Preparing for the first days of preschool

Parents across Central Pennsylvania are preparing their three- and four-year-olds for a new experience: preschool.

The transition can be difficult, especially for children who haven’t been in an academic setting before. Gina VanKirk, director of Dickinson College Children’s Center in Carlisle, suggests exposing children to other learning environments before it’s time to head to school to ease the transition.

“Families can help prepare children for preschool prior to starting by providing opportunities for their child to play with other children,” she says. “Visit parks, libraries, or have play dates with neighbors.”

Preparing your child for preschool is one thing. Choosing a preschool presents a whole other challenge.

VanKirk suggests finding a program that provides both academic and social/emotional development.

“It’s important for children to be able to identify their emotions, self-regulate, and be able to positively communicate their wants and needs,” she says. “Look for a program that helps to teach children the steps necessary in working through conflict with peers and has teachers that model problem solving with the children in their class.”

Finding the best program for your child will ensure their success.

“Remember, children who feel safe and secure in their environment will be able to soar in their learning once those basic needs are met,” VanKirk says.


Encouraging some independence

Preparation for preschool doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Parents and caregivers can take small steps each day to encourage children in ways that will help them be most prepared for preschool, without it becoming overwhelming.

“Encourage your child to become independent with self-care skills such as washing their hands, wiping their nose, and zipping up their backpacks and jackets,” says Cynthia Maradiaga, a junior kindergarten teacher at Harrisburg Academy in Camp Hill. “Practice cleaning up around the house before schools starts. This will help your child get into the habit of cleaning up after themselves.

While a new routine can make even the most prepared parent apprehensive, it can be just as scary for a child.

“Reading is a great way to minimize first day jitters,” Maradiaga says. “Read books that will help your child feel confident and ready to take on the first day of preschool.”

For children who are already in a daycare setting, the transition to preschool probably won’t be as difficult.

“It’s business as usual for us,” says Danielle Bornstein, a mom of two in Carlisle. Her son has been in daycare at the same center where he will attend preschool since he was 6 1/2 months old.

One area where Bornstein is apprehensive is a common theme of worry among many parents – bathroom habits.

“We’re feeling less confident about potty-training – our son is sensitive and strong-willed, and he currently has some kind of emotional hang-up about using the potty that we can’t quite get to the bottom of,” she says. “With no changing table in the next room, we feel quite a lot of pressure to get him potty-trained, but he’s not the type of kid who responds well to being pushed.”

Mandy Gutshall, a preschool teacher at Dickinson College Children’s Center in Carlisle, eases this worry, acknowledging that all teachers know that bathroom habits are a struggle at the preschool age.

“The typical expectation going into a preschool classroom verses a toddler classroom is that the child is potty-trained; however, not all preschool programs have the same expectations,” she says. “Accidents occur frequently at this age, but having the ability and want to use the toilet is the expectation.”


The dreaded morning drop-off

There are often tears, from both parents and children, when starting in a new classroom. It can be stressful for everyone. Establishing a routine is the most popular advice from teachers and parents who have been through the experience.

“I’m all about routine. Make sure your child knows what to expect with each drop off, and then walk through that routine every morning,” says Alyssa Windholz, a mom of two in Carlisle. “Know when you can break that routine – tough mornings happen to everyone – with a hug or some extra time in the room, but also when to hand a clingy child over to a caretaker and make your exit. They don’t stay upset for long. Teachers are great at distracting them and moving them into their day.”

Gutshall agrees.

“Tears are common, and as hard as it is for you as a parent to see or hear; it will be short-lived,” she says. “You can always make a follow-up phone call later in the morning.”

What occurs when a child returns home is also important, especially during the new school transition time.

“Try to clear your evening plans so you can be sure to give your child some extra attention and time to find out what they liked or did not like,” Gutshall advises. “Give them a chance to have control of what to do or play since a large portion of their day was teacher guided or time that they needed to share and compromise.”


Communication and familiarization

Communication between parents and teachers is key, especially when it comes to the youngest learners.

“It is helpful if the teacher either completes a daily report that individually states something your child likes or did, or the teacher may complete a daily report that states what the class did. Both reports will help you communicate with your child about their day,” Gutshall says. “Know the vocabulary and terminology that a teacher uses in reference to the schedule and activities such as center time or the names of the learning centers. This will allow you to ask specific questions such as, ‘what did you do at the art center today’ verses vague questions such as, ‘what did you do at playtime today?’”

This communication can even begin now – in the weeks before preschools begins.

“Before school starts, take advantage of opportunities to visit your child’s school,” Maradiaga says. “This will allow you and your child to get to know the school, their teacher, and classroom. If you have any questions after the visit you can email your child’s teacher. They will be glad to answer all your questions.”

Setting realistic expectations for your child will also help make the transition to preschool easier.

“The most important thing to remember as you enter preschool is that every child is unique,” Gutshall says. “They learn concepts in different ways, and will develop skills at different rates. Simply giving them the opportunity to be submerged in language, social, emotional, mathematical, physical, and scientific activities and experiences will help them become a well-rounded person. It is not a race to see who can learn their alphabet the fastest or count the highest by the time they enter kindergarten.”

And while the transition to preschool may seem stressful, Afton Unger, a mom of two from Shippensburg who has been through the process twice now, believes the positives outweigh any negatives.

“Your child will have fun meeting new friends, and learning new skills every day,” she says. “Have them tell you all about their day on the car ride home, and it will make both of you more excited about preschool.”


Cassandra Davis, a communications coordinator and freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Central Penn Parent.

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