Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Adjust to Day Care or Preschool

in Essential Ramblings

See below for a great piece submitted by the Ossining Children’s Center — focusing on how best to help your child transition to school or child care.

Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Adjust to Day Care or Preschool, By Terry Becker, LMSW, Director of Family and Children’s Services, Ossining Children’s Center, www.ossiningchildrenscenter.org.

Separation anxiety is a normal healthy response to experiences that require us to give up the familiar and face the unknown. These are normal difficulties and should not be confused with mental health issues.  Here are some suggestions for parents that can help to reduce a child’s separation anxiety:

  • By the time your child is six months of age, occasionally have a trusted friend, relative or babysitter care for him or her for short periods of time. By 12 months, your child should begin to be exposed to other young children in the form of family/friend get-togethers or a playgroup.
  • Be sure to make arrangements for child care that you feel confident about. Your anxiety about child care arrangements or guilt about leaving may add to your child’s distress.
  • Prepare your child by telling him about the experience, but not too far in advance, because young children’s concept of time is different from adults’. For three and four year olds, begin describing his program about two weeks in advance.  For toddlers, it is best to wait until you make an actual visit shortly before he begins (see below).
  • Help your child become familiar with new surroundings and people before actually leaving him there by touring the facility and meeting the teacher.
  • Read books with your child about going to preschool and actually role play the event with him.
  • Take your child shopping for special items for school, e.g. backpack, school clothes, etc.
  • If possible, find out if there is a child in the class with whom you can schedule a play date in advance.  This can be especially helpful with preschoolers.
  • Allow your child (particularly if a toddler) to bring a “transitional object”—a beloved stuffed animal, blanket, or pacifier—to school.  This will comfort him, especially at nap time.
  • When school starts, a transition period of shorter initial stays with a parent spending some time there is helpful, and often a standard part of a school’s/daycare’s introductory program for very young children.
  • When leaving, give a quick kiss and hug and cheerfully say good-bye. Tell your child when you will be back, linking it to something concrete like “after nap” or “after snack.” Make sure you are, in fact, returning at this time. Never sneak out, as this undermines your child’s sense of trust.
  • Don’t prolong your departure or come back several times.

If your child is experiencing intense separation anxiety

  • Tell him or her that you understand that it can be hard at first to be away from those that he loves. You want to provide empathy and acceptance, but not excessive sympathy.
  • Never make fun or reprimand a child for his struggles with separation
  • Recall with your child previous challenges that he has dealt with by being brave. You can also reference a fictional character’s bravery from a movie or book that your child is familiar with.
  • Role playing the experience of going to school, parting, and reuniting can be fun and reassuring.
  • Provide a photo of Mom and/or Dad for your child to keep with him for extra comfort.
  • If your child is in full-time day care, consider shortening his number of hours there until he makes a full adjustment.