You've done the research. You've asked all the questions. You've selected the childcare center that you think is the best fit for you and your family. You thought that was the hard part. But now you realize the time will come when you will need to say goodbye to your child and leave their care in someone else's hands. How do you prepare yourself and your child for that new adjustment?
1. Take A Deep Breath
You may begin to have feelings of guilt or anxiety, but you need to remember that the teachers at your child's new center are there because they are experienced professionals. They are there to help you through the process, and mostly they are there to love your child and make sure he feels comfortable and welcomed. Trust me, they have helped many children make this transition and with time you will see that everything is okay. Your child will learn to love school and be excited to attend. Keep in mind that the adjustment could take anywhere from a day to a month so give it time.
2. Talk Expectations
If your child is old enough to understand, it would be helpful to talk to him about what to expect. Prepare him by talking about the cool activities offered at school, and let him know that you made the transition when you were younger too. Tell him about your experience with the transition and talk about how he is feeling now. When discussing his feelings make sure that you keep your personal anxieties to yourself and keep a positive and excited tone. Furthermore, if possible, you could visit the childcare's website to view photos of the school. That familiarity will help your little learner feel more comfortable on his first visit to childcare. Another preparation idea would be to visit your local library and ask for help finding books about attending childcare. Some of my favorites are Barney & Baby Bop Go to School by Margie Larsen M.Ed., Tucker's Best School Day by Susan Winget, and D.W.'s Guide to Preschool by Marc Brown.
3. Make A Play Date or Two
Prior to his first day, you should arrange some play dates in your child's new environment. These are important for many reasons. First, you can get a better and more in depth look at what a typical day would be like for your child to ensure that this center is in fact the best fit for your family. If you see anything that makes you wary, discuss it with the teachers and Director to be sure that you feel comfortable leaving your child on his first day. You won't be able to concentrate on work if you are not sure that your child's caregivers will not only take good care of him, but will also enrich him and keep him safe so don't be afraid to speak up.
Secondly, the play date is important to familiarize your child with the children he will be playing with, his teachers, and his classroom so that he is not scared or overwhelmed on his first day. The play date also gives you the opportunity to talk with the child's teacher and inform her about your child so that she is better prepared to care for him. Telling her about his favorite things will help her come up with ways to cheer him up if he starts to miss you. Tell her about any health or developmental concerns, and give her advice on how you handle it at home or ask for suggestions if you've had questions. Building the home-school connection with communication is very important to your child's sense of consistency and adjustment.
For the first play date you and your child could visit for one hour, preferably during learning center time because it's more calm and structured. One of two things might happen. If your child joins the group happily and fits right in then chances are you're in for a smooth and easy transition. On the other hand your child might be very clingy to you and have a difficult time separating. If that's the case, I suggest you become an active participant in the classroom routine. Let your child sit on your lap as you interact with his peers to model the desirable behavior. Talk about all the fun toys at the school and let your child look around. Take notes of items that appeal to your child because these might be the key to building his excitement for his first day. Try comments such as, "Remember that awesome fire truck with flashing sirens? You're so lucky that you get to play with it at school! What else are you excited to play with?"
For the second play date you could increase the amount of time you stay to two hours, learning centers for familiarity and then outdoor time to see a new environment that is a little more wild, but incredibly fun. It'll be good to have your child participate in a transition so even if you can only stay for one hour choose a half hour of learning centers followed by a half hour of outdoor time.
4. Handling the First Day
Make sure your child has a good night sleep and a healthy breakfast so he will be at his best for his first day. At the initial drop-off you should give yourself some time to help your child go through the routine of putting his belongings in their place and to join an activity. Make sure to say goodbye even if you feel your child is playing well and you feel you can sneak out to avoid tears. Otherwise, when your child notices your absence he may feel anxious as to where you are. Instead, make sure to let your child know it is time for you to leave. Let him know who will pick him up and, if possible, when using terms like “this afternoon when you’re playing outside.” Your child might say “Ok, see you later,” or may cry and run after you. I know this goodbye is just as hard- if not harder- for you than it is for your child, but you should resist the long, emotional goodbye. Take this as an opportunity to establish a goodbye routine like waving from the window or a special handshake.
Your child’s teacher will be there to help if your child is having a difficult time separating. Keep smiling and remain calm when handing your child off to his teacher otherwise he will pick up on your distress and therefore increase his worries. Noticing your trust in the caregiver sends a strong sense of safety and comfort to your child.
Later in the day when you see your child, after giving him a huge I-missed-you hug, be sure to talk about his day. Hopefully his teachers informed you verbally or on a daily sheet about some great moments in his day or an activity he really loved, so use that as a starting point for your conversation. Say “Miss Raquel told me you got to play in the water table today! That sounds so fun. Tell me about it!” Your excitement in having him recall fun experiences along with the understanding that you will always come back are the keys to his adjustment.
You can do this!
ps. Special shout-out to my little buddy F for allowing us to share his contagious smile with our visitors!