Preschool Directors' Tips on Making The Transition to School Go Smoothly


The day I dropped my firstborn off at preschool was difficult. It was the first time being apart for both of us. I don’t know who cried more. That’s a lie–it was me. But, I kept all my crying in until I was out of her sight, as I knew that she would be looking at me for reassurance.

Still, she did cry. I’m not going to lie and say she only cried the first day. She didn’t. She cried at drop-off for two months. But, it only lasted for a few minutes and then she went on with her day and had a great time. I know, because I was the parent who called the office the minute I got home to check on her. Thankfully, the directors were more than happy to give me updates and, soon, both my daughter and I transitioned smoothly.

My kids are older now. My youngest will be in her last year of preschool, a big Pre-K kid, and my oldest–the crier–starts 2nd grade this year and loves school. But I thought it would be helpful for all you first-timers out there, who are gearing up for your child’s first day of preschool, to get some advice from the pros.

I asked Baristaville preschool directors how parents can help make the transition to little one’s first school experience easier:

“The best advice I can give is for the parents to stay positive and supportive – don’t make too big a deal about “going to school” – remember that your child has no reference point for what that means as they probably have never done it before – don’t mention that you will miss them while they are at school – focus on the fun they will have – the great teachers who will take good care of them and that at the end of the day you will be there to pick them up.  One of the biggest mistakes parents make is staying too long – once your child is in the classroom and the staff is paying attention to them – say a quick good bye and leave – if you don’t have confidence that the teacher and staff will take good care of your child then he or she shouldn’t be there.” ~ Wendy Westock, Director of MMO in Montclair

“My best advice to first time parents of preschoolers is to check their own nervousness and anxiety!  I remember once greeting arriving students on the first day and smiling as a young girl gamely heading up the stairs towards me holding her mothers hand, but then turned to her mother and said, “Ouch, Mommy!  You are squeezing too hard!  And why is your hand so wet?”  I warmly greeted my new young student, and hugged the mom, and things got better for them both rapidly from there.  If the parent can relax and go with the flow, their child is more likely to follow.” ~ Maggie Granados, Head of School of Montclair Cooperative School. Maggie adds, “I believe it is important for parents to think carefully about the transition of older children, too.  Sometimes those are even more fraught for parent and child.  At the Co-op we plan a special day just for older students new to our school to give them a leg up with the transition.  If their child’s school in September doesn’t offer something similar, I encourage the parents of new students to ask if a pre-visit, or some social time with classmates is a possibility before the first day of school comes around.”

“We suggest our parents come up with a really fun, consistent routine. It can start at home with a song about going to school; this way it can be sung on the move while getting dressed, having breakfast and on the way to school. Discuss something special for them to anticipate at the end of their day, but make sure it can happen at the end of your busy day. Like going for a stroll around the neighborhood to talk about your day, or a bike ride, or sitting down to draw a picture of your day and sharing a story about it. The entire family can join in on this activity. Sharing your plans with the teacher is key so they can reassure your little one throughout the day if needed. Finally, at drop off time, come up with a “special/secret” handshake, hug or kiss and agree this is your way of saying “see you later.” Then head out the door. It’s harder on parents when you linger and the child is upset. Once you’re out of sight, it’s the schools job to make sure to keep your child engaged and help them participate in the many activities until you return. We also invite our parents to call back to check up on how their day is going.” ~ Joye Allen, Managing Director of Children’s Learning Tree in South Orange

If you can, bring your child to his/her new school for a few visits beforehand to get a lay of the land and also familiarize him/herself with faces. On that first fearful day, MAKE YOUR DROP OFF SHORT AND SWEET! Expect tears….even screaming. The teachers are trained to deal with that and the sooner your child learns that the new school is safe and fun and that he/she will always get to go home at the end of the day, he/she will transition sooner and learn to trust you and the teachers. ~ Lisa Raphael, Director of Park Street Academy in Montclair

Sandy Weber, the Business Director of PSA, adds that it’s all about communication: “Make sure to speak to the teachers beforehand to let them know what you feel comfortable with. If you want them to help out and take the child away from you so you can leave, communicate this to them. Make sure to say goodbye, never try to sneak out, and tell them to have a great day.”

