Going to preschool or kindergarten for the first time can be scary -- both for kids and their parents. Even if your child has been in school or day care before, a different classroom, teacher, and set of students can be disorienting. "When children this age are faced with a new environment or a change in their usual schedule, it's completely normal for them to become clingy," explains Beth Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's helpful to keep in mind, however -- as your child begs you not to leave -- that separation anxiety is usually a reflection of the strong bond between the two of you.
For the first two months of kindergarten, my daughter, Sophie, held onto my leg and wept as we stood in the doorway of her classroom. Even though her teacher told me that Sophie enjoyed school once I left, I couldn't help worrying about her throughout the day or wishing that our morning routine could be easier.
Daphne Robinson, of Middletown, Connecticut, says it took about a week and a half for her son, Nicholas, to get used to his preschool. "The first day was really tough," she says. "I could hear him screaming for me even when I got outside the building. It nearly broke my heart. But the second day wasn't quite so bad, and each day got a little bit easier. By the middle of the next week, he looked forward to going to school."
Yet for every child like Nicholas, there is one like Sophie, who takes longer to feel comfortable. You can help avoid adjustment jitters by preparing your child in advance and letting him know what to expect. When you talk about school, it's important to sound excited and positive, rather than focusing on his fears, Dr. Greenberg says. Here are some other ways to help ease the transition.
Visit before the first day.
Many schools have an orientation program or will allow you to see the classroom and try out the playground equipment. You might even arrange a playdate with one or two other kids in the class so that your child will see some familiar faces.
Get psyched with stories.
There are lots of great books about going to school. A few favorites: Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen; I Love You All Day Long, by Francesca Rusackas; and Owen, by Kevin Henkes.
Shop together for a backpack, clothes, or school supplies. You might not be crazy about the neon-green jacket she chooses, but wearing something she loves will boost her comfort level.
Staying longer -- either in the classroom or quietly in the hall -- is not necessarily better. Instead, tell your child exactly what will happen: "I'll stay with you for five minutes, and then I have to leave" or "I will read you one book, and then I need to go." Never sneak out without saying goodbye.
Encourage her imagination.
"Ask your child how her favorite cartoon character would handle the situation, and suggest that she imagine herself as that character," recommends Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Salem, Virginia. Pretending to be Dora the Explorer or Spider-Man each morning may give your child the extra dose of confidence that he or she needs to face the classroom.
Create a goodbye routine.
A series of hugs, a secret handshake, a high five -- it doesn't matter what the ritual is, as long as it's your own.
Find a solution together.
When William Austin, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was having a tough time in kindergarten saying goodbye to his mom, they got together with his teacher and came up with a plan. "William decided that going to a special place in the classroom to draw helped him whenever he was having a rough morning," says his mother, Laurie Sheffield. "It really worked."
Put on a brave smile.
"Many parents don't realize how difficult it might be for them to say goodbye," says Gerlinde Hossein-Endl, director of Bigelow Cooperative Daycare Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "But children are very good at sensing our insecurities -- and if you are anxious, it's more likely that your child will be too." And no matter how long it takes for your child to adjust to his new school, be sure to let him know how proud you are of him.