Starting preschool is a big step for a child, and parents can play an essential role in preparing their little one for this new experience. Here are a few simple strategies to ensure a smooth transition.
"There's no need to start preparing your child for preschool months in advance" says Silvana Clark, a preschool teacher in Bellingham, Washington and the author of 600 Tips For Early Childhood Directors. "Some well-meaning parents begin talking about preschool and building it up too far ahead of time, and by the time school starts, the child feels this is a huge event in her life, which can be overwhelming to a little one" Instead, start talking about preschool in a casual, upbeat manner about two to three weeks before class starts. For example, if you drive by a playground, Clark suggests that you say, "When you go to preschool, you'll have a slide like that one" or "There's your school. I'll walk in with you right by that blue door. Your teacher, Miss Suzie, will be there." This lets your child know what to expect and gives her something to look forward to.
Establish a Set Schedule
Following a routine provides opportunities for making decisions and acting responsibly, and having a daily schedule can help ease your child's transition to the structure of a preschool setting. Rebecca Palacios, Ph.D., senior curriculum advisor for ABCmouse.com, explains that "children learn best when routines and daily schedules are established. Routines provide opportunities to learn about order, sequencing, and concepts of time. Established routines make for smoother transitions and help children to prepare mentally for the day ahead while providing frameworks in which creative learning can occur."
Julie Nelson, a professor of early childhood education and a former preschool teacher, agrees on the importance of structure and rules. "If you don't have a consistent schedule at home, your child will likely have difficulty adjusting to school." She suggests establishing the following routines at home to prepare a child for preschool.
Stick With Morning and Bedtime Routines
If done consistently, routines give the preschooler a sense of belonging and reassurance, and provide parents with frequent opportunities to connect with their child, so it's best to be available, attentive, and responsive to your child's needs. An early-morning routine can include helping your child make her bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth and hair, and assemble personal items. Young children typically love a Good Morning chart with the tasks listed in order and a picture next to each item to provide a visual reminder for what is expected of them. Some preschool classrooms have similar daily schedules, which help prepare and organize your child.
Bedtime means sleeping in a dark room alone, which can often stir up nighttime fears. A comforting routine before bedtime can include: bathing, changing into pajamas, reading a book, brushing teeth, saying prayers, discussing the day's events, singing a song, giving hugs and kisses, and "tucking in." These tasks add closure to the day, settle down a restless child, and provide additional bonding.
Take Advantage of Teachable Moments
Children are naturally curious about the world, and this makes life full of teachable moments. In the midst of a busy day, find brief opportunities to slip in simple lessons about life. Nelson believes teachable moments can help a child learn about and understand empathy. "This can be done through serving others to help your child gain an awareness of others," she says. "Look for ways to help a neighbor and ask, "How does it make you feel to help Ms. Brown?" When another sibling or friend is having a difficult time, use that as a teaching moment with your child. Talk about the situation and why the sibling or peer is experiencing those feelings. Ask your child if she ever feels that way too and how she might be able to help."
Dr. Palacios is also a firm believer in teachable moments. She encourages parents to "point out and ask children questions about changes in the weather, leaves falling, or snow on the ground. Teachable moments can take place when a bird flies by, a dog barks, or a cat sheds. A lot of that learning will occur naturally, but parents can also help it along."
Fine-Tune Fine Motor Skills
Prior to preschool, help your child develop his fine motor skills during play by creating a fun craft that involves snipping paper, coloring, and gluing. Brittany Hoffer, Ph.D., Occupational Therapy Instructor at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center suggests having your child manipulate modeling clay to form shapes and letters, which will prepare him for future handwriting demands at school. Hide small beads or coins inside putty and have your child locate them; this activity addresses dexterity and improves hand strength, which will in turn improve small hand tasks such as manipulating small fasteners and using scissors. Provide little ones with Play-Doh and scissors as well. "Cutting Play-Doh provides practice with proper hand placement and gives a child the basic idea of how to open and close the scissors for cutting," Dr. Hoffer says.
Set up Daily Chores
Even a child can clear his plate from the table, pick up toys, dress himself, feed a pet, and make other small household contributions. Always give support and encouragement when chores are completed.
Make Time for Reading
Read to your child every day to foster a love for reading and to enhance your child's vocabulary. "When we give children the gift of books and language, we are providing them with imaginative experiences that are important in building creative thinkers and innovators. Always have reading material on hand in the car, in the kitchen, in your child's bedroom, and even outside. Whether books are checked out of the library or bought at the market or a bookstore, good children's literature provides the rich language needed for your child to be successful in school," Dr. Palacios says.
Plan a Sneak Peek of the School
Julie Bragdon, formal preschool teacher and assistant head of school at the Montessori School of Denver, believes it's a good idea to visit the school ahead of time while it's in session. Introduce your child to the teacher and give him time to observe and explore the room. If it's not possible to visit a class during the day, visit the new school on a weekend or evening. "Play on the playground and walk around the campus. Explain what is going to happen there -- like story times, meeting classroom pets, learning new things, and eating snack with new friends."
Look Out for Separation Anxiety
It's perfectly natural for children to experience separation anxiety during the first few weeks when they're dropped off at school. Be prepared for a few tears, but stay positive so that your child doesn't pick up on any anxious feelings that you may have about leaving her. On the drive to school, let your little one know how her day will proceed so that she knows what to expect. When you drop her off, calmly assure her that you will return at the end of the day. Keep your goodbyes short and sweet. Don't linger, as that will only make the separation more difficult for both you and your child. Once your child adjusts to the new school setting, goodbyes will be much easier.