Excitement is in the air as a new school year gets underway! As you know, it's up to you to set the stage for a wonderful year of learning and exploration. And just how is that done? How can you prepare a classroom that is ready to welcome children with open arms? How do you invite families into your program in a way that is non-threatening and accommodating? And how do you ensure your own comfort and contentment throughout the busy days and months ahead? With careful planning and preparation, you can look forward to a successful and joyous school year.

Learning to be apart from family is a young child's toughest transition. Sensitivity, planning, and knowledge of each child go a long way toward helping to ease the pain. Here are some guidelines:

Before School Begins...If Possible!

Hold a parent meeting. Discuss the many ways children react to separation and why it's important for parents or someone close to the child to try to stay until he feels comfortable.

Make home visits. Visiting a child and her family enables the child to see you in a familiar environment and feel you building a positive relationship with parents and other loved ones.

Schedule school visits. A short visit, even 20 minutes, for each parent and child before your program officially begins provides another important building block toward nurturing transitions.

First Days (or Weeks)

Stagger enrollment. If possible, start children in small groups and shorten the time they stay. Provide a place for parents to wait "on call" while their children adjust.

Be flexible. Sometimes a parent simply can't stay. If this is the case, see if she can be at school for 20 minutes at least once. Then, for the first 10 minutes, spend some time with both her and her child. Next, engage the child with Mom close by. That will give you a chance to see how the child is reacting and find something that appeals to her-perhaps another child, a story, or your lap. Then you'll have some clues to build on later.

Encourage goodbyes. Three kisses on each other's nose or waving from the window-saying goodbye can be less stressful when parents and children create their own rituals. (A parent may think it's better to leave while her child is not looking. Gently explain that letting your child know you are leaving and that you will return is important in building trust.)

Plan for sensitive situations. There comes a time with some children when you need to discuss whether the parent should leave even if the child isn't completely comfortable yet. Ask yourself: Has the child, even if he has often been upset, had times of solidly enjoying something in the room? Has he connected with materials or with another child and begun to make a transition from a familiar adult to a new adult? If so, he is probably beginning to cope, and you have something you can build on. However, if none of this has happened, he is probably not ready for Mom to leave. At the same time, consider whether you know a child well enough to offer comfort if he gets upset. Ask yourself if the group is ready for a stressful parting. What will happen if you spend a lot of time with one child?

Pay special attention during transition times. Help by giving children one-on-one attention.

Support links to home. Invite parents to call to see how their child is doing. If you expect too many calls throughout the day, schedule times when parents are welcome to send e-mails or arrange for brief conferences when it is convenient for both of you.

GETTING TO KNOW CHILDREN AND FAMILIES (AND VICE VERSA!)

Our own observations and interactions with children will begin to help us understand who they are. Just as important, and perhaps more enlightening, is what we can learn from parents before their child ever starts school. Here are some effective communication tips to help you learn more about children and families and to help them learn more about you!

Sit down together or have a phone conference. Let parents know: "I am here to learn from you about your child." Also share information with parents about your own background, goals for children this year, and hopes for their involvement throughout the year.

Begin with open-ended questions. "What's your child like right now?" "What do you like to do together?" "What kinds of activities make her happy?" "What kinds of behaviors do you find difficult to manage?" "How will I know how your child is feeling?" "What do you think your child is expecting at school?" "What are you expecting?" "Is there anything about your family you'd like me to know?" "What would you like to know about me?"

Inquire about specifics. "Where is your child in the toilet-training process?" "How might your child respond to rest time?"

Encourage parents to talk about verbal and nonverbal cues their children give. "How do you know when your child is tired? Frightened? Worried?" "What helps her?" "What do you do?"

Communicating through such questions helps convey to parents that you value them as observers and first teachers of their children.

TOUR THE ROOM

The first few weeks of school need to be calming. This is a time when you help children understand routines so they can begin to feel in control of their environment. New or very young children shouldn't be overwhelmed by too many choices or materials. Older and returning children need to see some old favorites and make choices about what they would like to do. Remember, your care in creating cozy, homey areas that reflect children's cultural backgrounds will lend assurance that this is a safe place.

Special places where they can hang pictures of their families let children know that this is a warm placetheir place. It's a good idea to tour your learning centers with children, as well as families, at the start of each school year. Here are ideas for learning center arrangements and materials that will help make children and families comfortable and excited about the year ahead:

Dramatic Play Center

Stock up on props that will encourage children's pretend play, such as real, life-size utensils; culturally relevant items children see in their own homes, such as a pasta colander, espresso pot, wok, and tortilla press; and lots of general kitchen items. In addition, make sure you have lots of dress-up clothes, dolls with blankets, and telephones with paper and pencil. If possible, label shelves and use outlines on the wall for hanging items so that children feel they know where things go and feel a sense of order (consider including props from parents' workplaces).

