The transition to preschool and kindergarten can be exciting, traumatic, frustrating or joyous — or some combination of the above. Here's what you can do to put all of your kids (and their parents) at ease.
The Town Crier
Meet Sarah: Sarah starts every morning in tears and has to be physically dragged into the classroom by her equally uneasy parent.
What To Do: Often young children are anxious about all of the great unknowns of school and have a litany of what ifs in their heads. “I ask children what they think their teacher will look like — will she have green hair?” says child psychologist Dr. Janet Jackson. “Some of them say yes.” An opportunity to meet the mysterious “teacher” in person can help relieve anxiety. Encourage families to visit the school before the school year begins. Sometimes parents, understandably concerned that their child is distressed, will want to linger. Assess whether or not the child can function independently, says Dr. Jackson, and reassure parents that most children do stop crying shortly after the parent has gone. She adds that lingering can sometimes cause more tension, as the child “feels as though she has to choose between her parent and this new person/place. If parents are confident and comfortable, it can go a long way toward easing separation anxiety.” Many schools start out with shorter days and abbreviated schedules. A gradual entry can also help more anxious children, some of whom may start the day out fine but get agitated after an hour or two. Dr. Jackson suggests scheduling opportunities for parent visits or classroom participation after the year has begun and the classroom community has been established.
The Church Mouse
Meet Tommy: Tommy comes into the classroom and seems to separate easily, but doesn’t say a word. As the morning begins, he is withdrawn and uncommunicative.
What To Do: Don’t force shy children to talk, especially in front of the group, says Alice Sandgrund, a clinical psychologist and former director of the Developmental Evaluation Clinic at Kings County Hospital, in Brooklyn, New York. She points out that some children have a real fear of exposing themselves to a new situation. “Stand near them, and perhaps offer to talk for them if they’re uncomfortable. Say something like, ‘We’ll do it together.’” Small-group seating and opportunities to do small, nonverbal tasks, such as holding a sign or passing out items, can also help to engage reserved children.
Meet Veronica: Veronica races into the classroom, knocking down anything and anyone in her path. She is quick to push, or even hit, and has difficulty settling down.
What To Do: From the first moment, be clear about classroom rules and structure, says Sandgrund. Longtime early-childhood educator and author Julie Diamond believes that it is important to facilitate discussions between children when there is conflict, and to help them to be specific, asking questions such as “What did she do that bothered you? What do you want him to know?” Check The Anti-Bullying and Teasing Book for Preschool Classrooms, by Barbara Sprung, Merle Froschl, and Dr. Blythe Hinitz, for discussion prompts. Remember that aggressive children may behave inappropriately because of a situation or customs at home or other outside stresses. Physical kids can benefit from short periods of sustained work or activity, opportunities to get up and move around (such as being a helper), and being seated close to an adult. Sandgrund also suggests developing some sort of hand signal or other unobtrusive signal to the child when there is a problem, “so that the child and the other children don’t always hear the same name being called.”
The Velcro Wonder
Meet Jacob: Jacob smiles and waves goodbye when his dad drops him off in the morning. Then he comes straight to you — and doesn’t leave your side for the rest of the day. This ankle-hugger wants to sit by you during circle time, snack time, recess time, and all the rest of the time he’s at school.
What To Do: Give Jacob a job that requires him to separate from you and interact with other students, such as taking attendance or passing out juice boxes. This special responsibility can help build Jacob’s independence and help him to be less clingy. In addition, pair a needy kid with a variety of children during activities. He or she will eventually learn that peers are more fun than your pant leg.Excessive clinginess can be a sign of stress or worry, so be sure to speak with the family or to a counselor if you’re concerned. You’ll want to rule out anything serious. (Same goes if a child refuses to leave Mom or Dad’s arms in the morning.)
The Motivational Speaker
Meet Isabella: Isabella starts school thinking of her teacher as her new best friend and school as the best thing ever — and wants to let everyone know it, all of the time.
What To Do: Every teacher wants an enthusiastic student, but early lessons in self-control can prevent the class from being dominated by one or two “talkers.” Sandgrund suggests seating chatty children near the front, where they will be in eye contact with you and will know that they have your attention. A teacher can let the more voluble children speak once or twice, and then enforce class rules and give everyone a turn. Something like “Thank you, Isabella. We’ve heard from you a lot today, and that’s great. Let’s give someone else a turn” might work.“Keep learning who your children are,” says Diamond. From the first moment of that first day, observe and take notes (keep index cards available for easy documentation). These early school experiences help children learn to trust each other and the adults in their lives. Savor opportunity for growth, and don’t forget to have fun!