When Leta Hamilton arrives at her 4-year-old's preschool to pick him up, he's enjoying himself so much that he doesn't want to come home. "JJ will leave only when I get very insistent," says the Seattle mom. She credits JJ's love of school to his teacher. "Every time he sees Ms. Jane, he gives her a big hug," says Hamilton.
Education experts have long touted the benefits of a good start in school. Now, they're finding that a child's relationship with the teacher plays a critical role.
Why This Bond Matters
Having a healthy connection to the preschool teacher helps a child feel safe and secure, as well as giving her a sense of belonging, says Chris Dibling-West, an early-childhood-education administrator and owner of The Goddard School, in Roswell, Georgia. "This sets her up to be more successful socially and emotionally," he says. After all, your child's first year of preschool will likely be her first time navigating the outside world without you. "Even if she's been in day care, it's her initial experience with a professional educator in a structured setting," says Dibling-West.
When your child is tight with her teacher, chances are she'll be more excited to go to school. "Preschool teachers notice students' little accomplishments, and that can make a child feel proud," says Rochelle Harris, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. You may see that your child is becoming more independent and wants to zip her own coat or wash her hands by herself. She might also more readily divulge the details of her day.
What's more, research supports the notion that the first teacher connection is an important one for long-term academic achievement. Several studies have shown that children with a secure attachment to their preschool teachers feel more confident, are more successful at learning, and show increased kindergarten readiness.
To encourage a healthy bond throughout the year, treat your child's teacher like a member of the family: Frame a photo of your child with her teacher near other family pictures. Hang school artwork in a visible place, like the kitchen, where you're likely to discuss it. And if you notice she's picked up a new skill, like matching objects by shape or counting to ten, point it out. Say, "That must be something you learned at school. I'm so pleased that Ms. Christie taught you that."
A Classroom Crush
Is your preschooler drawing heart-shaped pictures for his teacher? Gushing about how great she is? Seems to like her...better than you? Don't be jealous -- be happy! Loving his teacher is key to loving school at this age. "It's totally normal and healthy for preschoolers to worship their teacher," says Dr. Harris. "Positive relationships with other adults will not threaten your relationship with your child." Some starstruck preschoolers will even talk about marrying their teacher.
Of course, not every kid is going to talk up his teacher or spend his spare time drawing doodles for her, but that's doesn't mean he isn't bonding with her. "If your child has a positive attitude about school, plays 'school' at home, or seems generally happy when you pick him up, he's probably doing just fine," says Dr. Harris.
The Right Fit
If your child cries at drop-off in the beginning, it doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem with the teacher. "Some kids just have more separation anxiety," says Dr. Harris. "At 3 or 4 years old, they also can't necessarily voice that." Over time, though, your child should acclimate and be more eager to go to school.
Occasionally, however, there's just a poor match. Bridget Mattera, of Ozone Park, New York, had gotten frequent calls from school asking her to pick up her 3-year-old, Sydney, who was crying. Eventually, Mattera made the tough decision to switch schools. "From the first moment she met Miss Debbie, Sydney bonded with her," says Mattera. At pickup, she'd find Sydney sitting in her lap listening to stories. And at Thanksgiving, Sydney proclaimed, "I am thankful for Miss Debbie and I love her!"
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.