Library Center

You'll need large, soft pillows and cheerful prints on the walls (consider materials for the pillows and artwork that reflect the cultures of the families in your program), child-size rocking chairs, a small, comfortable couch, and lots of books that focus on emotions and themes for this time of the year. (see the Resources box on pg. 47 for book suggestions.)

Keep a magazine rack for books families create at home about themselves, and ask families to tape themselves reading their children's favorite stories for your listening center. Try to set up a few private cozy spaces where children can retreat-spaces that allow children to be observers. Children, especially at the beginning of the year, need to have places where they can get away.

Literacy Center

Offer plenty of pads or loose paper of all shapes and sizes, writing tools (including thick pencils and crayons), homemade blank books, stickers, and envelopes. Encourage children to write notes to friends and family members as a way of communicating their worries or concerns or simply to communicate an "I care for you" message. Be available to take dictation as a way to help children grapple with any fears or frustrations they may be experiencing.

Block Center

Clearly label the bottom and back of each shelf so that children feel in control of cleanup. Make sure you have an area where buildings can be left up; children's work can take place over time and they can show parents their creations at the end of the day. Hang photographs of the neighborhood where the school is located, such as of the drugstore, the deli, the bodega, the fruit market, the downtown area, or each child's own street, house, or apartment.

Art Center

Offer painting from the beginning of the year, though you may want to start out with just a few colors, and be available to help children understand the routine. If possible, provide hooks with children's names above them for hanging smocks. Include soothing, tension-releasing materials such as pliable clay and squishy sponges (which can be used for painting). Display children's artwork on the walls in this area. Save one wall where children can post pictures from magazines that they find appealing, artwork created by their own family members, or posters from home they might want to share. Children may also enjoy making collages using a variety of scraps, or just being able to color with crayons and plain paper as they look about the room.

Sand and Water Tables

Important to offer at the beginning of the year, these media provide soothing activities to get a little lost in or simply to participate in while scouting out surrounding situations. (Don't forget to include play dough!) The sand/water table also works well as a "get to know you" area at the beginning of the year. The table is so appealing, children will gather round and work side by side.

ESTABLISHING RITUALS AND ROUTINES

From the beginning to the end of each day, children benefit from flexible routines punctuated by enjoyable and soothing rituals, plus something new and different once in a while to keep things interesting!

The beginning of the year offers an opportunity to think about your routines and rituals and how they can support each child's emotional and social well-being. Being able to predict what's coming next makes a child feel competent, and feeling competent is an important part of emotional contentment. Here are some important routines to establish to help children feel comfortable and connected:

Create morning greetings. One of the most important daily rituals in a classroom setting is greeting each child with a personalized, welcoming hello. Morning separations go more smoothly if you greet parents as warmly as you greet children.

Set arrival rituals. Many teachers begin the day by having children put their belongings in their personalized cubbies and then encouraging them to get involved in a freeplay activity or go to the library center and share books with friends. This two-step routine contributes to children's sense of well-being and social development and keeps things relatively calm.

Provide daily book browsing. Sociable book browsing is a cozy routine that can be scheduled at any time during the day. Children can share and chat about books with special friends or just sit companionably near peers.

Schedule group meetings. Your first group meeting of the day is a good time for rituals that promote each child's self-esteem and feeling of belonging. You might include hugging a circle neighbor hello, singing songs that include children's names, selecting classroom jobs for each child, enjoying fingerplays, action songs and poems, and discussing the day's activities.

Establish clean-up routines. Select a signal-blink the lights, chime the triangle. Discuss with children at group time the need for a signal, what it might be, and what they will do when they hear it. Invite children to take turns delivering the signal.

Life with young children is easier when it's filled with simple routines, such as singing while waiting for lunch. Including a variety of rituals and routines in your program helps to make children feel safe, secure, and ready to learn.

MAKE SNACK TIME A "FAMILY AFFAIR"

If at all possible, serve snack family style, encouraging children to help set tables, pass baskets of food to one another, and eat together. Make sure pitchers are small, unbreakable, and manageable. Take time to visit, and afterwards provide bowls with water and sponges so children can help clean up. Don't underestimate the reassuring effect good cooking aromas have on children when they walk into your room, especially familiar aromas that evoke the family's favorite snacks and foods.

Contributing writers: Polly Greenberg, Ellen Booth Church, Jan Drucker, Ph.D., and Sheila Hann