As the summer winds down, the start of a new school year is fast approaching. For many children this will mean their first entry into the world of preschool. Understandably, this transition will be met with the full range of emotional responses, from excitement and curiosity, to fear and anxiety.
I've had thirty-five seasons of welcoming fresh batches of preschoolers to their first structured away-from-home experience. As you might imagine, given the many hundreds of children I've encountered over those years, I've seen just about every response possible. Not only is this a challenging juncture point in the life of a child, but this can also be a very provocative time for parents, as they prepare to send their baby off to unfamiliar adults and new experiences over which they have limited control.
I've found that it's best to acknowledge both ends of the emotional spectrum: both the excitement which comes with new beginnings, as well as the natural grief and anxiety that accompanies the ending of a treasured time. When both pieces are acknowledged and felt, the possibility of a smooth and relatively stress-free transition is enhanced.
As a parent it's important to be sensitive to your child's feelings during this period. Recognize that no matter his personality or style, starting preschool is a challenge for most children and requires a child to readjust his sense of self and place in the world. No longer is his world limited to just his family and at-home caregivers. No longer will he be the exclusive focus of a parent or nanny. Now he is one of many, and it will be necessary to share the attention of the teachers with other children.
At my school, we encourage parents to stay in the classroom as long as necessary during the transition, until we all agree that the child is ready to be on her own. We want to be sure that a sense of trust and confidence has been established, not only in the child, but just as importantly, with the parents as well. This means no pulling a screaming a child from the parent's arms at some arbitrary point of transition. Instead, it requires a careful and well-considered plan for each child that fits that child's personality and style. Some children are natural risk takers and come bounding into the classroom eager for new adventures. Others are more naturally cautious and require more time and reassurance to feel safe and at ease. There is no one style fits all prescription, so we try our best to honor each child's temperament, with the goal of making the transition as smooth and trauma free as possible.
This does not mean avoiding tears and upset at all costs, but it does mean using good judgment and intuition, as well as the important input from the parent, to tailor-make a transition plan that will be best for each particular child. This might entail the parent leaving for fifteen minutes or so, and then returning so the child learns that mom always comes back. It always means one of the teachers establishing personal contact with the child, so that he can begin to transfer his feelings of trust and confidence to this new adult in his life.
All of this takes time and tremendous patience, but it is time well spent with many rewards. A successful first school experience often sets the framework for all future school experiences, and is an important milestone in your child's gradual movement toward autonomy and independence.
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