The start of a new school year gets everyone's nerves jumping—including when it's time to make the transition to preschool.
Every child is, of course, different. Some love to dive into new adventures without so much as a look back. Others are more cautious, preferring to watch and get the lay of the land. But children and parents are bound to be apprehensive about a child's first day (or week, or month) in a new environment, surrounded by new people and new routines.
We asked veteran preschool teachers in the NYC metropolitan area for their no-fail tips to help make this transition a positive experience for all and came away with six top suggestions.
If you're still searching for the right preschool, check out our directory of NYC schools, as well as those in the surrounding suburbs, such as New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island.
Talk to Your Child
Let's be honest—do you like having unexpected life changes sprung on you? Well, neither do kids. Don’t wait until the last minute to let your child know their life is about to change. However, don’t tell them so far in advance it gives them months to brood and get nervous about it. Always, always, emphasize the positives of the experiences. Make them so excited about the fun they’re going to have that they can’t wait for that first day.
“Walk by the school several times about a week before school starts, talking positively the whole way about the experience, pointing out the school to your child and showing them where they will go in and where mommy, daddy, or the caregiver will be to pick them up,” says Cindy Palicka, program director at Bridge Community Playschool.
Lisa Alvarez, director of education at Smarter Toddler Nursery & Preschool, agrees: “Take your child to visit the classroom and meet their teachers before the first day of school.” Stella Moon, a preschool learning environment teacher at BASIS Independent Brooklyn, adds, “Review the names of your teachers and show your child their photographs if possible.”
Check in before, during, and after the first day about all your child's feelings surrounding this big change. Fear, anxiety, and excitement are all completely normal, so it's nice to make space and allow your child to express those feelings. Listen closely and acknowledge your child's fears.
In other words, even in preschool, forewarned is forearmed.
Get a Head Start
Continue your early-bird habits into the first day of school. Be on time for drop-off, so they can get settled in and not feel rushed, which can bring on anxiety.
David Green, center director for the preschool at FasTracKids, recommends you get there early. “This gives your child a little extra time to acclimate to new surroundings and some one-on-one time with the teacher before everyone else arrives,” he says.
Prepare Through Play
The experts at Bright Horizons recommend using your child's love of play to prepare for the transition. Pretend to hold a preschool class, taking turns playing different roles and practicing activities such as lunch time. You can also use puppets or dolls to add to the fun.
Consider adding books about preschool into your daily rotation. Maisy Goes to Preschool by Lucy Cousins and Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney are good ones.
Make a Drop-Off Plan
All the experts agree: Never leave without telling the child. Green understands you might be tempted to sneak out while they’re happily engaged to avoid risking a meltdown. But he urges you to fight that temptation because your children “will remember that dynamic the next day and it will be more difficult.”
Kim Turnbull, director of Brooklyn Schoolhouse, suggests you make a drop-off plan in advance, adding parents and child should agree on what the plan will be. For instance, you will read one book together and then it’s goodbye time. Of course, it’s vital that parents stick to the plan. “An upbeat, quick goodbye is best," Turnbull says. "The actual moment of separation is often the most difficult for children, and even parents. It is usually better not to extend or prolong it. Children are also very sensitive to their parents' attitudes and emotional states, and if you convey a belief (even non-verbally) that they will be OK after you leave, it helps them.”
Something to Hold Onto
You can also leave a little bit of yourself for the child to hold onto (and confirm your promise to be back soon). “If your child has anxiety,” Moon proposes, “give them a transitional object, for example, Mommy’s Chapstick, keys or a picture, for comfort and support.”
Or it can be something of theirs.
“Most children of preschool age have an object, usually a small blanket or stuffed animal, that brings them some comfort,” Green says. “Bring that along. It will help transition them in their new surroundings. Eventually, the need may fade away."
Make It a Partnership
“The teachers are there to support you and your child through this process,” Turnbull says. So take advantage of that partnership.
"Create a strong home-school connection to make sure that routines being learned and followed in one environment are continued in the other—like potty training,” Alvarez says. “Children thrive and find comfort in familiarity. Developing a solid routine is very important. Find out what your child's day will look like in school and get them into the same routine at home—like playing the same music they play in music class or reading books found in the classroom."
But the most important thing, according to Green, is that parents “enjoy this time. It is the beginning of a long and rewarding journey.”
Photo via Bigstock.
A version of this post was originally published in 2016; it has been updated for 2019. Katie Nave Freeman contributed additional reporting.