By Raising Children Network
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Preschooler sad holding toy
Excited, worried about separation, a bit sad or not sure what to expect? When your child is starting preschool, these feelings are all normal – for your child and for you! Here are some tips and strategies to help your child settle in at preschool.

Starting preschool: what to expect

Your child is probably feeling excited as well as a bit nervous about starting preschool.

She might have already been to child care or playgroup and feel comfortable about joining a new group. Or preschool might be your child’s first experience of being away from family.

You might be feeling a mixture of pride, excitement, loss and anxiety as your child becomes more independent, particularly if you’re doing this for the first or last time.

Before your child starts preschool

You can start getting your child ready for preschool in the months and weeks before the first day. Here are some tips.

Visit the preschool 
Many preschools offer orientation visits. During these visits, your child can see and experience what he’ll do at preschool, who he’ll meet, and what happens during the preschool day. With permission, you could take some photos of the preschool to show your child before he starts. Some preschools have a preparation or orientation book that you can take home with you.

Talk about preschool 
You can talk about the things your child will do at preschool. For example, ‘Stella, do you remember we saw blocks at preschool? You’ll be able to build with them like you do at home’. You could look at photos of the preschool and talk about some of the things that are different from home, like the toilets and playground.

Follow your child’s lead with talking, so that your child feels comfortable talking about preschool, but doesn’t hear about it so often that it becomes overwhelming. If your child doesn’t seem interested when you talk about preschool, don’t push the conversation.

Keeping things low key can be a good idea too. If you say ‘Isn’t it exciting that you’re starting preschool?’, your child might start to feel more anxious because it sounds like a big deal. 

Read books about preschool 
Here are some good books for children about starting preschool:

  • Tom goes to kindergarten by Margaret Wild
  • First day by Margaret Wild
  • What to expect at preschool by Heidi Murkoff.

When your child starts preschool

Here are some tips and strategies to help you and your child in the early days and weeks of starting preschool.

Start gradually 
Many preschools invite parents to stay for a while during the day in the early days. Speak with the preschool teacher and work out a plan that works for you, your child and the preschool. It’s a good idea to tell your child how long you’re staying, so she doesn’t get a surprise when you leave. 

Establish some routines 
Routines can help your child feel safe and secure, particularly when new things are happening. You could set up a routine for preschool mornings – for example, get up, have breakfast, clean teeth, get dressed, put on sunscreen, pack lunchbox and go. You could even make a chart with pictures showing the different steps in your routine.

Develop a routine for saying goodbye
Say goodbye to your child so that he knows you’re going, and tell him that you’ll pick him up at the end of the day. You could choose a special place to say goodbye, or an activity to do before you go. For example, ‘If you wave to me from that window, I’ll be able to see you’, or ‘Which book will we read before I go?’ Say goodbye once and leave. Lots of goodbyes can be stressful for both you and your child.

Communicate with the preschool teachers 
Children get confidence from seeing warm, positive and friendly interactions between important people in their lives, like their parents and teachers. Good communication with your child’s teacher also helps you share relevant information and helps the teacher know how best to respond to your child.

Celebrate your child’s achievements 
Joining a new group, meeting new people, navigating a new environment and learning new ways of doing things are big achievements for your child. You can build your child’s confidence and sense of competence when you celebrate these. For example, you could use descriptive praise when your child meets new people or tries something new. Or you could encourage your child to call a grandparent, aunt or family friend to share her achievements.

Have back-up collection plans 
Many preschool sessions finish at a specific time. If you tell your child you’ll be there at a specific time, it’s important that you’re there. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan, so that if you’re delayed or there’s a problem, someone you and your child know and trust can be there to pick him up.

Your child is worried about preschool: what to do

Starting preschool can be exciting for your child. But anxiety and tiredness are normal too – there’s so much for your child to get used to. You might notice that your child isn’t eating as much, or wants to sleep more. She might even seem less happy than normal.

Your child might be worried about finding friends, knowing what to do or being separated from family. He might get upset when you leave him.

Your child might also worry about what you’ll be doing while she’s at preschool. Will you be doing something special – will she be missing out?

Tips to handle worries about starting preschool

  • Let your child know what you’ll be doing. This can help reassure him that he’s not missing out, especially if you try to save his favourite activities for when he’s with you.
  • Talk with your child about preschool routines. Toby Forward’s book The first day of school is a good discussion starter if it’s hard to get your child talking.
  • Talk to the teacher if your child gets upset when you leave her. Preschool teachers are experienced at helping children through separation and will have ideas to help you and your child.
  • Ask the teacher about what might be worrying your child. The teacher can tell you what happens during the preschool day. Your child might be unsure about using the toilets, not used to the food the preschool provides, or worried about where his things are.
  • Talk with the teacher about strategies to handle specific worries. For example, if your child is worried about food, you might be able to pack some familiar food for your child. If using the toilets seems to be the problem, the teacher can help your child get used to using them. Labelling your child’s things can help her keep track of them.

It can take time for your child to get used to the routine of going to preschool. If you feel your child isn’t settling in, and advice from the teacher isn’t working, you could also try talking to your GP or your child and family health nurse.

Your child doesn’t want to go to preschool anymore: what to do

Sometimes children’s excitement carries them through the first few days. But after a few days or weeks, the novelty wears off. You might notice that your child seems less keen about going to preschool.

One thing you can do in this situation is keep reacting positively to what your child does at preschool. This can help to spark his enthusiasm again.

Getting to know other children and families can help your child build friendships that will help her settle into preschool over the longer term.

A predictable routine can also help your child realise that preschool is a regular part of his life now. But if your child’s anxiety persists, talk to the preschool teacher, your GP or your child and family health nurse.

The stepladder approach is a step-by-step way of helping with anxiety in children. It’s based on the principle of ‘graded exposure’. This means starting off small, tackling the little things before you face the really scary things.

Your feelings about your child starting preschool

Your child takes cues from you, so if you’re worried about preschool, she’ll pick up on this.

You might be feeling worried about whether your child will fit in – will he find friends, feel comfortable, feel like he belongs at preschool and be able to do what’s asked of him?

If you show your child that you think she can manage at preschool, she’ll start to believe it too. Try not to let your child know about any worries you might have. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to other parents about how they’re doing this.

Developing good communication with the preschool teachers can also help you overcome these kinds of worries.

  • Last updated or reviewed 16-09-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Professor Sue Dockett, Charles Sturt University.