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No More Long Goodbyes

Each fall, as the preschool at the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development opens for a new year, there's a scene inside the classroom that goes something like this: Two-year-old Jeff enters with his face buried in his mother's skirt. His parents look almost as nervous as he does. Meanwhile Sara, also 2, bounds in without a glance back and giggles over the toys while her mother beams. Then there's Beth, 20 months, cautiously taking a few steps into the room while twin brother Sam grabs the door for dear life, crying hysterically. His dad says, "I don't know what's gotten into Sam. He seemed so excited." For the past 25 years, as the toddler center's associate director, I've seen every type of behavior as children and parents learn to say goodbye. But whether kids act shy, jump in headfirst, or weep during those first few days, I've learned that within a short time, almost all will feel comfortable.

Patricia Henderson Shimm is the coauthor, with Kate Ballen, of Parenting Your Toddler.

Prep a Little

To help your child ease into school, use the weeks leading up to her first day to get her used to the idea of spending time away from home. She'll adjust faster and feel more in control if she's prepared for the change in her routine.

Introduce the topic by saying, "Now that you're almost 3, we've found a special place for you to meet friends, play games, and be with grown-ups called teachers." Read books that show how much fun school can be. Some good choices: Will I Have a Friend?, by Miriam Cohen; Franklin Goes to School, by Paulette Bourgeois; and Spot Goes to School, by Eric Hill.

Be careful not to build up the excitement too much. Watch your preschooler's reaction after you've brought up the subject. If she turns away or her eyes glaze over as you read or talk about it, you're overdoing it. One mother of a 3-year-old told me, "I guess I talked too much about how fun school would be and how proud I was of her. When the first day came, she acted as if she had stage fright."

It can be comforting to both of you to walk up to the school doors several weeks before class begins. You could even snap a photo of your child in front of the building. Some schools encourage teachers to make short home visits around this time. Take advantage of the opportunity if it's offered, so your child can meet her teacher on her own turf.

If the preschool sends details on what's planned for the first day, share that information with your child, keeping the message simple: "You'll play, paint, have a snack, and sing." Often teachers have an organized activity, like an arts-and-crafts project, already set up when the kids enter. Assure your child that she'll have something fun to do.

Also, make sure that you understand in advance how the school will have you separate from each other. For instance, will the parents be expected to stay in an adjacent room for the first week or leave after the first hour? Whatever the plan, tell your child. Just don't express any lingering anxiety you may feel. As long as you're at ease with the way the school kicks off the year, chances are she will be too.

The Big Day

When you walk into the classroom, steer your child to the teacher; that will let him see that you feel perfectly comfortable. Still, he may grab your leg. One father whose 3-year-old clung to him whispered to me, "I feel embarrassed that he's not as independent as the others." Try to accept your child's particular style, even if you're uncomfortable with this gripping display of love. If you get upset, your child will most likely worry and cling more. Give a hug instead.

After the initial round of hellos, follow the teacher's lead. Don't intrude on the kids' activities unless the teacher invites you over. By letting the staff members set the tone, you're showing your child that you trust he'll be safe.

Saying Goodbye

It's a good idea to let your child know that the day has arrived when you'll leave after dropping her off rather than hang around the class. Just don't tell her too far in advance. Instead of risking sleeplessness the night before, bring it up on the way to school that day. In a straightforward, low-key manner, explain that you'll take her to her room, help her get settled, and then say goodbye.

Make it clear where you'll be going and when you'll be back. You might say, "Today Mom is going for groceries while you stay with your teachers and friends. I'll come back to get you after story time. Remember, Mommy and Daddy always come back." Consider leaving something of yours, such as a scarf, with your child as a concrete reminder that you'll return. Many schools will also let a toddler bring a favorite toy or blanket. At the toddler center, we invite each child to hang a family photo in the classroom for extra reassurance.

Your farewell should be short and sweet. Experts believe that when parents hesitate or draw out their goodbyes, children have a harder time separating. (But never sneak out, or your child may lose trust in you.) Bring your child to the teacher or activity, smile, give her a hug and kiss, and walk briskly out the door. Even if you feel sad, resist such parting words as "I'm going to miss you."

Of course, it isn't easy to march out when your little one is sobbing by the sand table. Be assured that in almost every case, the teacher will calm your child and make the tears disappear within 15 minutes or so.

If your child has an unusually difficult time settling down, her teacher will usually meet with you to work out a new plan. For instance, you could come back early that day or remain in class longer the next morning. At the toddler center, one little girl sobbed nonstop on her first day  --and her second and third. She definitely needed a longer time than the others to adjust, so her mother sat quietly in the room reading the newspaper for the next 10 days. Finally, when we both agreed that the daughter was ready to stay alone, her mother said goodbye. That time there were no tears.

The Weeks That Follow

Don't be surprised if your adorable 3-year-old shows a new side during the first few weeks away from you. Some children in the throes of separation anxiety decide they need someone else to do the crying for them. What better way to get their emotions out than to bite or pinch a quieter child? Again, an experienced teacher will protect the victim and help your child find a better way to adjust.

Because separation can trigger a feeling of abandonment, keep your preschooler's life as predictable as possible for the first month. The beginning of the school year is not the time to go on trips, hire a new babysitter, or be out every night.

You may also find your newly minted student reverting to a younger stage at home. Suddenly "Dress me," "I need to sleep with you," or "I want my blanket" become common mantras. Be understanding, but don't encourage your child to return to babyhood. Instead, give him half his wish. If he wants you to dress him, simply help and say, "You do a button, then I'll do a button." It's okay to let little kids regress some, but it's important to get them back to being a preschooler again. Try saying, "Sometimes you want Mom to take care of you. That's okay. Sometimes you feel like a little boy, sometimes a big boy."

Remember that your child wants you to set limits. He'll feel safer with you in control. In fact, a big part of successful adjustment to preschool depends on the parents' positive attitude. If you truly believe your child is ready to enjoy the world without you for a little while each day, he'll thrive out there.

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