The first time I left my first son at his new daycare centre, the scene was similar to that in a Holocaust movie when the SS Soldier rips away the screaming child from his mother as he claws at her shirt and hysterically kicks the air screaming: “Nooooo. MAMA!” I got into my car and broke down crying. I felt so much guilt. I was the worst mother on earth! How could I have done that? Leave when my son was so distraught and obviously needed me? I wiped the tears off my cheeks and got out of the car. I had a plan. I would march into the classroom, snatch up my child and take him home to cuddle in my arms, where no one could ever hurt him again; but as I approached his classroom, I realized that the crying that was there just a few minutes ago, was no longer. I cracked the door open a bit and saw my son, agreeably sitting on the rug with the teacher and several other children, listening intently, as she sang “out came the sun and dried up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider…”. What’s more, he was smiling!
September is often the month when preschools and many daycares welcome their new pupils and it can be challenging for many parents and their kids. The good news is that most kids make peace with the changes sooner than you’d think. Still, here are 6 pointers that I’ve picked up over the years about making the transition as painless as possible for you both!
1. Visit the Daycare/Preschool several times before the BIG day
I was surprised to learn that many daycares actually have a policy, where the child cannot officially attend the daycare without at least 2 mandatory adjustments visits to the centre. This is a benefit on many levels, as it helps introduce your child to the new surroundings, children and teachers; it helps the teachers get to know your child and it helps you to see how the environment, schedule, structure, routines and teachers interact with your child. Everyone wins! If your daycare does not make this mandatory, insist on it. I hadn’t thought about it and it wasn’t standard with my first or second child but the third and fourth got this benefit and it made a huge difference in their adjustment!
When you do visit, stay with your child the first time but try not to use the time to play with her – it is supposed to be her time to adjust to the new surroundings, not a new place to play with mommy or daddy. Be in the room, allow her to explore, find toys or books that she finds interesting and interact with the other children. She should be able to look over at any moment and be comforted that you are there or even come up for a quick cuddle, but encourage her to explore and allow her to get distracted.
On your second visit, stay until your child is engaged in playing and then, move closer to the door. This time, you will not always be in the same, predictable spot, but you are showing your child that you are still in the room and that she is safe. If you are able to step outside the door, for a minute and then return, it will show her that you won’t abandon her but if she notices and breaks down because she thinks you are leaving her, come back into the room and reassure her with cuddles and kisses.
2. Talk to the TEACHER (not the administrators)
During one of your pre-start-date visits, use the chance to talk to the teacher, tell her about the things your child likes to do and what he finds particularly irritating. Is he sensitive or afraid of certain noises or characters? Which books or characters does he find comfort in? Mickey Mouse? Barney? Max and Ruby? Is there a comfort toy or blanket that calms him down or puts him at ease? If so, bring it along and allow the teacher to use it, as needed. Also discuss any allergies or special needs your child has. Yes, this is on the medical form that you have filled out BUT it doesn’t hurt to mention it again. My daughter was switched from one classroom to another and the teacher from her old classroom had forgotten to communicate to the new teacher that she had an egg allergy. Next thing I know, I’m flying to pick her up because she’s broken out in hives and is all itchy after the snack – egg sandwiches! Thankfully, it wasn’t a life-threatening allergy and she was fine but it never hurts to repeat things. The teachers are human and they are taking care of a number of other children.
Keep the lines of communication very open between you and your child’s teacher throughout the year. When you pick your child up from school, you are likely to hear “He had a great day today!” Oh, if I had a dime for every time I heard that… Don’t take that at face value. Ask specific questions about how he is getting along with the other kids, how long he slept, what he did or didn’t like that day, etc. Many places will give you a summary sheet that may have a lot of this information on it already but you’d be surprised at what else you can learn with just a few simple questions.
3. Read books and discuss
A few weeks before the first day, discuss with your child how BIG she is getting (even if she cannot talk back – they understand more than you would think long before they can communicate). Visit a library or a bookstore and get some books about kids like her starting school. Focus on the POSITIVE – talk about all the friends she will meet, the toys she will play with, how much fun she will have… Reassure.
4. Get the supplies list and Include your child in the planning
Most daycares and preschools will have a list of things you will need to bring with you on the first day of school. Things like a sippy cup, bib, several changes of clothing, extra diapers and wipes, a blanket and pillow, outdoor shoes, diaper cream, teethers, pacifiers, favourite toy, dish & spoon, a potty, etc. If he is old enough to participate, allow your child to pick out a little backpack with his favourite cup. Bring him along when you buy these things and let him choose. The night before, prepare his clothing together and emphasize what a BIG boy he is and how great it will be!
5. On the big day…
Deep breath! You can do this and it will be great! Bring your child in, give her lots of encouragement and hugs but be firm in explaining that you will leave and that you will return at a specific time that she will understand – after sleep time, or after the second snack. Now GO! The important thing that I have learned here, is that there is a distinct and rather short window of opportunity to leave and cause minimal damage but you can easily OVERstay that window of time and make it worse for you both. DON’T LINGER! When it’s time to go, say goodbye and allow the teacher to take it from there – even if your daughter is clawing at your pearl necklace and has already left scratch marks in your shoulder. You can stand behind the door or down the hall for a bit to listen for when she calms down but don’t torture her by allowing her to see you. That’s teasing. You’ll probably get into your car and shed a tear… it’ll be okay.
NOTE: I’m a strong believer in TELLING your kids that you are leaving and saying goodbye. I believe this builds a trusting relationship between you and your child and it shows them that you are reliable. However, some parents choose to sneak away when the child is busy playing, to minimize the separation trauma. I’m not a psychologist, but kids are pretty smart and eventually, they do figure out that you’ve sneaked out… Still, I’m not judging. Whatever works and makes you and your child most comfortable…
Call throughout the day to see how your child is doing and how he has adjusted. In most cases, the tears are very short and are gone within the first twenty minutes. If your daycare/preschool has cameras in the classroom, be sure that you are all set up with the passwords so you can catch a glance throughout the day.
6. If they’re old enough to talk…
Make a point to spend a few minutes before bedtime each night, talking about the day. Ask your child who his friends are, if there are any kids he doesn’t like in the class and why? Ask probing questions and allow him to blabber about things that most likely, have nothing to do with what you have asked. And then, LISTEN! This is such a nice, winding down routine before bedtime that is both, reassuring and will make him feel secure. You will also learn a lot about your child in these several minutes every night. After a long, busy day, it’s independent, quiet time when you have each other’s undivided attention. As he gets older, it will become a cherished time for you both to strengthen your bond.
If the separation anxiety is still really bad three to four weeks into the change, consider visiting another daycare/Preschool for a couple of days and observe your child’s reaction. If she adjusts well, there may be a problem with the first daycare environment. If the result is the same, keep at it. Some kids are much more sensitive than others and adjustments take them a bit longer to get used to. It took my oldest over 6 months to stop crying every morning when I left him in Senior Kindergarten. The teachers were a big help when I explained that he was an exceptionally sensitive and anxious child, so they were very understanding and accommodating to him. To this day (he’s in grade 3 now), he is the only one of my kids who needs me to confirm EVERY morning that I will be back to pick him up at 4:15pm. That’s just the kind of kid he is.
Remember that the objective is to raise healthy, happy, confident and independent children. Confidence comes from independence. As hard as it may be at first, step back, observe and let them take those steps on their own. Will they fall? Sure they will. Will it always be easy? Of course not. But at the end of the day, when a whole pile of challenges have been conquered, who will be there to kiss away the tears and celebrate the triumphs? YOU!