The first day at a new pre-school can be met with a mix of excitement and anxiety for children and parents alike. Although, it is fun to embark on a new adventure and many children delight in the feeling of being ‘big’, change can be scary for little ones (and their parents).
While a good morning routine might get you and your child out of the door on time, that final goodbye could leave the most upbeat child anxious.
It is only natural for children to feel anxious when saying goodbye to their parents. In fact, separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development. It can begin before their first birthday and pop up again (multiple times) until age four, and sometimes into school. Some children seem to be doing just fine with the transition only to experience separation anxiety a few weeks later.
Crying, tantrums and clinginess are all common symptoms of children struggling with separation anxiety. Parents should also be on the lookout for signs of regressed behaviour. Try not to worry too much if your recently toilet trained child suddenly fails to make it to the toilet on time. When a child is challenged by a new developmental task, they are likely to temporarily lose ground in an area recently mastered.
As you prepare to drop your child off at preschool, try these strategies to help your child cope with separation anxiety.
Confront parental uncertainty:
It is perfectly normal for parents to worry about the transition into a new preschool. It is hard to trust a new person or a new preschool with a little one. Children will pick up on their parents’ uncertainty. If parents hesitate, the child will feel unsafe.
Start with a warm up:
Bring your child to visit the preschool a couple of times before the first day. Many preschool’s offer visiting days. Comforted by parental presence, your child will feel free to explore the classroom and check out the toys. This is also a great time to ask about the first day routine and chat with the staff about the typical schedule.
Create a goodbye routine:
Creating a specific goodbye routine prior to the first day of preschool can ease some of the anxiety about that final goodbye. Try one or more of these ideas:
Send positive signals:
While it might be tempting to sneak out the moment your child is distracted, this can actually cause stress for your child later in the day. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and normalise their worries. It’s perfectly natural to feel a little bit scared, and a little bit of empathy can help your child feel safe and understood.
Watch your body language as you say goodbye. You might feel sad, but you want your child to feel safe and secure in this new, fun environment. Stand up straight and smile for your little one to model a cheerful goodbye.
How do you know whether regression is a sign of something other than a touchpoint, in this case the transition to preschool? When do these signal something more serious?
Certainly, the regression should not last more than a couple of weeks, at the most. It should not be pervasive throughout the day, for days and days. So, although younger children starting at preschool may be talking some baby talk, or they may wet the bed or have more trouble separating to go to sleep, you shouldn’t see less of other normal functioning at other times of the day. They should not lose interest in playing.
How can parents assess whether the preschool they’ve chosen is working for their child?
The first thing to gauge is whether the staff understand that they’re not just there to support the child, but also the parent. Do they let parents stay in the classroom for the first session to help the child make the adjustment? How forthcoming are they about reporting both the ups and downs of the day? Again, you would expect a child to resist going for the first days, maybe for the first week or two. You might expect them to have a tantrum at the end of the day when they see you. What is helpful is to look in the window to see what they’re doing. If they are sitting on a lap, busily playing side-by-side with another child or playing with something else – those are all good signs. If they are wandering around aimlessly or sitting in a corner looking sad and not being attended to, these are not so good signs.
Some children have emotional outbursts when their parents pick them up from preschool. Are these a cause for concern?
When your child has a tantrum, that does not mean that they are not doing well. It tells you that they really missed you and can finally let go and be flooded by the feelings they were trying to fight back all day. The fact they miss you doesn’t mean the preschool is not going to work. You can reassure your child and say, ‘I missed you too and, I’m eager to see you because we love each other and we have fun together’.
Once regressive behaviours – like trouble separating – subside and the child appears to have successfully made the transition to preschool, can parents expect those behaviours to occasionally return?
Yes. For example, if you go away on a holiday or the preschool closes for a break, your child may experience another shorter adjustment period. If someone your child is close to leaves the setting you may notice these behaviours again. Then there are other things of course that can cause these regressive behaviours, like developmental touchpoints, or the birth of a new sibling, or a stressful time in the parents’ life. When you think about it, we all regress throughout our entire lives, whenever we do something new and challenging like move, or switch jobs, or get married. There will be things the child is working on too.
If you ever have any questions, speak to the preschool staff. Do not sit and worry as most things can be easily solved if everyone works together.