Soon your child's eyes will glaze over when you say “It's time for school!”—that is, if you can get him to roll out of bed at all. Right now, though, there's nothing more thrilling to him than the idea of heading off to a classroom. You're probably feeling emotional about it, too. “It's a time of letting go,” says Amy Spangler, director of learning and development at Knowledge Universe, a global education company. “If you're confident, your child will be, too.” So take some steps to pave the way for happy macaroni-sculpture mornings and arts-and-crafts afternoons.
Think back to the last time you walked into a room full of strangers at a cocktail party. How was it? Intimidating, right? That's just how a child can feel walking into preschool for the first time (minus, oh we surely hope, the Cosmos and little black dresses). So give the best possible idea of what he'll find when he gets to class, advises Sarah Connor, lead preschool teacher at Learning Brooke school, in Cranston, RI. Read a few books together about what preschool is like; a couple of popular choices includeMaisy Goes to Preschool and What to Expect at Preschool. Or let Elmo give your kid the DL by popping in the Sesame Street—Ready for School DVD. And speaking of comfortingly familiar faces, it helps if your child is able to spot a few at school on his first day. If you don't know any of his future classmates, Connor says, “ask the school for a list beforehand, if one is available, and contact a kid.” Connor suggests one-on-one getting-to-know-you playdates, either at your house or on neutral territory, like at a nearby park.
Another great idea is to find a neighborhood kid who already attended (and liked!) your child's preschool and is willing to talk about it, adds Spangler. “He can share everything he enjoyed about the experience, and your child may feel more comfortable asking him questions than he would when he's speaking to an adult,” she explains. If the bus will be picking up your little one, visit the stop where you'll wait together.
Many schools also offer a “preview visit” shortly before the start of the year, says Lisa Andersen, a teacher at KinderCare in Westmont, IL; do your best to be there. Either the entire class will be present or about half of them. (To make it less intimidating, the school may split up the group into two different preview visits.) It's a valuable chance for your child to spend about an hour meeting some of the kids he'll soon be making Duplo towers with, as well as getting to know the teachers and aides. If he's reluctant to leave at the end, that's not a bad thing! See if the teachers will let him take home a small toy or a book, as long as he promises to return it on opening day. It'll give him something to focus on, and he'll feel like a big kid if he lives up to his responsibility and hands back the knickknack on his first day like he promised.
Skills Your Kid Needs
Nobody's expecting your little guy to march into preschool already reciting the periodic table of elements—that's October at least. But if he's mastered a few basic life skills even before he begins, he'll have an easier time. First on Connor's list: knowing how to take turns, or at least that he should. “Kids at this age tend to grab for what they want,” she observes. Start turning those times into teachable moments beyond just saying “no” by using role-play: “From now on, when your child tries to grab something from you, say ‘If I were another kid and I were using this and you wanted it, what would you say?’” Help him come up with a polite request that includes “please.” But just because he asks doesn't mean you have to hand it right over. In fact, it's a good idea not to, at least some of the time, so he also learns how to wait. “Say ‘I know you would like to use this. When I'm done with it, then you can use it.' That's the same conversation he's going to be having at school,” Connor says. A less formal way to teach him all this is to break out Candy Land, Go Fish, or any other age-appropriate game that involves taking turns.
Preschool teachers also love it when their students have experience with books. Hopefully you've been reading to your little one almost every day; from here on out, let him be the one to hold the book himself and turn the pages, something he'll likely be asked to do at various times during preschool. “I also appreciate it when kids are comfortable asking and answering questions about whatever we're reading,” Andersen says. So work a little Q&A into storytime to coax the critical-thinking process: “Why would that silly bird think a bulldozer is his mother? I'm your mommy—do you think I look like a bulldozer? Wait, don't answer that one.” You can also ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions at mealtimes to help your child ease into the rhythm of banter: “Why is Johnny your favorite friend?”
