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Preschool Success!

It's hard being Batman's mommy. In particular, it's hard to get Batman (a.k.a. my 3-year-old son, Jack) to take off his costume every morning for preschool, which has a rule against them. "But I have to fight crime!" he says, shaking his head adamantly as I try to extract him from his getup for a T-shirt and jeans.

Fortunately, 3-year-olds want to be big kids who follow the rules. With the help of Jack's teacher, I explain that nobody else gets to wear their costumes to school. And besides, sometimes his bat mask scares the younger kids.

It works. Jack agrees to the T-shirt and jeans because "those are the rules." He's pleased with himself that he doesn't scare the little kids. He also knows that the first thing he can do upon arriving home each afternoon is don his bat suit and resume the battle against crime.

For 3-year-olds, and their parents, preschool is often the first foray into the wider world. It comes with new rules and expectations, which can make the experience a challenge for everyone. Luckily, many have gone before you and lived to send their kids to kindergarten, and their wisdom can help. Ways moms handle common preschool pitfalls:

Separation Anxiety

You try to drop off your daughter at school, and she shrieks as though you're leaving her and never coming back. The teacher tells you that she'll be just fine after you go, but the thought of leaving her breaks your heart. You end up loitering the halls for half the school day.

"Say your goodbyes and leave. She'll be fine." It's the hardest sentence a parent ever has to hear. But moms and experts promise it's true. "Every time you leave your child at school and come back at the end of the day as you promised, you're helping to build her security and confidence," says Trisha Czajak, a preschool teacher in Cohasset, Massachusetts. She's been through this scenario hundreds of times with parents of wailing students, and she admits to feeling slightly irritated with moms and dads who just couldn't make a clean break.

But then her own daughter became a preschooler, and she found herself on the other side of the coin. "Maggie started crying and clinging to me when I dropped her off, and even though I knew she'd be just fine, I was almost paralyzed with emotion. I suddenly realized what all my parents had been going through."

If your child has a hard time separating from you, be loving but firm. Don't sneak out when she's not looking; that will only make her cling harder the next morning. Instead, suggests Czajak, "Tell her you're going now and that you'll be back that afternoon. You might create a goodbye ritual, such as a kiss on each cheek and then a hug. Then go."

Younger kids are often comforted by a transitional object, such as a special bear or blanket from home, though some schools have rules about this. My son's preschool asks for family photos, which are posted where the kids can see them. Robin Baroway of Huntington Beach, California, used to take off the necklace she was wearing that morning and give it to her daughter at dropoff time. "Holding on to something of mine helped reassure her that I'd be back for her in the afternoon," she says. (Stick to inexpensive jewelry!)

Contributing editor Julie Tilsner is the author of Attack of the Toddlers! (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary)

Social Ostracism

You notice that your son is sitting by himself whenever you pick him up at the end of the day. He complains that he has no friends. What can you do?

Preschool is the first time many children come into regular contact with lots of other kids. Indeed, preschools were first conceived during World War II with an eye toward helping little kids learn social skills. Unfortunately, besides the usual toddler battles with self-control come their first tentative experiences with trying to relate to other kids.

When Jill Eggers of Green Bay, Wisconsin, volunteered for a week at her daughter's preschool, she noticed some disturbing social patterns. "All the kids saved seats for each other at circle time," she says. "I know this sort of thing goes on in elementary school, but I was shocked that it happens so early. I don't want my child to be in an environment where she feels isolated, or to be the one who leaves others out." She approached the teachers and suggested they put names on the carpet for circle time so seat saving was moot.

A good teacher will keep an eye out for unpleasant social dynamics, but if you're worried that your child's having trouble fitting in, ask her for suggestions based on her observations of your child. "I often break up activity groups so I can pair a child who's on the outs with one who's well liked," says Jacqueline Regev, a preschool teacher in Santa Barbara, California, who's also a mom of two. "If my own four-year-old comes home from school and she's upset about being spurned, I try to remind her that making friends often takes time. I give her an example she can relate to: "Remember when you and Jane were playing and Joe wanted to play with you but you didn't want him to? Maybe you can play with him tomorrow.'"

You may also want to ask yourself: Are other kids really ostracizing my child, or might he be pushing them away? A shy child may not feel comfortable reaching out to other kids. "Lucy, who's four, didn't make friends very easily at school," says her mom, Amey Stone, of New York City. "So I arranged playdates with some of her classmates outside of school. It also makes her feel more comfortable when she sees that I'm friendly with their moms."

Biting

You get a call from school. It seems your child has tried to bite almost every other child in her class!

Linda Chandler Gregoire, a mom of three in Albany, California, found herself in this situation when her daughter, Chandler (known as Cha-Cha), started to bite at preschool just after her brother was born. Gregoire credits Cha-Cha's teacher for her approach. "She gave Cha-Cha a teething ring and named it Ya-Ya. She didn't try to stop her from biting; she just redirected the urge to an appropriate object." The teacher also noted which situations triggered the girl's biting, such as being crowded by the other kids, and made an effort to defuse them before they started. "It worked!" says Gregoire. "Cha-Cha spent some time in the corner chomping on that ring, but she didn't bite another kid."

Although adults view biting as particularly barbaric, to a small child, it's no different from kicking or hitting. When kids bite, it's often triggered by a frustrating loss of control (the change in routine brought on by a new sibling, in Cha-Cha's case) or by not being able to communicate as effectively as others. Encouraging a child to express her anger or frustration with words instead -- and praising her when she does -- can go a long way toward curbing the habit. As with Cha-Cha, substituting something else to bite on can help too.

Potty Accidents

Your son, who's almost 3, is potty trained, more or less, when you sign him up for preschool. But a month in, he's having an accident every few days.

Potty training is often topic number one among moms of kids preparing to enter preschool. Some schools require toilet training to enroll, but parents sign their kids up anyway, presuming (or hoping) that their kids will get the hang of it before the first day. Fortunately, potty accidents are as common as smudgy shirts among the preschool set. "It's definitely a work in progress at this age," says Sharon Fingerhut, a mother of two and owner of Tutor Time Child Care Center, in Durham, North Carolina. "Even with four-year-olds, if they're engaged in something, you have to remind them constantly or they'll realize too late that they have to go to the bathroom."

Most teachers will understand this and accommodate the kids. Let your child's teacher know about any particular potty hang-ups, and simply continue to reinforce training at home. Extra pressure will just make things worse.

"When my son had accidents, the teacher and I tried not to draw too much attention to it, since he already felt ashamed enough," says Christine Anderson of Mount Prospect, Illinois. "We just made sure he always had a change of clothes at school and reminded him to go to the potty before it was too late next time." Another idea: Send your child to school wearing his favorite big-kid underwear, with whatever cartoon character or action hero he likes most -- it's an incentive to stay dry.

Fortunately, as kids make the transition to preschool, it's the rare problem that can't be solved through the combined efforts of the teacher, your child, and you. And for the really hard problems, there's always Batman.

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