For many families, September marks the return to school, which can bring with it both excitement and anxiety, particularly for parents preparing to drop their child off at preschool for the very first time. To assuage those (very normal!) fears, we asked Jeanne Lovy, assistant vice president for young children and their families at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, for her best back-to-(pre)school advice.
Many parents are anxious about sending their child to preschool for the first time. What are some ways they can alleviate this anxiety and feel confident in their decision?
First of all, mazel tov! Starting preschool is an important and exciting time for children and their parents. For some, it’s the first time a child will be cared for outside of the home. Parents will encounter their first back-to-school night, first Parent-Teacher Organization meetings and first parent-teacher conference. Children will encounter experiences they may not have at home, such as art and music class, unpacking their own lunch, playground time and learning to make friends. Sharing in preschool is on a different scale than sharing at home with a sibling, and preschool presents the chance to begin to take the perspective of others. Each of these represents rich opportunities for learning and growth.
The preschool environment you have chosen will positively support every aspect of your child’s growth and development. If that’s not enough reassurance, parents should know that major research studies show time and time again that good preschool is good for children. It helps them develop both social and cognitive skills that are the basis for all learning to come. During this time many parents also take big steps forward in forming their parenting style in the preschool years—how they will handle discipline and what rituals will be important to them.
How can a parent help his or her child feel comfortable during this transition?
Preparing a child for preschool involves positive reinforcement balanced with taking care not to over-prepare and overwhelm a young child. Adults should smile and happily refer to preschool, but should not use preschool as a threat. For example, many parents with good intentions tell children that they must perfect potty training (or learn to pour milk or develop some other skill) before preschool. This can literally terrify children and set up a fearful transition. It almost always backfires! Any preschool that will not take your child if he or she is not potty trained or pulling up his or her own pants is not a preschool you want to choose.
To prepare for the first day, revisit some tried-and-true rituals—select a new lunchbox or backpack, or adorn an old one with new stickers or ribbons. Avoid buying a fancy new outfit though—it might get covered in paint, sand or glue! Wake up early enough to have a special breakfast and be on time without rushing. Bring a flower from your garden for the teacher. Act happy and confident but not over-the-top excited. Simple, joyful acts such as these can be the start of lifelong habits and set the stage for a great day.
What are some potential issues for parents or children that could arise during the first few weeks of preschool, and how can families prepare to handle them?
Children starting preschool for the first time may experience separation anxiety, and parents experience it too. It’s hard to leave a crying child, and it’s hard not to worry whether your child is ready, or if the school is doing something wrong. The vast majority of children overcome separation anxiety. It does not usually mean that something is amiss. In most cases, the child easily rejoins activities and has a great day once you leave. Speak to the teachers about creating a drop-off routine, and stick to it. If it’s allowed at your school, consider a transition object from home, such as a blanket, stuffed animal or family photo. Tell your child that you’re saying goodbye and that you’ll be back later. Don’t hover or keep peeking in or returning; this will only increase the anxiety. Make sure your child hears you reinforcing that preschool is a happy and fun place to be. If you have worries or concerns, don’t discuss them in the car, on your cell phone or in other places your child might overhear. Even small children can absorb their parents’ moods and fears very easily. Focus on the positive things your child is doing at school and ask questions about his or her day. If crying or anxiety continues for four weeks or more, make sure to speak to your child’s teacher or director for ideas and support.
Establishing patterns of communication is one of the most sensitive aspects of starting school. It’s reasonable to expect at least a weekly classroom newsletter or e-newsletter, including photos of the children at school. A schedule of the day should be posted so you have a sense of what has gone on. It’s really nice to see a quick daily update and/or photo posted at the door. You might also see a back-to-school coffee for parents and the director, and/or a check-in call from the teacher sometime within the first few weeks. Try to learn your school’s habits and patterns of communication. How will you know if your child is doing OK? If it’s a full-day program, does the afternoon teacher know what happened in the morning? Are emails to the teacher encouraged or discouraged? As a parent, you have the right to know what to expect, but it’s also important to be patient as the teachers focus on classroom time in those first critical weeks.
Another element of the first few weeks is fatigue. Children are tired after their busy days at a new school. Allow extra time for bedtime fussiness, and make sure everyone gets used to waking up early, getting ready on time and the new schedule.
What can parents expect their child to learn during the first six months of preschool? The first year?
Early years are learning years, and a high-quality preschool supports development and learning in social-emotional, cognitive and physical development. In the first weeks of school, you will see your child learn how to communicate his or her needs effectively in a group, talk and listen. You will see examples of both verbal and written communication as teachers begin to take dictation, encourage storytelling and draw connections between the written and spoken word.
As your child progresses, you will see advances in self-help skills, self-regulation and control, all very important for academic learning later on in kindergarten. In fact, one highly regarded longitudinal study cites the ability to self-regulate and control impulses as more important than traditional academic measures in predicting school success in high school and beyond. Preschool is the perfect time to practice and learn these important skills with the guidance of caring adults.
Depending on the age of the child, you may see increased use of one-to-one correspondence, science explorations, learning to write names, journal-writing and the use of surveys, charts and shared stories to view and organize information. All children will experience many opportunities for creative and sensory learning in painting, drawing, clay and sand and water play.
You should see play experiences that are created with children in mind, and that evolve and change as the year progresses. If you see the same set of puzzles on the table in January as you saw in September, it could be a red flag that the environment may not be responsive enough to the needs of the children.
Attending a Jewish preschool also means that you and your family will have the opportunity to participate in special routines and rituals, such as Shabbat. Many families are surprised and delighted when their very young children start singing the blessings or requesting challah with dinner. You may find that the new ideas, songs and stories shared through preschool help you determine what, if any, Jewish rituals you’d like to incorporate at home.
If you have questions about any aspect of preschool, please ask! Research and experience both show that a strong home-family connection improves the quality of your child’s experience and maximizes learning. You and the classroom teacher are partners in supporting your child’s development. Share your thoughts and rely on the teachers and directors to answer questions you might have.