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Easing Into Preschool

Kennedy Zaccheo had just turned 3 when she started preschool. Her mom, Lisa, had enrolled her in a small program of 12 kids. "I'd looked at lots of different options and chose this one because it was a nurturing and creative environment," says Zaccheo. "It was small, and it felt like home." But of course it wasn't home, and her daughter was miserable. During the first two weeks of school, Kennedy cried and clung to her mom when she said goodbye every morning.

Painting, circle time, snacks  -- what's not to love about preschool? We imagine it will be an adventure for our kids, but for some it can be an unwanted interruption in a comfortable routine. "Children often lack the skills to deal with major transitions," says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.

It's normal for children to be apprehensive, especially if they haven't spent much time away from home. But even kids who've been in childcare since infancy can be anxious about preschool. "Significant changes can make adults nervous, but we know from experience that we can get through them," says Billingham. "For young kids, every experience is new."

How your child ultimately handles such transitions depends largely on how you react. It's a mistake to dismiss his fears or to say such things as "You're a big kid now, and big kids don't cry." At the same time, you want to be careful not to respond too emotionally. "If you say, 'I see this is really scary for you,' that only reinforces the child's fears and may even give him the idea that he should be afraid," says Billingham.

A better response, he says, is to tell a child, "I know how you feel  -- sometimes I have to do things I don't want to do, but I know it's best for me to do them." That lets you recognize the feelings but focus on what must be done. Other ways to make the transition to school go more smoothly:

Be an Early Bird

You know how awkward you sometimes feel when you walk into a party full of people? That's what it's like for a kid to arrive at school after it's already in full swing. So until your child feels comfortable, get there a few minutes early if you can. "This gives her time to settle into an activity before the rest of the crowd arrives," says Barbara Willer, Ph.D., deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit agency that accredits early-childhood programs. If you happen to be late, just ease into the class activity as calmly as possible. Another option: If your child knows any of her classmates, arrange with that friend's parent to arrive together  -- then regardless of whether you're early or late, your little one won't have to enter the room alone.

Don't Shy From Goodbyes

Even if it provokes a meltdown, let your preschooler know when you're going. "When a parent just slips out, it violates trust," says Willer. Remember, though, departures shouldn't be long or dramatic. "Be loving but firm," she suggests. For example, you could say, "Have a great day; I love you!" and then leave. (Don't linger.) That way, you'll convey the sense that you're putting him in good hands.

After you've gone through your standard goodbye for a few days, your child will know what to expect. Be sure to remind him that you'll be back after snacktime or whichever part of the school day marks your return.

A consistent ritual worked for Diane Penn of Pasadena, California, whose daughter Hannah, 3, found starting preschool difficult. "I'd hold her hand and count to three. On three, her teacher would lead her into class, saying, 'It's time for Hannah to go to school and time for Mom to go to work.'" Hannah's protests became less dramatic, and eventually she began to walk into class on her own.

Take It Slowly

Sometimes your child may need you to hang out for a bit; spending five minutes looking at a book together or getting her involved in an activity is usually all it takes. If she wants you to stay longer (and you can), figure out a plan with her teacher.

Lisa Zaccheo stayed with Kennedy for the first hour or so of class, sitting by her daughter's side for some of the activities. In a few weeks, Kennedy felt comfortable enough for her mom to leave, and ultimately the little girl loved school.

If after a couple of weeks your little one hasn't settled in, you could try telling her you'll be "right back," then return to the classroom 15 minutes later. After that, you can gradually increase the time you're away.

Dana Sullivan's last feature for Parenting was "Run, Jump, and Play!" in the August issue.


Preparing For School


  • Visit the school with your child-- ideally on a day when students are there so she can observe some activities  -- and introduce her to the teacher.


  • Get the phone numbers of a few families of future classmates so you can make an effort to arrange playdates a couple of weeks before school starts.


  • Shop for a new lunch box together(and let her choose), if your child will be bringing snacks or lunch to school.


  • Start some new daily routines, such as an earlier bedtime or laying out her clothes the night before.


  • Explain what to expect.Give her as many details as you can about what happens during a typical day: Kids paint, play outside, sing, and look at books.


  • Mark school days on a special calendar. That way, she'll have a sense of when school begins and which days she'll be going.

    What to Expect and How to React

    Expect Backsliding

    Crying jags, potty accidents, and nighttime wake-up calls  -- don't be surprised if your preschooler suddenly starts behaving like a toddler again. It's completely normal and usually lasts for only a few weeks. "There's no progression without some regression," says Carla Horwitz, director of the Calvin Hill Day Care Center and Kindergarten at Yale University.

    Regression doesn't necessarily mean that your child isn't ready for school. Pulling him out will just send the message that he's failed. Instead, it's typically a sign that he's stressed out and needs support. "Acknowledge that he's having a hard time," Horwitz says. "But tell him, 'I believe you can do this, and I'm going to help you.'"

    You may want to spend a little time at school, helping with a project or reading a story during circle time. If you can't, at least try to connect with his teacher at dropoff or pickup time  -- say hi and tell her what's going on with your child and family. Just being there and chatting a bit shows your child that you're comfortable at his school and that you want to help him master the situation.

    Also, have some extra one-on-one time together at home, even if it's 10 or 15 minutes. Let him decide what you're going to do  -- that may give him the security and sense of control he needs.

    Put on a Happy Face

    When Stacia Denkmann's son, Miles, started preschool at 3, he'd complain before they left the house. "He'd sob and say, 'I only want to be with you.' Knowing that he was so unhappy was heartbreaking," says the Carmel, Indiana, mom.

    To help her son cope, she asked his teachers at the end of each day what the kids had done and whom Miles had played with. "Then I'd ask him to tell me about the great art project or what he and his friends did when they played outside. I kept it upbeat and reminded him that he'd had a lot of fun," she says.

    Good feelings are contagious. If you're genuinely enthusiastic about your child's preschool, odds are she'll be happier about it too. It worked for Miles. After a few weeks, his complaints had stopped.

    Ideally, your child's school is run by people who genuinely care about her happiness and are willing to work with you to solve whatever problems she may have. Let the teacher know if you have concerns about your little one's transition to preschool, and ask for suggestions to help make this big change more enjoyable. The approach you take now will help to prepare her for the many changes that lie in the years ahead.