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Parenting Advice

Tips For Transitioning To Preschool And Kindergarten

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Sabrina Bot

Just the thought of sending your precious little one off to preschool and kindergarten is enough to make the waterworks begin…for both you and your kids. To ease the transition, we’ve tapped Brigette Maas, a Registered Play Therapist who works with children and their families in Council Bluffs, Iowa. After sending her own two children to preschool and kindergarten (respectively) this year, as well as supporting many families and kids through this transition, she’s gathered a dozen helpful tips to pass along. Read ’em, and hopefully don’t weep.

Read Books About School. An easy way to get the transition conversation started is reading your children books about preschool and kindergarten in the weeks before they begin. Maas suggests The Night Before Preschool (“It really helped them find the humor versus fear in the tears mom or dad may shed on the first day,” she says). Also, Pete The Cat: Rocking In My School Shoes. “The day after reading this book, I let my boys chose new shoes for school,” says Maas. “After getting the shoes home, we made a silly song about how the boys would use their new school shoes.” You can also scoop up books that show your kids’ favorite characters making their way to the classroom. Our picks: Bubble Guppies Time For School, Peppa Pig And The Busy Day At School, Elmo Goes To School, Curious George’s First Day Of School, Daniel Tiger Goes To School, Clifford’s First Day Of School, The Berenstain Bears Go To School, and the like.

Saying Goodbye To Old Friends: For children transitioning from preschool to kindergarten, think about creating a special treat for him or her to give their preschool buddies to say goodbye. This one found on Pinterest is a cute idea. It says “I’m so lucky to have had you in my class,” and inside it is filled with Lucky Charms. On the back, you can write something like “Good luck in kindergarten. Please give me a call if you’d like to play sometime,” along with contact info. Preparing and handing out these parting gifts to their old friends will help your child have a sense of closure. In Maas’ case, the recipient’s parents sent videos of their children saying thank you for the treats and telling her son a little about their first day of school. This also helped him soak in the fact that all of his friends were moving on to a new school, and he wasn’t the only one.

Get Them Excited About School Gear: Let your kid pick out a few new pieces of clothing, a backpack, lunchbox, and bento box to put into his or her lunchbox to get them excited about the perks of heading to school. For any specific supplies intended for the entire class, have a discussion with your child about how they might share and use the supplies when it’s their turn, so they don’t get too attached.

Get Them Excited About School Grub: The night before the big day, take your child to the grocery store to pick out their choice of healthy fruits and veggies, sandwich supplies, drink, and snack. Let them know that they get to gobble down the yummy stuff the next day at school. When you’re packing their first-day lunch, have both parents sneak a note inside. A simple “I Love You” or funny illustration will do the trick.

Let Them Get Comfy With Their New Stuff: If your preschooler will be sleeping on a mat for the first time (PS: we like this version by Olive Kids), try to buy the mat a few weeks early and set it up in the living room for fun snuggle sessions and to get them excited about their new sleepy time area. Same goes for new backpacks and shoes. Try to have your kids try the gear on before the big first day, so they can get comfortable wearing the items.

Visit The School Ahead Of Time: If your kindergarten or preschool allows visits with your child before the school year starts, take them up on it! It’s a great way for kids to get acquainted with the environment and teachers with mom and dad nearby before they are there all alone.

Curb The “School” Talk If Needed: If you notice your child getting anxious or rebellious when you mention the idea of “school,” try to nix the word altogether, and instead refer to the place as its proper name (ex: Children’s Day) and the teachers as their first names (“let’s go visit your new friend Miriam, she’s so nice”). This might help the transition seem like less of a big deal and the new space seem more like a fun play center.

The Drop-Off: Confidence is key. It’s important to say goodbye (don’t sneak out of the room) and actually leave. Don’t ask “Are you okay if mom leaves now?” It will not be ok with them. Instead, walk away confidently even if your child is crying—don’t linger, come back, or keep turning around, as that will make them feel like they do actually have something to be scared of, as they’ll sense a lack of confidence. It’ll also reinforce that crying gets you to come back. Also, keep your promises. If you say you will be back right after recess/snack, be there. Remember that separation anxiety is a natural part of development, how parents respond to it is vital in order for kids to make healthy transitions and develop trust with parents and teachers.

