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First-Day Jitters: Getting Kids Excited to Start Preschool

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").

Take the Grand Tour. The more familiar your child is with the new place, the easier the transition will be. Before school starts, take your child around the room and point out the different activities he'll do each day. You might also want to show him where his cubby will be and spend some time on the playground.

During the tour, point out a specific activity you know he'll enjoy, such as playing with musical instruments, and tell him the name of the school," recommends Ackerman. "Over the first week or so leading up to preschool, prepare him for the first day by saying, 'Next week you'll go to Elm Street Preschool and play with the tambourine,'" she says.

Visit over the summer. When you're driving by the school, casually point it out to your child, suggests Parents adviser Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. And make sure to play in the school playground a couple of times this month. If your school is open before the term starts, take your child to visit her classroom, meet the teacher, and tour the building so it will seem more familiar on the first day.

Meet and Greet Many preschools host an open house, where parents, teachers, and children can get to know each other. There will likely be many parents vying for the teacher's attention, but make sure you get a chance to chat with her when your child is within earshot. "If you show your child that the teacher is someone you like and trust, he'll have an easier time forming an attachment to her," says Ackerman.

Give your child some time with the teacher, too; many preschools offer a home visit before class begins, so take advantage of the time to help your new student acquaint himself with this new adult in his life. "It's also helpful for your child to know his teachers' names," says Sally Tannen, director of the Parenting Center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which has its own preschool. "Before his first day, remind him that he met them and what they were like," she says.

Talk the talk. School has a language all its own. So rename your everyday activities using preschoolese. When you paint or color, call it "art time" and do it in a designated "art corner." When your child eats her afternoon milk and cookies, it's "snacktime." No more nap -- it's "rest time" (you might even put a mat on the floor).

Invent a voyage. Get him excited about the adventure of the daily trip to school. Will he get to ride on a big yellow school bus? Will he get to spend time in the car with Daddy each morning? Maybe there's a fun walk with Grandma in his future? Narrate the story of how he'll get to his destination with lots of colorful details. If he's not taking the school bus, do a dry run so he'll know what to expect.

Get a head start with art. Encourage your child to draw a picture to give the teacher on the first day. It'll be a good icebreaker, and he'll love seeing his artwork displayed right away.

Act it out. Flynn recommends doing some pretend play with stuffed animals or other toys to help your child adjust to the idea that he'll be leaving you, but you'll come back -- his teddy bear goes to school with some other furry friends, Mommy Teddy leaves and returns after he's sung a song and had a snack, for example. Flynn also recommends sussing out how nervous your child is and addressing his concerns. "You don't want to ask him if he's scared too many times -- that might make him even more fearful," says Flynn. "But if he seems anxious in the days preceding school, reassure him that he'll be okay and that you're nearby if he needs you," says Flynn.

Go on a mini shopping spree. Buying her a new backpack, pencil case, and set of crayons will make her feel like a big kid -- especially if she gets to pick out the gear herself. But don't ask your child to save her supplies for school. Let her carry her stuff around and play with her gear right away. You want to make as many deposits in the school-is-fun bank as possible.

Create a first-day-of-school tradition. Make the day more exciting every year by taking a picture in the same spot, baking a special cake, or getting up early and going out for breakfast together, suggests Rhonda Martin, a mother of two in Richton Park, Illinois.

Create a Goodbye Ritual. "Decide how many hugs you'll give each other, or how many books you'll read before you leave each day," says Flynn. "Never sneak out when your child is engaged in an activity -- on the first day or any other," says Flynn. You don't want him to think that the important adults in his life just disappear.

Learn his classmates' names. If you can say to your child, "Look, Daniel is playing in the block corner already," when you arrive in the morning, it will make school seem more familiar and safe.

Play the day away. Seeing familiar faces in his class will up your child's comfort level. You'll get a class list during the summer, "so plan playdates with some other classmates before the big day," says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, which trains teachers from around the country. "Also, ask about setting up a buddy system; you and another class family have each other as contacts for playdates and support before school begins."

Send a reminder of home. One way to do it: Put a snapshot of your family in a photo key chain attached to your child's backpack. "I gave my son Sam a smooth, polished rock that he could keep in his pocket and rub whenever he felt anxious," says Renee Sprengeler, of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Come and go. For a few weeks, leave your child with grandparents or a babysitter more often than usual, and show him that you'll come back when you say you will.

