Ages & Stages: How Children Adjust to School

With sensitivity and support, you can help soothe young children's transition from home to school.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Familiarity helps preschoolers make necessary transitions.

Stage by Stage 0 - 2

  • After six months or more, babies may develop a heightened awareness of strangers. They need a sensitive, gradual introduction to new people.
  • Young toddlers are just developing object permanence, or the understanding that people and things exist even when out of sight. Peek-a-boo games help to reinforce this understanding.
  • Twos have more language and thinking skills. Even though they might adjust to a new environment a little more easily than younger babies, they still need predictable relationships and time to feel comfortable.

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • By age three, many preschoolers have made strong attachments to parents or teachers; these attachments allow children to keep loved ones in mind even when separated from them for periods of time.
  • Threes and fours often cling to comfort items, such as a favorite toy or blanket, during times of adjustment to new environments.
  • How a preschooler reacts to a new environment may have as much to do with his temperament and experience as it does with his age.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6

  • By age 5, many children can carry on conversations with unfamiliar children and adults.
  • Most kindergartners trust the school environment as a safe place to meet others.
  • Fives and sixes have developed the ability to organize and interest other children in different play situations.

DEVELOPMENT

0 to 2 "NO GO!" by Carla Poole

Six-month-old Sophie molds into the crook of her father's neck, shyly watching her parents talk with her new teacher, Tanya. Tanya is asking them about Sophie's sleeping and feeding patterns, and what her likes and dislikes are. Tanya has already visited the family at home and the parents have shared some of their hopes for their baby's future. This sharing of information forms the foundation for Sophie's transition into childcare by building connections between her experiences at home and in care.

Easing Separations

It's hard to be away from loved ones, especially if you're not quite sure when and if they will return! Very young children don't know that the separation is temporary and often have very strong feelings, or "separation anxiety." These feelings of sadness, anger, or fear during separations are the result of the child feeling very loved by a particular set of people: Her parents or other family members. It's important to acknowledge these feelings directly and sympathetically. "You miss Mommy." "You can't wait for Popi to come back." This helps the child begin to manage her feelings.

Building Relationships

Although entering infant/toddler care means saying goodbye to family, it also means saying hello to new teachers. The child needs one main teacher who is on a mission to form a nurturing relationship with him and his family: A teacher who strives to understand, through learning from the child's parents and careful observation, his unique ways of expressing his needs and preferred ways of being cared for.

After this secure connection is established with one primary teacher, other teachers may form secondary relationships. This ensures that the child will be comfortable when the primary teacher is not available.

Making Adjustments

Twelve to 18 months is a particularly sensitive age to begin childcare. Young toddlers are quite aware of a new environment, but their language, memory, and coping skills are just developing. Fifteen-month-old Javier, for example, is sitting at the breakfast table with the other children looking very somber. He pulls his hat snugly down over his ears and clutches a small yellow truck from home. Javier's primary teacher sits near him when his grandmother bends to give him a kiss and says "Adios." He clings to his beloved abuela, while his teacher gently cradles him in her arms. She talks softly about his feelings and then offers him an interesting activity of soft, mushy play dough. Javier whimpers and refuses to take off his hat or put down his toy. His teacher continues to talk to him, acting as a bridge between being with his grandmother and being in childcare. Very gradually he is enticed into play by another child and tentatively mushes the play dough with his free hand. After a while, he relaxes enough to take off his hat and share a small smile with his teacher.

The grandmother's predictable pattern of always saying goodbye helps Javier to trust that she will return at the end of the day. That's why it is so important that family members say goodbye, even if it brings more tears. When people leave without saying goodbye, they seem to disappear. Then life feels unpredictable - making separations much harder.

What You Can Do

  • Make a plan with the parents. Each family has unique personalities and situations and needs a sensitive timetable and approach for beginning care.
  • Consider having a mixed-age grouping of infants, toddlers, and twos so that relationships with primary teachers can remain continuous.
  • Welcome parents into the room and ask how they and their child are doing. Listen closely - parents are their child's first teacher and know them best.

3 to 4 "I'LL BRING MY DUCKIE" by Susan A. Miller, EdD

During the first few days of school, Cameron, a 3-yearold, enters his classroom hesitantly each morning, clutching a well-loved rubber duck. He places it carefully in his cubby where he can easily see it or hold it whenever he feels a little insecure. Eventually, with the help of his teacher, he discovers the sand toys and some new friends who like to play at the sand table, too. For another week, Cameron continues to bring his little duck - just in case - but now his visits to his cubby are less frequent as he begins to settle into his new school setting.

Settling In

For some young children, learning to cope with a new environment, as well as separating from their parents, can be overwhelming, or it can go quite smoothly. How a preschooler reacts emotionally and socially may have more to do with her temperament, needs, interests, and experiences, such as previous school attendance, than her specific age.

Showing Regressive Behaviors

Because, as the school year begins, some threes and fours are not quite sure of their new environment and vary in their adjustment times, don't be surprised if some seem to revert to the familiar, less-mature behaviors of younger children (baby talk, clinging). In this way, a child may be telling Mom or Dad to stay a little longer at dropoff time. Or she may be letting the teacher know she needs some one-on-one time, like cuddling on the couch in the library for a quiet story. By age three, most children who have had opportunities to make strong attachments to their parents have achieved the major emotional milestone of keeping Mom or Dad in their minds while they are separated for a few hours. However, a longer period of time may be difficult for some threes at first.

