Each new school year at brings with it many new families, ready to settle in their little ones. The first few days can be an emotional rollercoaster for parents and children alike; the anxiety and uncertainty of their child’s reaction to the new environment is daunting. Parents are eager to support their child through this transition, but it can be a difficult time. The truth is: there is no uniform approach to help your little one adapt to his new surroundings. As a teacher, and as the Director of Inspire Children’s Nursery, I have seen time and again that the majority of the children happily adapt to their new environment, given due time.
Caring for children for so many years, there are some useful tips that my team and I have learnt and share with incoming families to ease the transition.
Prepare your child
Children thrive when they know what to expect. Just as we prepare children in the classroom for upcoming transitions, it is equally important for parents to do the same. Talking to your child about how much fun school will be, and reading stories about saying goodbye can be powerful in helping her understand what is to come.
Visiting the nursery ahead of time is a great way to help your child become familiar with her new environment and teacher. Try not to let visits be too long as you don’t want your child to think nursery is a place for her to play with mum. Fifteen to 20 minutes of fun is enough time for her to begin to develop positive associations with nursery.
Communicate with the nursery and learn about their approach to managing separation. They may have general recommendations, but should be willing to create an individualized plan for your child once you’ve had a chance to see how she copes in the first few days. Ensure you are clear about their expectations, and communicate your own to the nursery team. Don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as you need to – remember, they have done this many times with many children and can probably alleviate most of your anxieties.
Whatever you do, don’t let your child pick up on any anxiety you may feel (and I promise you, you will!). Children are very sensitive to parents’ emotions, body language and facial expressions and the last thing you want is for your child to internalize your nervousness. As long as you maintain a positive approach to nursery, chances are, your little one will too.
The Big Day!
At Inspire we ask parents to stay with their child on the first day, as leaving him in a new environment with relative strangers will cause unnecessary stress. If you are unable to stay, or when it’s time to leave, talk to your child about the plan (before you get to nursery) and let him know you will read a story with him but then must go to work, and will be back soon (after snack/lunch/painting). Leave your scarf or shawl with him so he knows you will return.
When you enter the classroom, take him to the teacher and let him see you positively interact with her (remember, he will pick up on any anxiety you have so do your best to mask it). Let the teacher guide him to an activity and take her lead. Be prepared to get on the floor and play with your child for a little while to help him through any initial anxiety, until it’s time to leave. No matter how tempting it seems, don’t sneak away while he’s busy. Establish a goodbye routine that will help him develop trust in you and understand that ‘mummy will be back soon’. This can be difficult for any parent, but staying calm and keeping your goodbye short and sweet is paramount. Children’s reactions to goodbyes vary from tears and clinging to you for dear life, to barely acknowledging your departure.
However your child reacts, don’t prolong your goodbye. Alert the teacher to your impending departure so she can be available to comfort your child when you leave. And remember, most children stop crying relatively quickly. I have worked with children who took a day to settle in, and others who took a few weeks, but sooner or later, they were all happy to come to nursery, and sad to leave!
A Slight Regression
Most parents are quick to observe an unexpected change in their child – the once confident and independent toddler is suddenly clingy and asking to sleep in your bed. Don’t worry; a slight regression is common as your little one tries to cope with separation anxiety. Be patient and supportive without letting her regress too much. If your child was eating independently and is now asking to be fed, remind her gently, ‘I know you’re a big girl and you can feed yourself. I’ll give you the first bite and then you can show me how good you are at eating like a big girl’. Try to maintain her usual routine (no big changes) and spend a little extra time together in the first few days after starting nursery to reinforce to her that she is still as important to you as she was before. Soon enough she’ll be back to her old self and learning faster than you can imagine!
Asma Maladwala is Co-Founder and Director of Inspire Children’s Nursery. She has a Masters in Special Education from Columbia University, New York, and a Bachelor’s in Child Development from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a teacher at heart and loves nothing more than working with children!