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Emotionally Preparing Your Toddler for Preschool

How to talk about starting school and the plan for drop-offs, even if your child is upset

I’ll never forget my son’s quivering chin—or mine, if I’m being honest—when I dropped him off for his first day of preschool. I knew school would be a great experience for him, but all that mattered in his mind was that he was going to be away from Mom. Of course, he ended up loving preschool. Still, I wish the early days could have been a little easier emotionally.

And it turns out, they can be. We connected with local professionals for their advice on minimizing tears and maximizing excitement when it comes to starting preschool.

Visit preschool with your child in advance.
Try to find a time of day that features an activity your child will really enjoy, suggests Lauren Starnes, Ph.D., chief academic officer for The Goddard School, which offers preschool (along with programs for infants and older children) at 20 locations across Dallas-Fort Worth.

Talk about what’s coming.
Toddlers are beginning to understand the concept of before and after, so use that new skill, advises Starnes. “You could say, ‘We will go see Grandma and swim at her pool on Sunday afternoon. After that day, you’ll start at your new preschool,’” Starnes says.

Don’t dwell on the separation.
While you should mention that you’ll drop your child off, that shouldn’t be the focus. Starnes offers this sample script: “In the morning, Dad and I will bring you to preschool. We’ll walk you into your classroom and you’ll see your teacher, Ms. Starr. Ms. Starr will introduce you to your new friends, and there’s a big art easel, lots of blocks, dress-up clothes, and a huge playground. You’ll stay at preschool with your friends until after naptime, and then Dad and I will be back to pick you up. It’s going to be such a fun day!”

Practice preschool skills.
“Depending on age and individual development, a good place to begin is the restroom,” says Lisa Lee, who teaches at Fort Worth Zoo’s preschool. “It’s helpful to emphasize hand washing and how to fasten their clothes on their own.” Snacks are another key area. “Teachers or aides are always happy to assist, but learning to open packaging, eating snacks at the table and throwing trash away is a simple way to ‘practice’ school and independence at home,” explains Lee. You can also practice raising a hand to ask a question.

RELATED: Is Your Child Ready for Preschool?

Make drop-offs quick.
Even if your child is upset, keep the drop-off process short and routine. “Parents should reassure the child that they are going to have a fun day, point out a feature of the classroom or the day that appeals to the child, let the child know you will be back and give them a temporal order of the day to expect this return—for example, ‘I will be back to pick you up after your afternoon snack’—give a hug or kiss, and then depart the classroom,” says Starnes. “Do not hover or make a return appearance, as this conveys a confusing and unpredictable message to your child.”

Maintain your routine at each drop-off. Starnes recommends the book The Kissing Hand, about a little raccoon starting school, to help kids understand “that drop-off goodbyes are only temporary.”

Keep positive vibes going.
Continue talking about the fun activities your child is doing at preschool. “Many programs, including the Fort Worth Zoo’s, provide a newsletter that outlines the concepts covered in the curriculum that week,” says Lee. “Parents can use this as a tool before class, even during the drive to school, to prepare their child for what to expect and excite them about all the enjoyable moments that await.”

You can also continue to use the teacher’s name in conversation. Explains Lee: “Hearing their teacher’s name coming from their parents helps kids create a positive connection and demonstrates that Mom and Dad trust this new adult in the preschooler’s life.”

RELATED: Getting Your Child Ready for Kindergarten and First Grade

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