Relying on Experience

Young children bring their ideas and knowledge of previous experiences to school with them. Maggie's mom reminds her how she slept overnight at her grandmother's house for her fourth birthday. Maggie smiles and nods as she remembers having fun playing with her grandmother's dollhouse and how her parents picked her up in the morning after breakfast. Maggie is more easily able to adapt to her new all-day school setting by assimilating and accommodating this information.

Finding Comfort

Familiarity is comforting and helps preschoolers make necessary transitions. Bringing a familiar, comforting item to school, such as Cameron's yellow duck, helps threes and fours to feel safe and secure at first. Then they begin to adapt as they substitute other things in the environment. Although 3-year-olds refer to other children as their friends, it is usually the materials in the environment that attract them initially. On the other hand, fours become very excited about seeing their friends from last year or moving up with them from their 3-year-old class.

Depending on Routines

Predictability and routines assist preschoolers to adjust to their surroundings. Singing a "hello" song to gather the children at the group-time spot is a welcoming activity. Rituals, such as eating a shared snack on the same round blue table each day, provide a secure feeling. Trust develops as familiar, predictable events in their new environment replace the unknown.

Exhibiting Independence

When threes feel secure, they enjoy demonstrating their independence. To encourage this, the parents in Miss Joan's class are asked to give their children unhurried time in the morning to explore their new setting while they are close by, then gradually separate from them. Predictable, personal goodbye rituals, like Tyline and her mom blowing two kisses to each other by the green door, also help to build these secure feelings.

What You Can Do

  • Photo fun. Take photos of the children and teachers to share on a class bulletin board. This helps everyone get to know each other. Ask parents to send in family photos to decorate their child's cubby for added comfort.
  • Books about school experiences. Share stories about school settings and how other children relate to their new surroundings. Read My First Day at Nursery School by Becky Edwards (Bloomsbury).
  • Early visits. Arrange for a parent and child to visit the new environment together before the child attends and talk about what to expect. Set up the preschooler's personal space in his cubby and try out activities in the various centers.

5 to 6 "LET'S PLAY CAB DRIVER!" by Ellen Booth Church

It's the first week of school, and Naomi is happily hanging back with her dad, watching all the children and choices of activities. Jason said goodbye to Mom at the door and is already moving from one center to another, trying something out and dashing off to the next thing. Russ walks right in and immediately gets to building in the block area.

As you well know, kindergarten children react to their new environment in a variety of ways. Some have never been to school before, while others have participated in a preschool or Sunday school program. Each brings her own preferences and interests. Even though many 5-year-olds have some experience with a "program," they are often hit with the reality of going off to kindergarten. It's a huge change!

Making Adjustments

A bigger school, longer day, and larger class size are some of the many changes a new kindergartner faces. It's not unusual for children to go through a period of adaptation to the new environment. Luckily, children have been collecting some important skills along the road to kindergarten. By age five, many children have started to develop an interest in carrying on conversations with new children and adults. While some new kindergartners may still fear unfamiliar people, most have come to trust the school setting as a safe place to meet others. Often it can take just a few days of acclimation before even the quietest child starts to participate in short conversations.

Finding Play Partners

The desire and ability to organize and interest others in play is an important part of being a 5- and 6-year-old. This inclination alone can help many children overcome fears of the new environment because they are so drawn to playing with others. Many children start kindergarten with this ability, but almost all develop it quickly through a good play-based program. Interestingly, this social interaction skill is often paired with the school-agers' desire to play with one or two children at a time. This makes the introduction of learning centers (browse Teacher Tips) an important part of setting up the new environment.

Creating Familiarity

Feeling "grown-up" is important to most 5- and 6-year-olds. When they enter your new environment, they want to feel successful and knowledgeable right away. Therefore, it's important for children to find things that remind them of preschool. Then you can gradually add new challenges and responsibilities.

It is also helpful to take a look at how children's different adjustment styles play out in the beginning of the school year.

Making Individual Adjustments

Naomi hardly says a word but quietly observes as everyone joins in games for the first few months. When she is ready to participate, she shows that she knows all the routines and even most of the songs as if she had been participating since the beginning!

This is a child who needs to check things out before she dives in. She wants to understand what is expected before engaging. For some children this period can last days and for others months. It is important to be supportive and allow the child the opportunity to play the observer role as long as needed. At the same time, make it clear that she is invited and encouraged to participate.

You probably have also experienced the child who is so excited to be at the new school that he flies from one activity to another without really touching down. While it's good that this child appears to separate from his parents easily, this type of behavior can signal a basic insecurity that is manifesting itself in the "flighty" activity. This child often needs just as much reassurance as the quiet, shy child.

What You Can Do

  • As the year begins, provide activities and books that are familiar from children's preschool days.
  • Help the shy child assist you with activities such as getting materials ready for group time, or setting the table. This will help her feel comfortable.
  • Make lots of personal contact with the child who jumps into activities. Invite him to talk about how he is feeling and help him plan what he wants to do. Be clear about your expectations and rules.

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