Journey to Preschool, Part 1: Getting In and Getting Started
Follow Alaina and her family as she starts preschool for the first time.
Every family's preschool experience is different, but it can be helpful to compare notes.
Read along as Brooklyn, NY mom Rachel Chou recounts her experiences as her daughter, Alaina, starts preschool. Child development expert Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., adds her observations and comments.
Making the Decision
As hard as it was to imagine our little girl going to school, my husband and I decided to look into preschool just before Alaina turned 2. We started by asking our neighbors about nearby schools. We also called to find out which schools accepted 2 year olds.
We signed up for tours and meet-and-greets at two schools. In the end, we decided to apply to only one of the two. This decision was based mostly on intuition. Both schools seemed nurturing, fun, and safe. In both cases, the children we saw were obviously happy and engaged. The teachers were attentive. The activities were creative. Children's artwork covered the walls and shelves of the classrooms.
We preferred the slightly more structured curriculum that one school used with the 3 and 4 year olds. This might have tipped the balance for us, since we expect Alaina to attend the same school for two to three years. We want her preschool experience to instill a love of learning and help her learn important social skills, but also, as she gets older, to gain the intellectual tools she needs to succeed in school.
Dr. Brodkin: These goals sound reasonable, especially in the current cultural environment. But I can't stress enough how helpful it is to trust your child's natural inclination to learn. The best strategy is to allow him to be exposed to learning opportunities, but not to be prematurely directed toward rote skills. Worry less about "skills" learning. Instead encourage social-emotional learning and help your child pursue interests he expresses. The academics will come naturally in due time.
Alaina would be 2 years and 3 months old by September — 2 months too young to meet the school's age requirement. We decided to apply anyway, knowing that our chances were not very good. So we were not surprised when we received a call from the school explaining that Alaina had not been accepted since she was too young and they were overwhelmed with applicants. We were disappointed, but we knew she could wait another year.
Still, my husband and I both felt that Alaina was emotionally, socially, and intellectually ready for preschool, and we were concerned that her daily routine with her caregiver (playground, bookstore, the occasional music class) would not hold her attention for another year. We believed Alaina would thrive in a school environment, and that she would need something of her own to do once our second baby arrived in October.
It's important not only for parents to trust their kids' capacity for growing and learning, but for experts to trust individual parents who know their kids best. Rachel and her husband seem to be on very solid ground in their assessment of their child's needs.
During the summer, Alaina and I attended a "Mommy and Me" program at the preschool. She loved it! She talked about her teacher and her classmates to everyone who would listen. She had no difficulty separating from me once she arrived at school. More than ever, I felt this the school was the right place for her.
If you can't imagine your child reacting this way, don't be alarmed. Not every child is this ready for school at this early an age or even at a year or two older. Trust in the fact that these differences in rates of readiness have little or no bearing on life success. The rate of growth is much less meaningful than the ultimate level achieved and the confidence your child develops along the way.
Near the end of the summer program, I talked to one of the directors to let her know we were still interested in enrolling Alaina in the fall. By now the school's staff had gotten to know Alaina, and we talked about how much she loved her class and her teachers. Two weeks later, the director called to let me know that a spot had opened up! I did a little celebratory dance: Preschool, here we come!
The week before classes begin, Alaina's teachers, Fran and Pam, visit their students in their homes. The teachers take two photographs — one of themselves for Alaina to keep in her room, and one of Alaina that will go above her cubby at school. I need to be at work early, so my husband will be at home with our caregiver, Patty, to greet Fran and Pam.
It is more typical for the cubby to hold a photo of the child and her family members. This achieves the goal of identifying the cubby, but also of bringing the home world into the school.
As Murphy would have it, Alaina was not her typical outgoing self during the visit. Fran came first and explained that Pam was bringing a "magic" (Polaroid) camera with her, and that they would take pictures together when she arrived. In the meantime, Fran tried everything she could to get Alaina to play with her. Alaina just wasn't having any of it. She muttered monosyllables and stared at the floor. After about 10 minutes, Alaina said, "I want the other teacher." How embarrassing! So much for first impressions!
I am relieved to see that Alaina is still a typical 2 year old in many ways! All things being equal, the younger the child, the more unpredictable her behavior is likely to be; but even 5 year olds interviewing and testing for school entrance can decide at "the worst possible moment" that this is not where they want to be on this particular morning — causing panic in their parents. Schools should understand this and reassure parents that they do.
A few minutes after Fran and Pam left, Alaina had a complete meltdown. It was then that my husband realized she had a fever. It dawned on him that what he had interpreted as bad behavior had, in fact, been a heroic effort to hold it all together during the visit.
I'd guess that fever is only part of the explanation. Alaina also senses that this is a momentous occasion. Sensing her parents' concern can certainly be enough to unsettle a child.
The First Day
The first two weeks of Alaina's preschool are what's called the "phase-in" period. The class is split in half, and each group attends school for one hour instead of the normal two. Parents or caregivers stay in the classroom or the building in case children have difficulty with separation. After the first two weeks, the class sections are combined, and parents and caregivers drop off and pick up their children. Since Alaina had been through the summer session, I was relatively sure that she would adapt quickly; but as anyone with a 2 year old knows, nothing is ever predictable.
Truer words were never spoken!
This morning, Alaina's caregiver, Patty, arrived early and we walked together to school. We had decided not to talk too much about school in advance of today, since Alaina (like most 2 year olds) tends to want to do things immediately as soon as she hears about them. Last night we looked at her picture of her teachers and talked about going to school tomorrow to play with Fran and Pam. Alaina seemed to take everything in stride, although I admit that I hardly slept a wink.
On the way to school we met up with another little boy from our building who was in Alaina's class. His mom was also anxious as he is more inclined to cling to her and not let her out of his sight.
Remember that children can sense their parents' anxiety.
When we got to school, Alaina immediately recognized the building. What a relief! She clapped and cheered. We stopped outside her classroom to look at her picture above her cubby. "Who's that?" I asked. "That's Alaina!" she replied with a big smile. She entered the classroom and immediately ran over to the pretend kitchen area to explore. After about 20 minutes of play, the teachers said it was time for clean-up and a story. I told Alaina that Patty and I would be going downstairs for a bit, but that we would be back soon. I asked her to go join the other children on the rug for story time. I left the room just as Alaina nestled into Pam's lap.
Thankfully, I returned at the end of the hour to a smiling daughter. Of the five parents in our section, four were able to leave their children without a problem. Alaina's friend from our building wouldn't let his mom out of sight, but he did well exploring the room on his own.
One day down, many more to go.