What parents can do to ease their child’s transition to school.
By: Melina Gac Levin, M.S.Ed.
This year, the first day of school will look different. For parents and teachers of the youngest learners, those entering preschool programs, this brings particular challenges.
Even in the best of times, the early days of the school year are filled with mixed emotions for adults and children alike. Because toddlers and preschoolers are still developing a sense of separateness from their attachment figures, goodbyes must be approached thoughtfully. For this reason, many preschools build in a gradual separation or phase-in period. This practice, when approached with an understanding of development, serves to build a bridge between home and school that allows children and their families to separate confidently.
This fall, as a necessary safety precaution, schools will be limiting the number of adults in the building. As a result, for most preschoolers, the first day of school will involve an at-the-door drop-off with a masked teacher. This is a far cry from the gentle introduction of previous years. Add to that the fact that most of these children will be coming off of months of being isolated with their families, and you have a recipe for some difficult goodbyes.
Fortunately, there is much you can do to support your preschooler without entering the classroom. Some of it is not even that different from what you might have done last year.
Keep things simple.
Your child is looking to you for cues about how they should feel. Talk about school in the days leading up to it. Describe what your child can expect to see and do at school, then relate it to familiar experiences from home. ”All the grownups will wear masks just like I do when I go to the store.” “Your classroom will have lots of toys to play with. I wonder if they will have blocks like ours.” Keep it simple and light. There’s no need to hype school.
If your child has previously been in school, explain what will be the same and what will be different.
Develop a drop-off routine that feels special and can be repeated day after day. Choose something to help your child connect with their teacher; a simple goodbye ritual; and remind them of who will pick them up or when you’ll see them next. “Let’s tell your teacher what we saw on our walk this morning while he checks your temperature!” “I’m going to give you two hugs and a kiss. I’ll see you after the goodbye song.”
In order for children to comfortably separate from an attachment figure, they must transfer that attachment temporarily to the new caregiver. You can support that process by helping them build a relationship with their teachers. Greet teachers warmly and model trust in them for your child. Share a photo of the teachers with your child so they can get to know their names and faces, even with masks on. You might wonder together about what their teachers ate for breakfast or what toys they like to play with. If your child mentions to you that they or another child cried that day, try asking them who helped them feel better.
Follow their lead.
School has been the subject of conversation among families for months. You may find yourself similarly talking to your child about school ad nauseam. Fortunately, toddlers and preschoolers are very good at changing the subject when they’ve had enough. That is not only okay but perfect! If your child has questions, answer them. If they start talking about DanielTiger or that time their cousin fell on the stairs… go with it. This is a conversation that will behad over many days.
Your child may still cry. You may still cry, though hopefully not until you’ve rounded the corner. The goal is not to limit your child’s emotional landscape, but to offer support that can embrace the fullness of your child’s experience while gently guiding them towards comfort.
Melina Gac Levin, M.S.Ed. has over a decade of experience supporting families and teachers in and out of the classroom. She teaches graduate courses in child development at Bank Street College of Education, from which she holds dual degrees in Infant and Family Development and Early Childhood Education. She is a partner in Premier Pediatrics’ First Month Project. More of her writing can be found at www.melinagac.com