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Jan 30, 2012

Smoothing the Path: Preparing Your Child for Preschool

Written by Sara Chapman, MA and Barbara Kalmanson, PhD

Starting preschool brings new learning opportunities for your child across a wide range of developmental areas including social, emotional, motor, and intellectual development. New and unexpected challenges also await your child, which lead to uncertainty and can cause stress. Your child will have many new experiences, be exposed to new sights, sounds, people, environments, and activities, and will experience separation from you that may invoke anxiety. Preparing your child well in advance can help him or her know what to expect and support a smoother transition into the school setting. It is important to remember that transitioning into school is a process and takes time. The goal is to reduce your child’s anxiety and help him or her develop a positive experience of school from the start.

The following are 10 Things You Can Do to Prepare Your Child for Preschool:

Visit the school with your child prior to your child’s first day.

  • Coordinate with the school team so that your child has an opportunity to visit the classroom and get familiar with the environment-- at his/her own pace with no demands.

Develop a transition plan.

  • Work with the school team to develop an individualized plan that works for your child.
  • Some children benefit from attending the first few days with you and/ or fading your time as your child adjusts. Other children benefit from a clearly established goodbye routine and do best when parents avoid drawing out the goodbye. You know what will work best for your child.
  • Minimize other changes to your child’s schedule as he is adjusting to this new environment.

Create a photo album with pictures of the new school, teachers, and students to help your child anticipate what to expect.

  • Take pictures of the different areas of the classroom, your child in the classroom, classroom teachers, students (if permitted) and toys/ objects your child shows interest in during the initial visit or ask the school team if you can come in to take pictures.
  • Place the pictures in a small book or mini photo album that you can look at and discuss together.

Create a goodbye ritual.

  • This may be the first time that your child is away from you for an extended period of time and separation might be difficult. 
  • BEFORE the first day of school, consider playing hide and seek/ peek-a-boo games in which you say goodbye and quickly come back. This playful and positive experience will help prepare your child for learning to say goodbye.
  • Create a routine for saying goodbye that is predictable and helps your child learn to anticipate this transition. Think of the successful ways you say goodbye in other situations and use those as a template for developing your school routine.
  • Create a “hello/goodbye” book that depicts this experience with photos of you waving goodbye and then returning to hug your child on each page. This allows your child to hold this image in his mind during these experiences
  • Avoid “sneaking out,” even if you think your child will not notice as this can create more uncertainty and anxiety for your child. Always say goodbye!
  • Your child’s attention might be diverted when you leave, but he or she will become anxious about where you have gone, search for you, and/or become upset. Your child may cling to you all the more the next time he or she even suspects you will be leaving him.  Although sneaking out spares you his or her pain and protest in the moment, it damages your child’s basic trust in you as his protector and safe haven.  If you demonstrate confidence in your child’s teachers and in his or her ability to enjoy school before you depart, your child will absorb your sense of safety in the new environment and that will help him or her to feel safe.

Create a social story and/ or visual schedule to help your child learn understand new expectations.

  • The story could illustrate the morning routine, the transition to school, favorite activities in which your child can participate at school.
  • Be sure to use real photos and images of your child in these scenarios as much as possible to keep things more concrete. Stories and visuals will be less beneficial if the symbols do not have meaning for your child.
  • Visuals can help children to organize and make sense of their experiences.
  • Take pictures of each step of the morning routine to help your child be more independent in preparing for school. Organize these in a schedule.
  • The more independent your child feels, the more control he or she will feel over his or her experiences. This in turn works to decrease anxiety that can often arise during periods of uncertainty.

Establish ongoing communication with the school team.

  • Develop a way in which you can easily and regularly communicate with the school team. A communication notebook that travels back and forth in your child’s backpack will make it easier to maintain regular communication about happenings at home and school. You’ll want to learn about your child’s experience during the day and it also helps the teacher to understand your child’s state, such as letting them know about changes in sleeping or eating patterns, if your child is constipated, suffering from allergies or coming down with a cold, a parent out of town, etc.
  • If you are more comfortable with email, check to see if the teacher would be willing to communicate through email as a way to maintain ongoing communication.
  • It’s important that you develop your own relationship with the school team, including teachers and administrators. If there are any school practices you wonder about, such as whether children are expected or required to nap, be sure to speak with the teachers about them and let them know what you know about your child. 

Create a passion poster.

  • Develop a list or images of your child’s favorite toys, objects, activities to share with the school team. You are your child’s best expert, so help the team learn the most they can about your child BEFORE the first day of school.

Allow your child to bring a favorite object or toy from home to school for comfort.

  • Some children feel grounded when they are holding onto a familiar object or photo, particularly during transitions.
  • If your child wants to bring the object they sleep with, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, it is best to buy a spare (or double) and send the extra to school so that the sleep object will not be misplaced.
  • You can also leave the school with photos of family members that your child can reference if he is missing you during the school day.

Engage in play with your child at home.

  • Join your child in play with his or her favorite toys and activities. Through these playful exchanges, you will help your child develop stronger connections and positive experiences that he or she can draw from in school.
  • These times of play will also help regulate your child and provide more opportunities for engaging, problem-solving, and learning that can be generalized to school.

Breathe! 

  • This transition may be just as challenging for you as it is for your child.
  • Be sure to take care of yourself, so that you can be mentally and emotionally available for your child. 

Keep in mind that it may take your child some time to adjust to this new setting, possibly months. You may notice that your child becomes clingier and may also see new behaviors develop or old patterns resurface. This is all to be expected with any major transition. Be sure to maintain open communication with the school team and allow time for your child to forge new relationships.

Sara Chapman, MA is an Educational and DIR® Consultant in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of the DIR® Institute and DIR® Facilitator, through the Interdisciplinary Council for Learning and Developmental Disorders (ICDL). Sara is also an Assistant Faculty Member of the Profectum Foundation and a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 

Barbara Kalmanson, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist and Special Educator in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Academic Dean of the ICDL Graduate School, Senior Faculty for the Interdisciplinary Council for Learning and Developmental Disorders (ICDL) and Senior Faculty of the Profectum Foundation.


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