What else sets your kid off on the right foot with his teacher at pre-K and also makes him feel like he's got a pretty good handle on his new space? The same self-care skills that you appreciate in your spouse (and probably missed a lot in some of your college roommates). Help your child learn how to bring a dish from a table to the kitchen sink, put his shoes away, wash his hands thoroughly, and hang up his jacket (install a low hook on a wall). “Giving him these independence skills translates into confidence,” Andersen says. Special kits designed to sharpen pre-K skills are all over the market, but don't sweat it if you can't spring for one of these; after all, that's why you're sending your kid to preschool—to learn! “Get some chubby markers and crayons just so your child can get used to holding them, and give him experience with messy things like washable finger paints, and that's fine,” says Andersen.
So, your kid's got the gear, the skills, and a few informal meet-and-greets under his belt (well, elastic waistband). What else does he need to get? Ready! Here's how to use those last sweet days of summer:
TWO WEEKS BEFORE “Adjust your schedule so your child is going to bed and waking up at the time he'll need to during the school year,” says Andersen. If he's been night-owling it all August, move his hit-the-hay time back by about 10 or 15 minutes per night, till you're in the sweet spot. It's more important than you could even guess. “You'd be surprised how demanding preschool can be for a kid,” Andersen explains. “It tends to be much more structured and go-go than he was used to at home.” Also begin a nightly ritual of picking out your child's clothes for the next day. And while choices for breakfast are great, they're best made the night before, too, so share the menu before bedtime and let your kid make his pick then.
ONE WEEK BEFORE Start thinking about any loveys your child wants to pack for moral support. Many preschools encourage kids to tote a transitional object or two; check with yours for the policy. A stuffed animal or blanket is likely fine, though your child's all-time favorite ones probably shouldn't leave home. (Props to you if you can locate duplicates and send them off to school.) Connor suggests to her incoming students that they make a small family-album collage. “That way, they still have a piece of their family with them throughout the day, and as teachers, it gives us a few talking points we can use with your child,” she says. But your kid's security object doesn't have to be something soft and cuddly, adds Andersen. “Sometimes kids bring in a favorite book, which I will often read aloud to the whole class at storytime, and I've also had children bring in a favorite board game.”
A DAY OR TWO BEFORE If you haven't done it earlier, you'll want to make a last shopping run or two, to pick up a nap mat if one is required (something soft that isn't a lint magnet, such as a yoga mat or a padded cotton one in a fun print) and also a snack or lunch pack if your child will be eating his meal at school. There's no trick to choosing a lunch tote—aim for something lightweight and insulated, and let your child pick his favorite. As for the jars and bags you'll put inside, Connor recommends using different-size containers for each meal component: a larger one for the main offering and smaller holders, like snack-size plastic or reusable bags, for things like treats. “If you just get a bunch of same-size containers, you may add in too much of the side dishes just to fill them up, and right now you're trying to give your child visual messages about portion control,” she says. “Preschoolers are at an age where they'll still just accept whatever you're feeding them, so establish what a proper serving is.”
“I feel sorry for my students when their parents get angry at them for losing mittens. I'm forty years old, and I still lose mine!” —preschool teacher lisa andersen
Now you're really good and ready for whatever that first day of preschool throws at you and your kid (provided you know how to get finger paint and glitter glue out of clothes). Try not to make a big production out of saying goodbye that first day. “As a teacher, the hardest thing for me is when I see parents take the ‘I should stay longer because my child isn't ready for me to leave' approach,” Connor confides. “That's kind of the opposite of what you want to do. Come in, put your child's lunch and gear in his cubby, say goodbye, then go. If there's a window in the classroom door, you can use it to give him an extra wave before you leave the building. Start this routine early, because your child is a creature of habit and what you do now will be what he becomes accustomed to.” He'll learn a lot this year, but you've already taught him the most important lessons of all: that he can do this, and that while you may not be there holding his hand every minute, you're right behind him every step of the way.