can give you strategies that might work.
• Use a sticker chart...but be careful. You don't want to shut down a child's feelings, but you can reward positive behavior, such as "go right into preschool and put my things in my cubby."
• Enlist an older sibling. That child can share what's good about school, why it's important to go and how to get used to it.
• Don't draw out the goodbyes. If you hesitate because you believe the tears will flow, you are also sending a signal to your child that you are expecting that she might not be comfortable. Keep it short and sweet, and return promptly when school is over.
• Recognize that every child is not ready for preschool at the same time. All your neighbors' kids might go to school at 3 years old, but that doesn't mean your child is ready. Even keeping him home a few additional months until he is in the next developmental stage can make a world of difference.