"I Stay Home Forever!": Helping Your Toddler Cope with the Transition to School

Four-year-old Harris is starting a new preschool in a few weeks. He is a sensitive little guy who has a hard time with transitions. When he started at a child care center at age 2 he was frantic at separations. It took him several weeks to feel calm and fully engaged in the program. His parents were on the verge of pulling him out and mom was considering  quitting her job; but they stayed the course and Harris ultimately adapted and thrived. His parents are naturally worried about this upcoming change for Harris and how to best prepare him.

Starting school or a new childcare can be stressful; but it’s what we “in the field” think of as a “positive stressor” as it is a challenge that leads to growth for the child (provided, of course, that the school/setting where the child will be is high-quality.) It is an opportunity for children to develop close, trusting relationships with other adults and peers.  It builds confidence and helps children adapt to future separations.  And high-quality programs provide endless opportunities for developing the skills—intellectual, social and emotional—that set children up for success far into the future. Below are some ideas for how to help your child cope with this transition.

Avoid telling young children about big changes too far in advance.  Toddlers don’t have much perspective—a context for understanding what this upcoming change might be all about. Having information they can't make sense of can lead to their imaginations running wild which can cause anxiety. Also keep in mind that young children don’t have a strong grasp on the concept of time, so telling them even just a week before that they will be going to school for the first time, or a new school, may cause a lot of anticipatory stress.  It may be best to wait to tell them just a few days before they will begin. (Use a calendar to show which day they will go for the first time.)  This gives you a chance to talk about it without a lot of “lag time”.  They can experience the change and start to begin to adapt to it very shortly thereafter.  

When you discuss the change, be sure to validate your child’s fears before providing reassurance.  Labeling and acknowledging difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over and work through them in positive ways. “I know it feels scary to go to a new school/classroom.  That makes a lot of sense.  But you will see that it is a great place and you will have a great time there playing with your friends.” Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away.

It can be helpful to share a story of a time when you started something new: describe your own feelings of being nervous/scared, what you did to cope, and the ultimate benefit of the experience—what you would have missed if you hadn't forged ahead.  If your child has any past experiences with mastering something new, remind him that he has faced a challenge like this before. Emphasize what a great job he did adapting and how this led to a good outcome for him; i.e., having fun at a birthday party or other activity he had initially been fearful of and protested going to. (This was a very effective strategy for Harris—reminding him of how he felt fearful going to his last school but that once he dove in he loved it. This is what builds resilience.)

If your child says he won’t go... again, validate his fear but let him know that it is not a choice and that you will help him cope.  Keep moving forward, calmly and lovingly, even if he continues to protest. Avoid the pitfall of trying to convince him to go; that communicates that he has a choice which can lead to more stress for everyone, if going to school is really not a choice. Once he experiences the daily routine of going to school each morning no matter his protests--that is when the push-back stops and the adaptation begins.

Visit the school in advance: Play on the playground.  Explore the school if this is allowed.  Meet the teacher/caregiver in advance. The unknown causes anxiety. The more a child is familiar with the new setting the less fearful she is likely to be.

Establish a ritual for leaving home. You might have your child choose a book that you read halfway through during breakfast or sometime before you leave in the morning.  Have your child make a special bookmark he places in the book to show where you left off. Then the first thing you do when you get home is finish the book together. This provides a connection from morning to evening that helps children cope with separations.

Say a brief, upbeat goodbye. Children look to their parents’ cues to assess a situation.  If you are calm and positive in your approach, even if your child is distressed, you are letting your him know that the new school is a safe place and he is more likely to make a quicker and more positive adaptation. “I know you don’t want mommy/daddy to leave.  It's a new place and you want me to stay. But this is where kids go to play and learn with other kids. That’s your job. My job is to do my work. I can’t wait to pick you up and hear all about your day.” (It’s a good idea to find out from the teacher what the last activity will be before pick-up time so you can let your child know exactly what to expect: “After you have music Daddy will be back to pick you up.”)  

Tune in to your own feelings about separating from your child, so you can manage them: It is natural to feel anxious about separating from your child, especially if this is your first born. But acting on this worry can increase a child's distress (and thus yours, too) and make the separation even harder.  I have heard many a parent unwittingly pass on anxiety in the way they say goodbye, for example : “Oh Sweetie, I promise mommy will come back as soon as possible”—said in a tense tone of voice. This communicates that maybe this isn’t such a good, safe place and thus your child needs to be rescued from it soon.

Further, don’t look back, hover, or return to the classroom after you say goodbye.  This again communicates that you are worried about your child—that you don’t trust he will be okay and has the capacity to cope. This erodes versus builds his confidence that he can handle this new challenge . (Research shows that the longer the goodbye routine, and the more parents hover or keep returning for one last hug, the longer it takes the child to eventually calm and adapt.) As long as you keep re-engaging when your child begs you not to leave, your child’s focus and energy remains on trying to connect with you versus adapting to the classroom. In many of the schools I work in the teacher will take over to help the parent leave. She will comfort the child (gently peeling him from the parent if necessary) and guide him to join the classroom activity or give him the space he needs until he is ready to participate. 

The take-home: talk to your partner or friends about your feelings—which are totally understandable. Just avoid projecting them onto your child.

Create a special goodbye ritual. Rituals can help kids cope. Establish a special kiss, hug or mantra you say every time you say separate at school. One dad-child pair held each other in a tight hug for a count of 5 and then said, “See you later alligator” in unison.  Doing that every morning eased the separation tremendously.

Provide Transitional Objects: This could be photos of the family that your child can put in her backpack or cubby. I have known some kids to bring their special lovey that stays in the cubby and can be used for comfort when the child is upset. Be forewarned that this can be a slippery slope; if the child wants to hold it all day long it can become an obstacle to him engaging in classroom activities.  Setting limits around its use are advised.

Most important is to have faith that with support from you and her teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Through the years I have seen many families pull their kids out of wonderful programs because they had a hard time transitioning. The child’s natural stress caused the parents so much discomfort they couldn’t tolerate it; they worried that their child just couldn’t do it. There are certainly some situations where there is a challenge in a child's developmental that makes participating in even a quality, loving, group care setting too stressful and inappropriate; for example, kids who have very low thresholds for sensory input may be so overwhelmed by the sound and activity-level in a classroom that they can't feel calm and adapt.  But for most children it is a gift to provide them the opportunity to experience that they can muscle through a challenge, adapt to a new situation, and engage in all sorts of enriching activities that take place in quality early childhood settings.  

Also remember that every child is different and approaches separations in their own way. Avoid comparing! Some kids jump right in. These tend to be the ones who "go-with-the-flow" by nature, or have older siblings who have gone to the same school.  But for many—especially the kids who are “slow-to-warm-up” temperamentally, it may take weeks to feel safe and comfortable. One 3-year-old I know sat in the “cozy corner” and looked at a photo album of her family for almost 3 straight weeks.  Then one day she got up and stood at the edge of the circle during book-reading time; then she started to join one other child in play. By the end of the first month she was totally engaged and thriving.