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August 15, 2016

Welcoming Preschoolers to School: Phasing In

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    At some point between June and early September, we’ve all sent notes to our new families, possibly met with them as a group, and greeted our preschoolers-to-be. Now we’re ready for (cue drum roll) the first day of school! I always feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation at this point in time. Will I connect easily with this new group of children? Will our room feel welcoming to them? And what about their parents . . . will they be positive and supportive?

    My next thought is, if I feel this anxiety, what are the preschoolers experiencing? They are about to step into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar grownups and children. Their parents have assured them that they will have a great time; they will play, make new friends, and learn so many new things.

    As a teacher, and now as an administrator, I work hard to honor that parental promise by helping preschoolers build a sense of comfort and trust from the minute they enter the room. Here are a few ways my colleagues and I go about welcoming preschoolers on their first day of school. We begin with the process of Phasing In. We invite young students to learn about their classroom and its routines in a way that makes sense to them: one step at a time.

    Our youngest children, 2-and 3-year-olds, enjoy a first day that is only a half hour long. They attend in pairs and spend this time exploring the classroom and connecting with their teacher. “Ahh, here’s where the puzzles are, the dress-up clothes, the bathroom . . .” We might invite a child to choose or “find” a cubby. Their teacher will then paste the child’s photo just inside and encourage her to leave a favorite book or stuffed toy. This is their home base, sound and secure! 

    Over the next few weeks, the group of classmates grows larger as the school day lengthens, until a few weeks later when preschoolers are thoroughly acclimated and settled into their full- or half-day program. (This Phase-In process is similar for our 4-year-olds, but briefer. The Fours, or PreK students, begin in half groups and might spend an hour and a half in the classroom on their first day. By the second week, everyone attends for a full day.)

    Here are what we see as important benefits to this Phasing-In approach:

    1. In small groups, preschoolers can observe their new classmates, to see what they like to do and how they respond to the classroom. They may learn a few names and have a chance to connect meaningfully with their teacher. They are more likely to leave feeling confident and eager rather than overwhelmed.

    2. Children internalize classroom routines. How many transitions are there in a preschooler’s day? Typically, more than we would wish. Young children can more easily internalize the sequence of their day, if they approach it one step at a time. Here’s where I sit for snack, where I toss my cup and here’s how I push in my chair. This might be enough for our youngest. Four-year-olds learn that their day begins with a morning meeting. We sit in a circle on the rug and raise our hands to speak. They learn to read the daily schedule in order to know what comes next. Presenting the schooldays in bite-size pieces gives children the chance to make sense of its parts and master the sequence.

    3. Children wish they could stay longer; they can’t wait to come back the next day!

    4. Teachers, myself definitely included, have the opportunity to get to know the individual children in their class, to think through separation strategies, and how to begin creating a solid classroom community.

    In much the same way that we invite young children to gradually embrace their separation process, we introduce them to their new physical surroundings. Taking it one small step at a time, we construct an environment that is easy to read and navigate from the minute children walk through the door. I love this moment of planning and anticipation and look forward to sharing it with you in my next post.

    At some point between June and early September, we’ve all sent notes to our new families, possibly met with them as a group, and greeted our preschoolers-to-be. Now we’re ready for (cue drum roll) the first day of school! I always feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation at this point in time. Will I connect easily with this new group of children? Will our room feel welcoming to them? And what about their parents . . . will they be positive and supportive?

    My next thought is, if I feel this anxiety, what are the preschoolers experiencing? They are about to step into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar grownups and children. Their parents have assured them that they will have a great time; they will play, make new friends, and learn so many new things.

    As a teacher, and now as an administrator, I work hard to honor that parental promise by helping preschoolers build a sense of comfort and trust from the minute they enter the room. Here are a few ways my colleagues and I go about welcoming preschoolers on their first day of school. We begin with the process of Phasing In. We invite young students to learn about their classroom and its routines in a way that makes sense to them: one step at a time.

    Our youngest children, 2-and 3-year-olds, enjoy a first day that is only a half hour long. They attend in pairs and spend this time exploring the classroom and connecting with their teacher. “Ahh, here’s where the puzzles are, the dress-up clothes, the bathroom . . .” We might invite a child to choose or “find” a cubby. Their teacher will then paste the child’s photo just inside and encourage her to leave a favorite book or stuffed toy. This is their home base, sound and secure! 

    Over the next few weeks, the group of classmates grows larger as the school day lengthens, until a few weeks later when preschoolers are thoroughly acclimated and settled into their full- or half-day program. (This Phase-In process is similar for our 4-year-olds, but briefer. The Fours, or PreK students, begin in half groups and might spend an hour and a half in the classroom on their first day. By the second week, everyone attends for a full day.)

    Here are what we see as important benefits to this Phasing-In approach:

    1. In small groups, preschoolers can observe their new classmates, to see what they like to do and how they respond to the classroom. They may learn a few names and have a chance to connect meaningfully with their teacher. They are more likely to leave feeling confident and eager rather than overwhelmed.

    2. Children internalize classroom routines. How many transitions are there in a preschooler’s day? Typically, more than we would wish. Young children can more easily internalize the sequence of their day, if they approach it one step at a time. Here’s where I sit for snack, where I toss my cup and here’s how I push in my chair. This might be enough for our youngest. Four-year-olds learn that their day begins with a morning meeting. We sit in a circle on the rug and raise our hands to speak. They learn to read the daily schedule in order to know what comes next. Presenting the schooldays in bite-size pieces gives children the chance to make sense of its parts and master the sequence.

    3. Children wish they could stay longer; they can’t wait to come back the next day!

    4. Teachers, myself definitely included, have the opportunity to get to know the individual children in their class, to think through separation strategies, and how to begin creating a solid classroom community.

    In much the same way that we invite young children to gradually embrace their separation process, we introduce them to their new physical surroundings. Taking it one small step at a time, we construct an environment that is easy to read and navigate from the minute children walk through the door. I love this moment of planning and anticipation and look forward to sharing it with you in my next post.

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