The day your child starts preschool is going to be a big day and a big deal. Not only are you leaving your precious bundle of joy in the hands of people who, let’s be honest, you don’t really know or trust yet, but your little one also has to start fending for herself, has to start making friends of her own and, hardest of all, has to forge relationships with teachers and helpers whom she doesn’t know in a totally foreign environment.
Most of all – she has to do all of this without you! How can you help her to cope with all these changes to her routine? How can you help her to deal with her (and your) separation anxiety? And what can you expect in those first few weeks?
Don't leave me here!
While some children never shed a tear when they start school, others battle to separate from their moms. Lorraine Galp, Cape Town mom of two, had the classic experience. “My little boy loved it,” she says, “right up until I tried to leave. He then cried and begged not to be left, and it left me feeling wrecked. “
While watching their moms walk out that door can indeed be very traumatic for some children, the good news is that sometimes (not always) this can have a lot to do with you. According to educational psychologist Kate Scott, “Children read so much from their mother’s body language, and so much of a child’s separation anxiety can come from the mother, who is usually the one struggling with the fact that her little baby is leaving her."
She adds that often the child is worrying more about her mother than she is about going to school – even when she’s just two. “Often, once mom’s gone, the child is absolutely fine. Of course, there will be those children who genuinely are just anxious or who aren’t fine and don’t settle for whatever reason,” she says.
It’s not going to be easy, but if your child is struggling, in order to make those early weeks as easy as possible for her, you have to put your emotions to one side, reassure your child that she’s going to have fun at school, and that you will be back to fetch her.
“It’s vital that you stay positive, confident and persevere,” maintains Kate, adding that you must tell your child that every day will get a little bit easier. “If she’s really struggling, then try giving her something of yours – a bangle, a scarf or something familiar, something that can help her to cope without you. Most importantly, you need to make it clear that school is a safe place, and make it as predictable as possible for her, as children love routine and structure.”
For example, she suggests that you tell her what her teacher’s going to do, or that you will push her on the swing three times before you leave, or colour in one picture with her.
If all else fails, and your child simply won’t let go of you when you try to leave, getting dads or other parents in lift clubs to do the dropping off has also been known to work. “When Tristan refused to go to school, I had my friend take him. It helped a lot having him say goodbye at home as opposed to at school,” says Lorraine.
Refusing to go to school
“I don’t want to go to school” are words that many moms have had to endure. So what should you do about them?
“If your child is refusing to go to school, you need to be very careful about giving in, as this means that you’re letting her call the shots. It’s vital that your child knows that you know what’s right for her. And most importantly, you and your partner need to be on the same page regarding this. Don’t let Dad say it’s okay to miss a day, or vice versa,” explains Kate.
Something else you might want to consider is your child’s sleeping habits. If your child is still sleeping in your bed, it might make it harder for her to separate and go to school in the morning.
What changes to expect
Starting school will bring about huge changes in your child’s everyday routine. She will come home exhausted and possibly even be too tired to eat. If she is staying at school all day, she will need to sleep there. If this isn’t an option, then your child will most likely need an earlier bedtime to compensate.
“It’s very important for your child to have a nap after school,” says Kate, adding that as long they’re not sleeping for longer than two hours and it’s not affecting their night sleep, it’s all good. Afternoon naps right up until primary school are a good idea.
You can also expect behavioural changes in those first few weeks, she says. “Sharing is a huge issue for two-year-olds, something that they will have to learn to do at school. Often, they will come home frustrated and lash out at you.”
Five tips to ease the transition
- Do it in phases: According to Tina McLagan, preschool teacher at Kiddies Paradise @ St James in Kenilworth, Cape Town, "It's a good idea to start with short days and slowly lengthen them." And even if you're planning on sending your child to school two or three times a week, for the first week, you should send them every day so that they get used to it, she recommends.
- Don't hang around: Tina urges moms and dads not to linger at the school. "Bring your child in, hang up his bag, play with him for five minutes or so, and then leave," she says.
- Sometimes it's actually about you: If your child is crying, you have to trust the teachers, Tina says. She adds that to ease the transition, you could ask your child's teacher to send you reassuring SMSes, photo's or videos. "I really think it's harder for the moms. Generally once the doors close, the tears stop, but it's the moms who are bawling outside in their cars. take lots of Rescue Remedy!"
- Always say goodbye and never sneak off: "If you don't, your child will get upset later on that you left," she says. Also, if you're worried about your child not knowing anyone there, be sure to attend the newcomers' party or perhaps even try to organise a play-date with one or two kids who'll also be at the new school.
- Make it exciting: "Build up the excitement about school with a new lunchbox and a new backpack, and reward them for 'surviving' those first few weeks," she says.