How To Settle Your Child Into Preschool
This is an account of how I helped my daughter to settle into her new preschool.
While this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing and every child is different, hopefully this might help someone.
Either to realise that it's very common for children not to immediately love their preschool setting, or to give an example of the kind of schedule that you might want to use to "ease them in".
Optimism and teething troubles
In the UK it is common for children to begin preschool as young as two and a half years old.
We felt that our daughter was ready to start at this age as she is a very sociable child, loves playing with other children and enjoys painting, drawing, building sandcastles, modelling with playdo, building towers, sticking, singing songs and listening to stories; all the activities that they do at our local preschool!
When we visited the school to arrange her place she immediately merged in with the other children and started playing with the toys. Our visit luckily coincided with snack-time; another activity she was keen to join in, and so she plonked herself down in an unoccupied chair, awaiting her biscuit, apple and milk.
This visit boosted our confidence that she would fit in just fine. And once the start-date arrived she was reasonably up-beat. The preschool recommends that the parent stays for the first few sessions to help the child settle in. On the third visit they recommended that I leave her for a quarter of an hour. She cried when I left and it was very difficult to go; that 15 minutes felt like such a long time..
When I went back they said that she'd calmed down briefly when one of the teachers had picked her up and read her a story.
The next day they recommended leaving her for half an hour, just enough time for me to go and get a coffee. This went better. Again, she cried at first, but then settled down and played with the toys. So the next day, we all agreed that I should try leaving her for longer. We decided to go for an hour. Again she cried, but I expected that she would soon settle down, and headed for home to do a quick bit of housework.
Twenty minutes later I got a phone call saying that my daughter had been crying for a bit too long now, and could I come back again? My heart sank. This was not working out as we had hoped! She was so pleased to see me when I got there, and wouldn't let go of me. I stayed for the rest of the session and she gradually went back to playing with the toys, although she pretty much stayed by herself, and constantly looked around to check that I was still there.
Did we do the right thing?
Over the weekend we gave some thought to the situation. We realised that it was perhaps a bit naïve of us to have expected her to just adapt to this new situation and automatically take to a room full of strangers, however nice and friendly they were; especially when she had been with either me or her dad for almost every waking hour of her life so far! We shouldn't have assumed that a truck-load of activities and some new friends would somehow compensate for the lack of parental company.
So we had mis-judged the situation, but we didn't want to give up on the idea of pre-school which we still felt she could learn to love, given the proper chance.
We had expected her to settle into a completely new environment, without the comfort of having mum there to ease the transition. And while some two and a half year-olds may have been able to cope with this, it's understandable that others may not. It is often difficult enough for older children or even adults to integrate themselves into a group of new people, especially people who already know one another. How much more scary this would be as a toddler, with barely developed social skills.
Let's try this again...
Our preschool is luckily quite flexible about how long parents can stay with their child, so we decided that I would stay for as long as we felt it was necessary, and I was happy to be guided on this. So I stayed. And stayed! After a week, she was playing well, but still not really interested in the other children. (This was quite difficult to watch as she's normally such a chatty little girl). And she kept looking for me, to check that I hadn't left.
The next week I faded more into the background; I sat in a chair in the corner of the room and read a book, after snack-time I helped out in the kitchen and I pitched in with any other activities that would keep me out of the way!
We noticed that she was gradually integrating with the other children and although she occasionally checked for me, she wasn't doing this very often. So we decided that the following week I would once again start my gradual withdrawal.
Like the last time, I began by leaving her for 15 minutes. The initial shock of me saying goodbye once again made her cry, but once I was gone she settled easily back into playing. The next day I left her for half an hour, and the same thing happened, so on day three we doubled the time again, and I left her for an hour. As this had been the sticking point the last time, I was a bit apprehensive. I went to the library to do some reading, but I was nervously watching my phone. Lo and behold, within quarter of an hour the preschool texted me.
But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the text was from a thoughtful teacher, who wanted to let me know that my daughter was fine and playing happily! On the two following days I left her for two hours and then finally for the full three hours, respectively. And we haven't looked back!
This is what worked for us
So, in case you're in a similar situation, this is a summary of the "formula" that worked for us. I appreciate that all kids are different, and some may not need this elaborate formula, while others might take longer, or not be ready to settle at all at this young age. A similar idea can of course be used for older children, depending on how flexible the school is with regard to parents staying. Time periods should be adjusted according to the child.
- Week 1 - Stayed at pre-school with my daughter, helping her to settle in and get used to the people and the place, with minimal stress.
- Week 2 - Stayed at pre-school, but "merged" into the background, (allowing her some independance, while remaining a safety net, for panicky times!)
- Week 3 - When the time was right, left her for a short-time, and increased that time every day as follows:
Day 1: 15 mins, Day 2: 30 mins, Day 3: 1 hour, Day 4: 2 hours, and Day 5: 3 hours.
As with our experience, be flexible and be prepared to step back a stage or two if necessary. It may seem like a very slow process, but if you end up with a child who's happy to be in pre-school (or school), it is certainly worth the effort!
Note: This was few years ago now - my daughter's now a lively 5 year-old who loves school-life!
- Why Preschool Education Is Important For Your Child
5 Reasons for Preschool Education.