Be on time. If you get to school late in the morning, it'll make your child feel anxious. It's equally important for you to be five minutes early for pickup (but don't let your child see you before dismissal). It's very hard for a child to be the last one left after everyone else has gone home.

Have patience. Some children will get used to school after a day, while others take several weeks to feel at home. Keep in mind, though, that if your child starts crying when he sees you at pickup time, it probably means that he's just happy to see you -- not that he had a terrible day.

  • Read The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn. It's sure to help put a child who's nervous about school at ease. On the first day of school, Mrs. Raccoon kisses her son's hand, and when he misses her, he holds his kissed hand to his heart.

    - Belinda Truax, Mary Blair Elementary School, Loveland, Colorado
  • When you drop your child off in the morning, don't linger. It can make him more anxious. Set yourself a time limit -- say three to five minutes -- or tell your child you can only stay for a story or a puzzle.

    - Gloria Nightingale, The Cottage Road Neighborhood School, South Portland, Maine
  • Ask specific questions about fun things in your child's day, such as "What did you have for snack?" or "What songs did you sing?" and use her answers to talk to her about school the next morning.

    - Carin Stone, Twin Oaks Country Day School, Freeport, New York

Our expert kid, Walter Goldberg, gave us the inside scoop on what scares first-time preschoolers the most. And our expert grown-ups responded.

  1. What if I have to go to the potty? Kids this age are often just out of diapers and nervous about using the bathroom at school. Show your child where it is, and practice using it with her. Also, let him know that if he does have an accident, it's no big deal because you've sent along a change of clothes.
  2. What if my teacher's mean? Remind your child that teachers choose the job because they love kids, so they won't be mean -- they'll be kind, patient, and fun. You can also tell him that if a teacher gets mad, she'll always calm down and never stay angry -- just like Mommy and Daddy do.
  3. What if I don't know the answer to a question the teacher asks? It's always okay to say, "I don't know" or to raise your hand if you have a question. Tell your kid that it's the teacher's job to help her learn. Nobody knows the answer to everything, and her teacher will be happy to explain the things she doesn't know.
  4. What if I don't know anyone at school? Emphasize that part of what's fun about starting school is making new friends. Tell your child a story about a friend you met in school: Often what helps kids overcome their fears is hearing that their parents once felt the same way. Invite children from school over for a playdate to help the friend-making process along.

Q. My child really wants to take his blanket to preschool. Is that okay?

A. Yes. "Having a transitional object on hand can make being away from Mom and Dad a lot easier," says Tannen. If your child doesn't have a lovey, Tannen recommends helping him choose something that he can take to make him feel secure.

Q. Can my child suck on his pacifier at preschool?

A. Probably not. Your child will need to carry on conversations with his teachers and classmates. He can't do that with a pacifier in his mouth. However, you don't want to make his preschool start any more stressful than it already is. Get your child off the pacifier long before he starts school, or do it when he's adjusted to his new regimen. In the meantime, talk to the teacher about when it's okay for your child to have his pacifier (during rest time, for example) and when it's not (during circle time).

Q. How long can I stay if my child gets upset during drop-off?

A. "Most schools have a transition plan," says Tannen. "It's good to linger the first week to give your child a sense of security." The first day, a parent stays for a designated amount of time, and very gradually reduces that time as the first week progresses.

"Books that describe what happens at school, as well as validate a child's feelings, can help quell jitters," says Tannen. They provide your child with a sort of dry run of school in the comfort of home, where he feels safe. Here are several titles recommended by Tannen and The Bank Street College of Education's Committee on Children's Books:

  • When Will Sarah Come? by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, photos by Nina Crews (Greenwillow, 1999). A preschool boy waits for his big sister to return from school so they can play together.
  • Oh My Baby, Little One by Kathi Appelt, Jane Dyer (Harcourt Brace, 2000). A mother bird describes her work day to her preschooler, showing him that even though she is at work and he's at school, they still love each other.
  • Don't Go! by Janet Breskin Zalben (Clarion, 2000). Daniel, a young elephant, is starting school. His mom packs his bag and Daniel's stuffed dog, and they experience the ritual of the first day of school together. The book includes a checklist for the first day.
  • Owen by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1993). Owen loves his baby blanket, fondly named Fuzzy. But kindergarten is coming up, and his parents wonder if Fuzzy should go along. Ultimately, Owen's mother finds the perfect plan to keep everyone happy and secure.

Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Used with permission from the August 2005 issue of American Baby magazine, the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine and the August 2004 issue of Parents magazine.