Create A Drop-Off Ritual: Think of a special send-off between you and your child, like a special handshake, a kiss blown in their hand (especially great if you have read The Kissing Hand), a short finger play, or a goodbye from all of you senses (“After school, my ears will hear all the fun things you did, my eyes will see your brave face, my nose will smell your stinky sweat…”). Let your child take a small transitional object to school. Plan something you can give him out of your pocket or off your body to leave with him if he is struggling, such as a soft hair band from mom, a small photo, or a splash of cologne from dad (just remind him it may need to stay in his backpack or cubby if the teacher says so).

Practice Self Care: After you drop your child off, try to let the guilt go and do something for yourself, such as a stroll, a phone call to a friend, or a cry in the car. Your child will stop crying a lot sooner than you think. Have faith in your kid’s inner strength and positive coping techniques.

Expect Regression. Your child might whine, cry, have bathroom accidents, or be extremely clingy while she makes this big transition. She needs more nurture and reassurance, so don’t punish her for using a baby voice at this time, but instead give extra cuddle time. And when she expresses negative feelings, make sure you don’t put words in her mouth. Don’t say, “I know you hate school.” Reflect instead: “I hear you saying you feel scared/sad/mad?..the teacher and I are here to help.” Also, remind your child that she has fought her fear before and felt brave. Say something like, “Remember how afraid you were of swimming? Now you love it!”

Discussing Their School Day: “It’s a pretty universal kid response to say ‘good’ and nothing else when describing their day at school,” says Maas. To encourage your kids to open up and give some more details, grab their favorite dolls and superheroes and play like they’re at school, recreating moments from the day. At dinner, try to get your kids to talk about the best and worst parts of their day, and you can do the same with your work day. “As a therapist, I see the importance of validation. Kids need to know their parents hear them, are connected to them, and can offer support to help them,” says Maas. “It is easy to get in to a trap of trying to minimize any negative emotion or thought our kids have because we just want them to be happy, but by doing that they do not feel understood. It’s very important to show them we care by validating even their sadness, confusion, and frustration. I do this by making sure I am focused (looking at their eyes and putting away all electronics), hearing their words, and repeating them back in a simple way. If they see I heard them and I didn’t get details wrong, then I ask, ‘Is there anything else you want to share about that?’ before I make any comments. Next, I say something along the lines of, ‘What do you think would make you feel better?’ Most of the time they have a much easier and better solution than I could ever imagine. Other times the solution involves something totally unrealistic. If the solution is doable, I ask how I can help. If it isn’t, I acknowledge why flying out of preschool on a rocket might not be the only option!” May the force be with you, mamas!

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 17, 2015.]

Write a Comment

  1. Thank you for this post! My 3 year old just started PreK3 and my 2 year old is still home with our nanny so this has been a difficult transition for us but I am hopeful!

  2. I found it beneficial that your article brings to light the fact that regression may be present during the transitional period to pre-school, as the adjustment will be quite difficult to get used to. My significant other and I want our daughter to enroll in preschool, as she has recently turned four. We’ll look to find a reliable childcare service via contacting a few options that are available and determining which would be the best.

  3. My nephew needs to go to preschool next year. It is good to know that drop-off is going to be an important thing for my sister to do properly. She might want to try to show him the school beforehand and get him excited to go to.

  4. I love your tip about getting my child excited for school by letting my child pick their clothes, school supplies, backpack, and lunch. My daughter is turning three this years, and we’re looking for a reputable preschool learning center to enroll her to. I’ll keep this tip in mind and plan a shopping trip downtown with my daughter to get her pumped up for preschool!

  5. Thanks for mentioning having your kids try on their gear before the first day. My son is starting kindergarten this fall and we want to make sure he’s ready and comfortable. I’ll be sure to help him try on different backpacks so he can feel good going in on his first day.

  6. Linda Icenhower says...

    as a veteran kindergarten teacher I love and appreciate this! you nailed it with resources and ideas. I would also encourage parents to take their children in to meet the teacher prior to the first day of school. Most schools will have a back to school night/meet the teacher, however if they don’t, I recommend reaching out and asking for 10 minutes to swing by and break the ice. we kindergarten teachers are a special breed and I feel confident saying that any would be happy to see you!

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