“Explain to your child in advance what will happen when you drop him off, and reassure him that you will return. Speak positively about the school and the things s/he will be doing there.  Even if you feel anxious, please convey to your child that school is a fun, safe place where s/he will thrive. Emphasize what your child will do at school, rather than what you will be doing after you drop her off. Most important: avoid prolonged goodbyes, which can convey your own anxiety or fear.  Exude confidence that your child will have a great time, and your child will be predisposed to feel good about this new experience!” ~Rabbi Susan Lazev, Director of Child’s Way*Derech HaYeled: A Jewish Montessori School in West Orange

“Summer time is a lot less structured, so a week or two before school start getting back into the habit of a school night ritual. This usually means earlier dinner and bedtimes. Try not to over-schedule your preschooler. If they are beginning school in the fall, that is probably enough. Cut down on the play-dates (at least on school days) as well as the supplemental classes. Don’t underestimate how tired your preschooler may be after their first week or even month of preschool. For many children, school is the first time they might be away from a parent or caregiver. Lastly, always try to be on time to school for both drop off and pick up times.  A child does not want to arrive as the group is cleaning up from free play, nor do they want to be the last one waiting after all their friends have left.” ~ Christi Porter, Lead Teacher/Director at Watchung Cooperative Preschool in Montclair

“At St James Preschool, we give parents a list of items that is called “MAKING THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL MORE COMFORTABLE”.  Some of the tips for parents are:
  1. Point out to your child that you are excited about his/her going to school.  Talk about school as a place where he/she will learn lots of new things and make new friends.
  2. Let your child choose a photograph of members of the family and tape it to the inside of the lunchbox.  Cover it will clear contact paper.
  3. Let your child being something to school that belongs to either parent – a scarf or handkerchief.
  4. Do something special together the night before.  Make the child’s lunch together.  Your child can put in the grapes or cut the sandwich.  Together you can pick out what the wear the next day.
  5. Decide on a special “friend” or object to bring to school.  These objects will be put in the child’s “going home box” in case they need the item for comfort.

The most important way a parent can make the transition smoother for their child is to be aware of their own concerns or fears about the child’s new experience and his ability to handle it.  If a parent/s is experiencing any fears, your child will tend to pick up on them and become scared as well.” ~ Sarah Eggleston, Director of St. James Preschool in Montclair

“My advice? Take a deep breath or maybe several. Separation is a process, not a problem. Each child may handle it differently, but they all need to go through the process. Children very quickly pick up on our anxiety. Keep conversations about school short and sweet. Validate your child’s feelings if they are feeling sad, but don’t go overboard. I worry more about the parents than the children at this point. Trust that the preschool you have selected will provide a warm, caring and nurturing environment for the children. After you have taken your child to school, then you can fall apart! We provide lots of tissues, mostly for the parents the first few weeks of school.” ~ Arlene Sherman, Director of Shoresh Preschool of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield

Eve Robinson, Director of the Montclair Community Pre-K, says that that 3 C’s are just as important as the ABCs:

Stable and predictable environments are the first ingredient necessary for healthy development. Children need to be able to count on certain routines in order to be able to take the next steps necessary to growing. Starting routines at home that are consistent and predictable for your child will help. When children begin school programs it is vital that the caregiver put in place a consistent schedule for the child and stick with it as often as possible.

A consistent, stable and predictable environment coupled with a safe, nurturing place to practice coping skills are the
core ingredients to preschool education. In addition, families can model coping skills at home by identifying emotions and ways to behave to display that emotion.

Now we are ready to learn! When the environment is consistent and early coping skills are achieved, children feel relaxed, confident and competent to take in new information. Children who feel accepted by the adults in their lives and by the environment in which they are placed will seek out learning and thrive in school.

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