I'm a Mom and a Parenting Center Director: Here's How Parents Can Make School Drop Off Easier

Dropping your toddler off at school for the first time can be daunting for both you and your child. Here are a few ways to help get you and your toddler through the experience.

I'm a Mom
Photo: Sahara Borja

"Do you want to go to school?" is probably not a question that a parent should be asking their 3-year-old. It's very likely the toddler is going to say no. More importantly, the reality is that school is the parent's choice, not the child's.

As the director of the parenting center at Commonpoint Queens in New York, I have worked with thousands of children and their parents to prepare for this milestone. For more than 30 years, that's included teaching parents of toddlers how to successfully drop their children off at part-time programs. Not only do children need to learn how to separate, their parents do, too.

But as a mom of two sons, now ages 29 and 34, I remember how difficult it can be for both parents and children to adjust to this new life change. Here's what I've learned that can really help in the process.

Don't Overwhelm Your Child

Parents should not talk about school endlessly prior to the first day. If your child is starting school on a Monday, tell them the weekend before they start. Very young children have a limited concept of time. That means the child likely isn't on the same page as their parent. What's more, an anxious parent may inadvertently make their child nervous if they continue to discuss the joys of school before the toddler has set foot there and is unable to conceptualize what is being told to them.

Involve Them in School Choices

Let your child become involved in what's needed before school begins. Give them choices. This might include letting them pick out their own backpack and lunch bag. Show them two pairs of shoes and ask them to pick one. Ask them if they prefer cereal or waffles for a snack. Giving kids choices helps them feel like they have some control—even if actually going to school isn't one of them. If they cry in the morning and say they don't want to go to, you can say calmly and sweetly, "Honey, you chose your outfit and snack, but school is not your choice."

Don't Create Expectations

Refrain from endless discussions about how school is going to be fun, how they will love school like their cousin does, or how they will become more mature in school. None of this is going to register with your toddler. The calmer and more matter of fact you are in your approach to school, the better this will be in the long run for both you and your child.

Prepare Ahead of Time

One key to a successful drop off is planning. Have two outfits ready for the morning and remember to let your child choose one. Have the socks and shoes ready as well. Prepare the snack and lunch ahead of time. My wonderful late mom told me that she made my lunch on frozen bread every evening before school. This was a shock to me. I never knew and could never tell eating the sandwich. She said that it kept the sandwich fresh and allowed her to grab the lunch bag in the morning and go. Following her example, I made sandwiches on frozen bread every day that my now two adult sons went to school with. They never knew either and it made school mornings much easier.

Adjust Your Child's Bedtime

Research shows kids who get enough sleep have better behavior, learning, and mental and physical health. Focus on your child's bedtime weeks in advance of the first day of school. I meet parents every single day who tell me that school will be a problem because their 2-year-old stays up until 10:00 p.m. every night. Start adjusting the bedtime 20 minutes earlier every day for several days until they get used to going to sleep earlier. Start the bath time, bedtime story, tooth brushing, and other routines incrementally earlier until you can accomplish everything and get your child to bed at a reasonable hour. If it involves tantrum throwing or crying at first, those should eventually go away.

Expose Kids to Other Programs Beforehand

Enroll your child in as many "Mommy & Me" type programs as you can before sending them to a formal drop off class. In my center, I designed our pre-drop off programs to follow the same sort of schedule as the drop off program. The toddlers start off with free play, then transition to the circle time, dancing, crafts, as well as story and snack time, all with an adult present. By attending our "Mommy & Me" class, the children learn how to transition from activity to activity, learn how to share, how to use craft materials, and sing age-appropriate songs all with the guidance of their parent or caregiver. Even if programs don't follow the same format as a school day, attending them helps make a child's transition to school easier.

Avoid Sending the Wrong Message During Drop Off

Please be strong at drop off time. Don't get emotional in front of your child. And don't tell your kid about your fun and exciting plans after you drop them off. I've learned it helps to tell your kid you are going to do something that they don't like (think laundry or cleaning the house). I have heard parents tell their crying toddlers that they are going to go visit grandma with their younger sibling before they come pick them up after school. Of course, the toddler will want to go to grandma's house and avoid school.

Also, don't linger after dropping your kid off. If you linger, you are giving your child the message that you are not comfortable dropping them off. (If you are in fact uncomfortable, it may mean you need to find another school or program that helps you feel more at ease.)

Know How To Handle Crying

Even if your child is crying, it's still OK to drop them off. One of the hardest things we as parents need to do is to realize that someone else (other than ourselves) can comfort our children. Teachers of young children are kind, caring, and seasoned professionals who will comfort and teach your child how to become a little student.

And know that crying is common in the beginning. Our program has dozens of kids enrolled each year, and more than half of them (and many of their parents) cry at those first drop offs. By week two or three, though, these children usually get acclimated to the routine, allow themselves to enjoy their day, and stop crying all together. Some kids may continue to only cry at drop off (and/or pick up). Sometimes crying becomes a habit. But that doesn't necessarily mean a child is miserable. If there is a long weekend or a school holiday, for example, many children start the crying routine all over again and the drop off process needs to be relearned. But the more often a child attends a program, the easier the drop off process will eventually be.

The Bottom Line

It may be difficult on both the parent and child once they head off to pre-school. But there are ways to make the drop off process easier on everyone. Try to relax and remember that you are giving your child a gift by sending them to a drop off program. Enjoy the experience and your child will, too.

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