Excited, worried about separation, a bit sad or not sure what to expect? When your child is starting pre-school, these feelings are all normal – for your child and for you! Here are some tips and strategies to help your child settle in at pre-school.

Starting pre-school: what to expect

Your child is probably feeling excited as well as a bit nervous about starting pre-school.

She might have already been to child care or playgroup and feel comfortable about joining a new group. Or pre-school might be your child’s first experience of being away from family.

You might be feeling a mixture of pride, excitement, loss and anxiety as your child becomes more independent, particularly if you’re doing this for the first or last time.

Before your child starts pre-school

You can start getting your child ready for pre-school in the months and weeks before the first day. Here are some tips.

Visit the pre-school 

Many pre-schools offer orientation visits. During these visits, your child can see and experience what he’ll do at pre-school, who he’ll meet, and what happens during the pre-school day. With permission, you could take some photos of the pre-school to show your child before he starts. Some pre-schools have a preparation or orientation book that you can take home with you.

Talk about pre-school

You can talk about the things your child will do at pre-school. For example, ‘Stella, do you remember we saw blocks at pre-school? You’ll be able to build with them like you do at home’. You could look at photos of the preschool and talk about some of the things that are different from home, like the toilets and playground.

Follow your child’s lead with talking, so that your child feels comfortable talking about pre-school, but doesn’t hear about it so often that it becomes overwhelming. If your child doesn’t seem interested when you talk about pre-school, don’t push the conversation.

Keeping things low key can be a good idea too. If you say ‘Isn’t it exciting that you’re starting pre-school?’, your child might start to feel more anxious because it sounds like a big deal.

Read books about pre-school

Here are some good books for children about starting pre-school:

  • Chu's First Day of School by Neil Gaiman

  • The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing

  • Monsters Love School by Mike Austin

When your child starts pre-school 

Here are some tips and strategies to help you and your child in the early days and weeks of starting pre-school.

Start gradually

Many pre-schools invite parents to stay for a while during the day in the early days. Speak with the pre-school teacher and work out a plan that works for you, your child and the pre-school. It’s a good idea to tell your child how long you’re staying, so she doesn’t get a surprise when you leave. 

Establish some routines

Routines can help your child feel safe and secure, particularly when new things are happening. You could set up a routine for pre-school mornings – for example, get up, have breakfast, clean teeth, get dressed, pack lunchbox and go. You could even make a chart with pictures showing the different steps in your routine.

Develop a routine for saying goodbye

Say goodbye to your child so that he knows you’re going, and tell him that you’ll pick him up at the end of the day. You could choose a special place to say goodbye, or an activity to do before you go. For example, ‘If you wave to me from that window, I’ll be able to see you’, or ‘Which book will we read before I go?’ Say goodbye once and leave. Lots of goodbyes can be stressful for both you and your child.

Communicate with the pre-school teachers

Children get confidence from seeing warm, positive and friendly interactions between important people in their lives, like their parents and teachers. Good communication with your child’s teacher also helps you share relevant information and helps the teacher know how best to respond to your child.

Celebrate your child’s achievements

Joining a new group, meeting new people, navigating a new environment and learning new ways of doing things are big achievements for your child. You can build your child’s confidence and sense of competence when you celebrate these. For example, you could use descriptive praise (“I like that you tried playing the game even though you’ve never played it before.”) when your child meets new people or tries something new. Or you could encourage your child to call a grandparent, aunt or family friend to share her achievements.

Have back-up collection plans

Many pre-school sessions finish at a specific time. If you tell your child you’ll be there at a specific time, it’s important that you’re there. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan, so that if you’re delayed or there’s a problem, someone you and your child know and trust can be there to pick him up.

Your child is worried about pre-school: what to do

Starting pre-school can be exciting for your child. But anxiety and tiredness are normal too – there’s so much for your child to get used to. You might notice that your child isn’t eating as much, or wants to sleep more. She might even seem less happy than normal.

Your child might be worried about finding friends, knowing what to do or being separated from family. He might get upset when you leave him.

Your child might also worry about what you’ll be doing while she’s at pre-school. Will you be doing something special – will she be missing out?

Tips to handle worries about starting pre-school

  • Let your child know what you’ll be doing. This can help reassure him that he’s not missing out, especially if you try to save his favourite activities for when he’s with you.

  • Talk with your child about pre-school routines.

  • Talk to the teacher if your child gets upset when you leave her. Pre-school teachers are experienced at helping children through separation and will have ideas to help you and your child.

  • Ask the teacher about what might be worrying your child. The teacher can tell you what happens during the pre-school day. Your child might be unsure about using the toilets, not used to the food the pre-school provides, or worried about where his things are.

  • Talk with the teacher about strategies to handle specific worries. For example, if your child is worried about food, you might be able to pack some familiar food for your child. If using the toilets seems to be the problem, the teacher can help your child get used to using them. Labelling your child’s things can help her keep track of them.

It can take time for your child to get used to the routine of going to pre-school. If you feel your child isn’t settling in, and advice from the teacher isn’t working, you could also try talking to your General Practitioner (GP) or your paediatrician.

Your child doesn’t want to go to pre-school anymore: what to do 

Sometimes children’s excitement carries them through the first few days. But after a few days or weeks, the novelty wears off. You might notice that your child seems less keen about going to preschool.

One thing you can do in this situation is keep reacting positively to what your child does at pre-school. This can help to spark his enthusiasm again.

Getting to know other children and families can help your child build friendships that will help her settle into pre-school over the longer term.

A predictable routine can also help your child realise that pre-school is a regular part of his life now. But if your child’s anxiety persists, talk to the pre-school teacher, your GP or your paediatrician.

The stepladder approach is a step-by-step way of helping with anxiety in children. It’s based on the principle of ‘graded exposure’. This means starting off small, tackling the little things before you face the really scary things.

Your feelings about your child starting pre-school

Your child takes cues from you, so if you’re worried about pre-school, she’ll pick up on this.

You might be feeling worried about whether your child will fit in – will he find friends, feel comfortable, feel like he belongs at pre-school and be able to do what’s asked of him?

If you show your child that you think she can manage at pre-school, she’ll start to believe it too. Try not to let your child know about any worries you might have. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to other parents about how they’re doing this.

Developing good communication with the pre-school teachers can also help you overcome these kinds of worries.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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