Take a moment and summon up how you felt on your first day of middle school. The building was huge, teeming with strange faces and voices. You were scared to death you were going to get lost on the way to homeroom -- or ostracized about your squeaky new sneakers. For your 3-year-old, the first day of preschool feels pretty much the same -- minus the hormones, of course. But in many ways, it can be even tougher.
Young children often struggle with change. Leaving the comforting rituals of life at home for a new set of people and rules can be scary. "That's why it's important to treat going to preschool as a process rather than just a date on your calendar when your child goes to school," says Alisa Clark Ackerman, who has taught at several preschools in New York City. "Take several weeks before the first day to ease him into this new adventure." Here's how.
See it from your child's POV. "School" is an abstract concept to a kid who's never been before. So when you talk about the big day, don't make general statements; instead, get into the details. Tell her about the games she'll play, the kids she'll meet, and how you'll always be there to pick her up at the end of the day. Don't overhype school. Keep the "Are you excited about starting school?" questions to a minimum. And try not to make promises about things you don't have control over, such as "You'll make lots of new friends." If your child's initial experience doesn't match his expectations, school may already seem scary, not exciting.
Be positive. Your child will take her cues from you, so be calm and confident that everything will go well. Don't let her see that you're nervous or overhear you saying things like "I can't believe my baby's going to kindergarten!" Play up the fun activities she'll do at school so she knows she won't just be sitting and listening all day.
Crank up the kudos. Now's a good time to start applauding your kid's school-tastic skills. If you see him share a toy with his sister, say, "I noticed that you gave Jane a turn with the ball. That made her very happy. Your new friends at school are going to really like it when you share toys with them." And don't worry about raising a praise junkie. You'll just be making him aware of some of the things that he's already good at so he feels less overwhelmed.
Share your own experiences. If your child tells you she's worried about school or has butterflies in her tummy, reassure her with your own school stories ("When I started kindergarten, I was afraid too, but by the second day I'd made new friends and couldn't wait to get on the bus").