Transitioning to Preschool

Help your child take that big step and settle in

transitioning to preschool
Preschool is a big change for lots of little kids, but transitioning to preschool doesn't have to be hard. Yellow Dog Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images

In a few weeks, my 3-year-old son will start preschool for the first time. I'm excited for him and a bit nervous too. I know once he settles in he will love it. He's going to completely enjoy all the activities and making friends and everything else that comes with being a big boy preschooler. His problem will be allowing himself to relax and have fun. I'm a stay-at-home mom and he hasn't been separated from me too often.

Consequently, I'm concerned he may have some separation anxiety issues. So before he even starts preschool, I've been taking steps to help him transition from being a kid who plays at home with his mom all day (playgroups and other activities aside) to a preschooler. Transitioning to preschool is a big step, but with some patience and enthusiasm, it is ultimately very rewarding. Here's how to do it.

The key to a successful transition is to start before your child steps foot into a classroom.

  • Talk about it. Prepare him. You chose this preschool for a reason, be sure to share why with your little one. Explain what a special place it is and all the great things he is going to do while he is there. Be careful though. Unless you know specifically what the day will entail, don't go into too many details. Preschoolers have excellent memories. If you say that she will fingerpaint at preschool and the teachers don't do it the first day, there could be tears. Paint broad strokes -- "You are going to play with your new friends, read books and go outside."

    You can also paint a picture of what drop off and pick up will be like. My son and I have a joke going that I'm going to go to preschool and play with all the toys with him. To which he responds, "No! Mommies don't go to school. You go home and then you will pick me up when I am finished!" Whether he fully understands the true meaning of what he is saying or not, I'm not sure, but I'm hoping it will resonate eventually.

  • Reinforce object permanence. When your child was an infant, she learned about object permanence, the idea that something still exists even if it isn't in sight. For little ones who might be nervous about leaving a caregiver, this is a good concept to review. Keep it simple. Take a stuffed animal and have your preschooler hide it under a blanket. Ask her if she can find it. When she does, say, "See, even if we couldn't see Rex the dinosaur, he was still there waiting for you." Then connect the dots. "When you go to preschool, I might not be in the classroom with you, but I promise I will come right back, just like Rex."
  • Pay it a visit. You probably did a site visit when you were evaluating preschools. If you didn't or if your child didn't accompany you, the time to do so is now. Give the school's main office a call and find out if the school is open for tours or if they have some kind of orientation program for new students. One preschool in our area is closed over the summer, but once a week they permit students to come by and play on the playground for an hour. It's a great way for kids to become familiar with the school while meeting new people.

    My son did come with us when we were checking out preschools, but it has been a while since he's been there. His school is closed over the summer so instead, we make it a point to drive by the building at least once a week. Everyone in the car gets really excited, and he feeds off of that enthusiasm. We drive past the front door and around the back so he can see the playground. That way, on the first day of preschool he will be familiar with not only the building, but the drive too.

  • Work on those social skills. How well does your child play with others? Does he share? Is she still prone to temper tantrums? That's not to say that these behaviors are never seen in a preschool classroom, but if your child is well-versed in these behaviors will make it all the more easier.

    Consider setting up a few opportunities for your little one to socialize with other kids either through a playdate or a playgroup. The kids don't have to be from the new preschool, although it would certainly help if they were. In any case, the point of these social encounters is to help your little one to learn how to get along with others. Once your child starts preschool, consider hosting a playdate (or arranging one with the other parents in a communal place) for all of the students to get together and socialize outside of the classroom.

  • Brush up on self-care skills. Is your child fully potty trained? Does she know how to eat snack without help from you? Even if they aren't done perfectly, your child should have a good grasp on self-care skills. If something is lacking -- he can't pull up his pants after using the toilet for example, he may feel nervous and self-concious. Work on these skills in the days leading up to preschool, but reassure him that if he needs help, the teacher will be glad to lend a hand.

Once your child is willingly going into the preschool classroom and seems happy, you may be ready to take a big sigh of relief.

However, at this point, cautiously optimistic should be your mindset. Many children, even if they are enthusiastic about attending preschool, still may need some help adjusting. How can you tell? Look for regressive behavior (especially at home) such as baby talk, irritability and clinginess. Lots of time a child will be perfectly fine at school, but will behave differently at home and parents won't necessarily connect that the new preschool is the driving force behind the change. Here's how to help -- How Can I Make Adjusting to Preschool Easier for My Child?

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