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How Parents Get Kids Ready for Preschool

Some of it helps, some of it doesn’t, and it can be overdone.

When my first child was ready for pre-K, I spent hours planning how to help her not be nervous about going to school. I knew there were many ways; I had learned them observing in the high-quality lab school in the academic center where I was still in my child psychiatry training. Some worked, some didn’t, but I came to realize the list was more useful in managing my anxiety than hers. She (and I) got nervous anyway. More importantly, even though she went with tears, she came to terms with it. With some support, she fell in love with her school, her teachers and her new BFFs. When my fourth child was ready, his mother and I got him a backpack and off he went, without a list of tips or preparatory playdates.

This is a tough threshold to cross for most parents. When we send our kids off to school, they unwittingly carry with them our first experiences of confronting school - positive and negative. It is common for me to hear from parents, especially first-timers, “I really want them to love school and be happy there. I want to help them not be anxious about going.” When I ask why that matters to them, I find out that school ‘took work getting used to‘ or ‘I remember being so anxious,’ and they want to avoid that for their children.

Anxiety, however, is one of the best teachers we ever have except when it overwhelms us and becomes toxic. In manageable doses, it focuses our attention and teaches us that we can cope, be fine and get help when we need it. We learn that things are going to be all right even if they start off a little scary. So here is my list of things that support that positive developmental current in our children as they head off to school.

I see well-meaning parents shape their August to accommodate a round of playdates with children who will share their preschooler’s class. Parents are typically happier with how these go since the young child doesn’t quite understand how the timeline plays out. Don’t drive your child or yourselves logistically crazy. One or two thoughtfully chosen playdates should do the trick. More than that will raise the child’s worry, not reduce it.

When parents tell stories to their children about when they went to school and share how they felt about it, they are often seeking to reassure their children that things will be fine. Instead, they risk that the child will hear these stories as instructions that there is a right way to feel about what’s about to happen to them: the parent’s way. It’s important that they understand that however they feel about going to school is the right way.

Back to school photo albums, which are often recommended in ‘tips’ discussions, take a lot of time to prepare and, in my experience, are too abstract to help most starting pre-K children reduce their anxiety. A favorite ‘softie’ from home works better and can be used when needed without an obligation to narrate an album for a teacher or a peer, whose attention will surely wander.

Things that are simple and effective are changing sleep patterns to allow for easier, less shocking school wake-up time; reviewing the toileting expectations; having both parents present for the school or home visiting days and accepting that separations are processes, not simply ‘events’ and that they require time, like fish require water.

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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