By Jim Wolfe
It's easy to picture pre-school as a sort of Norman Rockwell ideal -- one big, happy play date, with lots of smiling little kids sitting on the floor playing with blocks, coloring and singing "Old McDonald Had a Farm," in between naps and cookies and milk.
But, that is not always the reality -- especially during the first few days of school. Preschool Day 1 can be a trying time full of fears, apprehensions and lots and lots of tears (from children and parents). Lots of cries of "Mommy, I don't want you to leave!" "Daddy, don't go!" Lots of pain, and lots of guilt.
So what are parents to do? How can they prepare their children and themselves for that huge first step up the ladder of education -- preschool?
To answer these questions, we turned to Kate McCallum, M.A.T., Site Director of Family Centers' Arch Street Preschool.
What sorts of pressures or apprehensions do young students entering preschool have?
By and large the biggest apprehension children entering preschool have is the fear of not knowing other children or having friends in their class. It can be extremely intimidating, even for the most outgoing child, to walk into a classroom on the first day of school and not know any of the 15-20 classmates they may have. It is also difficult for young children to immediately establish trust in their caregivers as their parents leave to get to work.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal reaction that many children have when their parents or caregivers leave. It is characterized most often by crying, tantrums and clingy behavior. It can be exacerbated when parents mistakenly think they should stay around to "ease" their child's worries. This usually makes it more difficult for the children to accept the parents' departure and for the parents to let go.
Do parents feel it as well as children?
Absolutely, oftentimes, parents feel separation anxiety more than their children. Typically, children become involved in the classroom routine 5-10 minutes after they are dropped off. Parents may worry throughout the day how their child is doing because they last saw their child crying inconsolably and begging them not to leave.
What can parents do to help children deal with their fears, apprehensions and anxieties before the start of school?
Here at Family Centers Early Care and Education program, we welcome our incoming families to visit our school prior to their child's first day. We also encourage families to send their child to school with a "security item" such as a favorite family picture, stuffed animal or blanket to help the child acclimate to the new environment. Additionally, it is extremely important for parents to stay positive about school. Telling your child to "be brave" creates the idea that school is scary or dangerous. Instead, tell your child "I can't wait to hear about all the fun you had today when I pick you up later!" or "I know you're going to have a great day!"
Reading books about school also helps to prepare children for the experience. "The Kissing Hand," written by Audrey Penn, is a classic story about a mother raccoon who leaves a kiss in her little raccoon's hand so that whenever he felt lonely and "needed a little loving from home" he could press his hand to his cheek and think "Mommy loves you."
Establishing routines early and letting your child know what to expect is very helpful in aiding the transition process and easing separation anxiety. Plan on having a special goodbye routine, such as a special "goodbye kiss," walking them to a morning choice activity in the classroom, or asking which friend they'd like to begin the day playing with are great ways to help your child feel secure in their separation.
OK. You've done all you can do to prepare your young child for the first day of preschool. Now it is Day 1. You're dropping your 4-year-old off at preschool and he/she is screaming, kicking, crying -- on the verge of hysteria. What do you do? Is there a magic formula? Is there a best practice for tearing yourself away from your child when it appears he/she needs you the most?
Do not take your child home. That sends the message that if they cry enough or embarrass you enough with a tantrum to end all tantrums, they get to go home with you. The most important thing to remember is probably the most difficult thing to do, and that is to stay strong and leave. The longer parents stay in the classroom, the more difficult it becomes for both the child and parent to separate. Teachers and caregivers are experts in calming children down and easing their anxiety.
If your child is very out of control, it is important to hand them off to their teachers and let them handle the situation. At Family Centers, we encourage families to call to check on their children or send our Site Directors an email to see how their child was after drop-off. Ninety-nine percent of the time, screaming, tantruming children are fine within 10 minutes as they receive hugs and special attention from their teacher or become involved in an activity with their peers.
What do you do when the child comes home from Day 1? How do you make Day 2 better?
Again, staying positive is the best thing to do when your child comes home from Day 1. No matter how difficult drop-off was, it is important to focus on the positive aspects of the day. Ask what their favorite part of the day was, praise any artwork they might have brought home, and let them know how proud you are of them for having a great day, in spite of missing you. Reiterating the fact that you came back to pick them up is also important in establishing the trust that you will return and they won't be at school forever.
Is guilt from leaving your child when they appear so vulnerable and unhappy a real issue with parents? Any tips on how they can deal with that?
It is certainly a very real issue. Many times parents worry if they're doing the right thing by peeling themselves away from their child or staying firm that they must leave. It is important to establish good communication with your child's teachers, as it well help ease your anxiety knowing that if something is truly wrong they will make sure to let you know. Preschool teachers handle separation anxiety of every level on a daily basis.
Remembering that they will always have your child's best interest at heart is key to helping ease your anxiety.
How long do the childrens' fears and tears usually last?
The tears usually last a maximum of 10 minutes until the child is integrated into the classroom and has realized that they are in a safe, nurturing, fun environment. It usually takes a little distraction and a lot of attention on the teachers' part to help ease them into the classroom routines and then they're fine. On the other hand, if you find that every single time you drop off your child they have established a routine of behaving inappropriately for attention, you might want to ask someone else to drop them off. You'd be surprised how quickly the anxiety can subside when someone other than mom or dad drops off.
How about for the parents?
The parents really need to communicate their concerns with their child's teacher so that they can work as a team to help the child succeed in preschool. They can set up a plan so that when the child is fine, perhaps the teacher snaps a picture or sends an email during nap time just to let them know how their day is going. Without communication with the caregivers, the parents can feel overwhelmed, which only leads to more anxiety.