Are you and your child emotionally ready for preschool?

Posted on October 17th, 2011

Are you and your child emotionally ready for preschool? Educational psychologist Ilze van der Merwe-Alberts prepares us for this important journey.

Most children start preschool when they’re three, turning four, and it’s a big step for both parent and child. It’s difficult for many parents to let go of their “baby” and prepare him for “the big world”; and it‘s equally difficult for children to let go of their “baby” days and face the challenge of going to preschool.

Most parents send their children to a playgroup two to three days a week or to a preschool five days a week from the age of two to three years. Some parents have no choice but to send their children to preschool because both parents work. Whatever your reason for sending your child to preschool, the most important thing is how you prepare yourself and your child for the transition.

Emotional readiness for both the parent and child means that they’re able to handle the transition and adapt to the social and emotional challenges. Expect some form of anxiety, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as anxiety can make a person more alert and able to handle challenges. A positive attitude goes a long way, but overzealous positivity creates false expectations for both parents and children.

Every parent wants an easy, smooth life for their little one, and sending your child into a new environment without you can be daunting. Most parents worry about the following:

  • Did I do a good enough job with my child?
  • Did I teach him the right skills?
  • Did I prepare him enough?
  • Did I help him develop self-confidence?
  • Does he have good social skills?
  • Will he be accepted?
  • Will he cope without me?
  • Will he be able to handle the challenges of life?
  • Who will look after him in the same way I do?

High feelings of anxiety can cloud the experience and be overwhelming for parents and children. Uncertain and
fearful parents can transfer these feelings onto their children without even knowing it. Children watch their parents carefully to learn from them, so parents are their most important role models for how to cope with new challenges.

Emotionally ready-for-preschool parents display the following behaviour: They look at the positives, benefits and gains for
their children going to preschool. They know their child will become more independent, learn to stand on his own feet, learn to make friends, become mentally equipped, learn to handle conflict, go on playdates and to social gatherings, learn new skills, experience life outside of the safety of the family, discover his own interests, learn to deal with other adults, and develop his emotional intelligence.

A child needs to have some form of competence in situations that could cause uncertainty and insecurity for him. Most children have the following feelings of uncertainty about going to preschool:
Will I know what to do? Can your child solve age-appropriate challenges? Can he ask for help when he’s stuck and doesn’t know what to do?
Who will look after me? Does your child feel safe and secure enough with people other than you, or is he dependent on you for most of his needs? Can he easily go to the other parent or a grandparent without experiencing separation anxiety? Does he know how to express himself sufficiently to enable others to have a basic understanding of his needs?
Will I be safe? Can your child feel safe with other adults and in other environments once you’ve sufficiently prepared him? Does he have an age-appropriate ability to self-soothe, or does he expect others, like you, to tend to all his needs? Can he separate from you and still be okay?
Will I make friends? Does your child show an interest in interacting with other children, even if it’s just an interest and
not yet proper socialisation? Does he have the ability to play alongside other children? The interactive play will follow, but the first important step of socialisation is parallel play.
Will I be okay? Does your child have basic coping skills, like age-appropriate self-soothing and self-reliance, or must everything still be done for him? Can he stand up for himself by saying “No” to behaviour from others that’s detrimental to him? For instance, can he say “No” to another child his own age?
Will my parents remember to fetch me? Does your child feel an emotional safety and connectedness with you, and does he trust that you’ll fetch him at the end of the school day? Is he able to be apart from you and feel a security that you’ll return, and that you’re consistent?
Will the teacher like me? Does your child feel good about himself enough to know that he’s likeable – which he should have experienced in the family environment?

For parents to understand how best to help their child with the transition, they must first understand more about the world of the child, which mainly consists of play and the language of play.

Children explore and discover their world through play. They learn about their physical surroundings, their capabilities and limitations, social rules and the difference between fantasy and reality. Children make sense of their world, and discover how to problem-solve and be in control of their fears and anxieties through play. The best way to deal with your child’s anxiety and excitement about what to expect in his new environment is to talk about it and to play out what’s most likely to happen.

Explain where he’s going and what he’ll be doing, putting emphasis on the things he may enjoy doing most. Most schools have open days, so take him to the school and show him around, pointing out the classroom, playground, where you’ll drop him off and where you’ll fetch him. Tell him what you’ll be doing while he’s at school.

Do not tell him how much you’ll miss him and that you don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself while he’s not there.
He needs to feel relaxed about you, too, so show him you’re confident that both of you will cope well. Remember that the more confidence you have in his ability to cope, the better he will cope. And a great way of getting the message across is
through structured doll play.

What is structured doll play?
Doll play is a lively way of storytelling for parents to help children who are feeling anxious or insecure. It provides a brief and specific experience for the child to prepare him for anxiety-provoking experiences. It’s similar to reading a story, but the major difference is that you create the story and play it out with dolls or soft-toy animals representing the family.The story involves real-life characters, such as Mom, Dad, your child and the teacher. Give every doll/animal the real-life character’s name, and give your story a title like “The day Peter went to school for the first time”. Play out the story by acting from the beginning where everyone’s getting up and ready for school. Mom, Dad and Peter get in the car and drive to school. Bring in sound effects for the movement of the car and so on, and go into detail about what happens when you get there, say goodbye, and when you come to collect him. Make the story as realistic as possible, but don’t bring in emotions, because the purpose of the story is to prepare him by bringing down the level of emotions like fear and anxiety.

It’s best to start with the structured doll play one to two days before the first school day, and especially the evening before school starts. Play out the second day for your child as well. If he wants to contribute to the story, say “Let me just finish my story, and then you can play out your story”. You can also use doll play to play out any issue you think your child will be anxious or uncertain about, like asking for something or going to the toilet. The more parents prepare their child for the daily goings-on of a school day, the more he’ll be emotionally ready and prepared.

It also helps if you handle the transition with:
Lots of love and attention. Tell your child that he can be proud of himself for being such a brave boy.
Reassurance that you’ll fetch him. If your child needs a reminder of this, make upa song or a rhyme like: My mommy always remembers me; she always comes back, she always comes back.
Being positive and upbeat when you say goodbye to him. Say something like: “I wonder what you’re going to play with today or what story your teacher will read?” Tell him what you’re going to do as well, for example, “And Mom is going to shop for food while you’re at school, and you and I will eat our lunch together when we get home after school”.
Being careful not to show your anxiety. If you show that you’re worried, your child will pick up on it and react accordingly to your example. Always explain in detail if there’s going to be any change in routine, and be supportive if he displays anxiety and insecurity. If this happens, get out the dolls and help him be better prepared.

As you go through the ups and downs of preparing and taking your child to preschool, remember: this too shall pass, and a time will come when he needs you less and becomes more independent and self-reliant. This is step one of many more transitions and new experiences for you as a parent and for your child.

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