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Allison LaTona, M.F.T.
Psychotherapist | Parenting Coach + Educator

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Transitioning to Preschool

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The transition to preschool can be filled with excitement and challenge.  This new experience brings opportunity for wonder, investigation, exploration, and discovery; it brings new friendships and other meaningful relationships that will be a large part of your child’s learning and development.  It is a time when your child is given many opportunities to feel competent, as they engage in problem solving, master new skills, and express their creativity in new ways. 

Along with all of these wonderful opportunities for growth, comes the challenge of transition and separation.  The experience of separating from you is a process they all must embark on for healthy development, but is often not without tears and anxiety.  As parents, we must trust that the tears do not necessarily mean that your child (2.9-3+yrs old) is not ready for this experience, but rather that the unknown can be initially uncomfortable.  As you have been your child’s secure-base for all this time, the loving figure who they could always count on to help them feel a sense of calm and that all was okay, this time of transition to new surroundings, new relationships, and with a new set of limits is an adjustment that is not always easy. 

The good news is that there is a lot we can do as parents to ease the transition.  Preparing yourselves as parents to both tolerate and validate your child’s emotions, knowing this is all part of the experience they must go through, and then anchoring your child in what they can control is essential.  There is so much in our child’s lives that is not in their control, and yet they are driven to feel autonomous and independent, and have a sense of power.  The following are valuable ideas that will give your child the sense of emotional safety and control that will help them move through this challenge:

Separation begins at the car

The separation process begins before you enter those preschool doors.  It is important that you do not carry your child into school, as it will make the goodbye more difficult.  Having your child carry their own lunchbox and walk in with you will ease the transition, as they are then already accessing their independence, which is what they need for this experience. If they protest you not holding them, playfully invite their power into the experience, so as to redirect their focus to their drive for autonomy…eg.  “Let’s put our marching legs on and march into school!...”

Connect your child to their teachers, environment, and new friends

It is also very important to connect your child to the environment and the teachers, so as to facilitate the pending goodbye. When you walk into school, it is time to shift from engaging with your child to engaging them into what is offered in the environment, as well as their teachers and friends. If your child is clinging, and you just sit with it, you are remaining engaged, which is not helpful in this moment. Instead move into action to engage them with their new school.  Invite them to show you where their cubby is, or where the school pet is.  Be curious with them about what is offered in this experience and direct them to their teachers and peers.  eg. “ wow, look at the choices for today…let’s show Jessica what you found…or…let’s see if Mary can help you…”. 

Create a goodbye ritual

Developing a goodbye routine helps your child know what to expect and smooths transition. When children know what to expect, they feel safe, and in control.  Therefore, telling your child the plan around any part of the transition can be very helpful, eg. “after circle-time, (or after mommy reads you a book, etc), it will be time for mommy to say goodbye…mommy will go to the market, and then mommy will be back after lunch.”

It is also helpful to involve your child in creating a routine that they can count on to facilitate the parting.  eg. how would you like to say goodbye?... read a book, wave at the window, blow kisses?...”  This gives your child that important sense of control; they learn they cannot control that “school is not a place for mommies and daddies to stay”…  but that they can choose how you leave, which facilitates the transition.  Always end the goodbye plan with the reassurance of when you will return. eg. “mommy always comes back after snack/lunch/nap!”

Create a book to smooth transition

If your child is still challenged, making a picture book of school (taking photos upon our child’s direction of the environment and teachers with the message that this is Josh’s new school and teachers, with the ending message “mommy always comes back”) can be extremely helpful.  If given the opportunity, doing this as a preemptive measure is wise as well.  Check out www.twigtale.com for personalized books to ease transitions.

Connect school to home

Giving your child concrete reminders to have at school of home and your connection can be very helpful in the adjustment.  Putting a family photo in their cubby, a laminated photo of you in their pocket, reading books like “The Kissing Hand” https://www.amazon.com/Kissing-Hand-Audrey-Penn/dp/1933718102, a home visit from their teacher, and play-dates are all valuable tools in this process.  When teachers do a home visit, it connects home to the school environment by personalizing this special relationship and creating a sense of safety, which lends itself to your child increasingly leaning on them at school in lieu of you.  Similarly, playdates cultivate connections outside of school that the child can then carry into the school experience, fostering further adjustment.

Not wanting to go to school

If your child is saying that they don’t want to go to school, remember to tolerate their feelings, reflect them, and then connect them to something they can control or that pulls their attention into what may interest and motivate them. eg. “I hear you don’t want to go to school today…(long pause)…I wonder if Sophia will be there? or… I wonder what you will be building today?”…or… ”what would you like in your lunch?...” 

Know that although preschool looks just like play and fun, this transition and experience is hard work for your child, leading them to often say they don’t want to go or they don’t like it.  Most of the time this is not about it being the wrong fit of a school, but rather about the emotional work it takes to adjust.  Trust your child’s process and give them the message they are “a boy/girl who can do hard things.” 

Separation ebbs and flows for years to come

Remember, this is a process that is essential in your child’s development, and is met with varied responses from children; but they all have to go through it at some level at various junctures.Some may not be crying at school, but may be having increased tantrums at home, night-waking, or bedwetting.Children ‘hold it together’ at school, and then unleash their emotions at home where they feel safest, thus impacting behavior.This is all a normal part of the process as your child adjusts, and gains comfort in this new experience.Some will have delayed separation anxiety.Either way, the process will ebb and flow all the way through the preschool years and beyond.An acceptance, trust, and confidence will develop in time that there is a lot of great opportunity to embark on, and most importantly that you DO always come back.

Allison LaTona