Starting Back to School Prep

Concerned About Getting Preschool Off to a Good Start? Here’s How

For kids of all ages, starting school is a big deal. Even older students who have been through the new-school-year drill many times get excited and anxious when go-back time comes around.  

While there are many variations on the back-to-school theme, this discussion focuses on beginnings, specifically, starting preschool. Starting preschool is a big change for every child and deserves to be treated as such. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help your child get their school years off to a good start.  

Choose Your Preschool Carefully and Make Sure Your Child Is Ready

Although the best time for starting preschool depends on a number of factors, you’ll have a pretty good idea when your toddler is ready to make this important move up from babyhood. Signs to look for include being able to follow simple directions, handling separations from you for at least short periods of time, focusing on a task, wanting to play with other kids, mastering basic self-care skills, being potty trained, and understanding what to expect in the classroom.  

Remember that preschool is different from daycare and requires different skills. While both daycare and preschool provide licensed supervision of children in a group setting, daycare centers handle children from infancy, providing meals, playtime, and nurturing, but often with no formal educational component. (Certainly many daycare facilities include well-defined learning programs geared to the ages of children in their care. Still, preschool is a more formalized, structured approach centered on a classroom environment.) Preschool is an educational institution for early childhood learning, offering age-appropriate lessons presented by teachers with early education certification and degrees. Most preschools follow CDC guidelines stating preschool age is from three to five. Kids younger than that generally cannot manage a steady curriculum, so readiness is fundamental to a child’s success. And while preschool is optional in the U.S., quality instruction helps build early literacy and math skills, increase vocabulary, improve gross and fine motor skills, teach independence, and promote socialization, giving kids an advantage that pays off throughout their lives.  

Once you’ve decided preschool time has arrived, you’ll want to thoroughly research facilities in your area before deciding where your child will go. That’s a daunting task involving myriad variables ranging from proximity to your home, to educational approach and emphasis, to cost. Talking to other families with preschool-age children is a valuable resource. Plus, you’ll absolutely want to visit schools that make it to your shortlist. Since the best early childhood learning is built on trusting relationships, paying close attention to how teachers interact with children is essential. Look for talking with kids at their eye level, addressing students by name, being nurturing and encouraging, and helping rather than punishing. Surroundings are fun, joyful, and full of kids’ work; children are active, with lots of outdoor time; and staff obviously enjoy what they’re doing and where. Other classroom must-haves are rest mats and floor cushions; reading nook, tables and chairs, music center; storage; blocks, puzzles, and art supplies; manipulative items for hands-on learning of fine motor skills; and large, outdoor equipment to get bodies and muscles moving.  

Above all, give yourself as much time as possible for research and make sure you’re comfortable with your choice. Youngsters pick up on your emotional signals, so your confidence gets communicated when your child actually goes to school.   

Get Ready Ahead of Time to Make the First Day – and Beyond – Go Smoothly

Up-front preparation goes a long way toward making the start of preschool a success. Here are several actions you can take in advance and on the big day.

  • Talk to your child and explain what’s happening. Let him or her know about the change coming up, that they will be attending a different school, following a different schedule, working with new teachers, meeting new friends, and learning new skills. If there are older siblings in the family, your child will be familiar with what’s happening and likely excited at taking this growing-up step. Kids in daycare are already accustomed to being away from home so may slide easily ahead. Stay-at-home youngsters could have a tougher time moving into preschool because it’s so unfamiliar. Separation anxiety is very real for many children, even those with daycare or sibling experience, and perfectly natural as kids move into this new phase of their lives. You can ease their fears by being excited about preschool and giving them as much information as possible about the change. Be sure to sort through your own emotions about your baby growing up so you’re ready for an upbeat send-off when the time comes.  
  • Visit the school and get acquainted with the people and place. To introduce your child to the new environment, tour the preschool before the first day. Meet the teachers, take photos to review at home, and talk about what happens throughout the school day. While you’re there, build a relationship with teachers, aids, and other caregivers by telling them about your child’s likes and dislikes so they have an idea of what to expect. Be sure to get the supply list so you and your child know exactly what to take to school.
  • Get the backpack ready ahead of time. Let your preschooler pick out their own backpack, lunch box, pencil set, water bottle, and other school items. Assemble everything well in advance to smooth the morning get-out-the-door routine. Including a comfort object, such as a family photo or favorite stuffed animal, can help kids feel comfortable while they’re at school. Slipping in a change of clothes, extra underwear, and a plastic bag are a good idea since accidents happen. For kids who take their own lunches, ask them about preferences and let them help you prepare their favorites.  
  • Establish your morning routine. At least a week before school starts, practice waking up, getting ready, and leaving for school at the correct time. Avoiding a chaotic scramble as much as possible helps everybody get a positive start on the day.   
  • Develop a goodbye ritual at home and stick to it at school. To feel comfortable in the school setting, your child needs to know that you’re leaving and when you’re coming back. Setting up a hug, kiss, high five, or other departure signal helps transition the child’s focus from you to school; that, in turn, can ease separation anxiety. When it’s time to leave, take a few minutes to get your child settled, then complete your ritual and go, even if your child cries, protests, or begs you to stay. Don’t linger but don’t sneak away either; both can exacerbate your child’s concern. Skilled teachers are masters at distracting anxious youngsters and getting them involved in another activity. In most cases, crying ceases within 10 minutes of your departure as children engage in the day.  

Depending on the child, goodbye issues are usually over within a few weeks. Observing a shorter school day for the first week or so may also be a good idea, just to ease the transition. To engage the whole family in this important new beginning, take pictures so everybody can participate in the excitement of your preschooler’s first day. And imagine how your youngster will react when you show off the photos in 15 years!