When a child begins day
care or nursery school, she and her family face the issues of
separation and independence. A four- or five-year-old will probably
go off without much difficulty, but many children under three have a
hard time leaving their parents. Parents can make the transition
from home a little easier if they talk to their child about what
will be happening and patiently reassure her.
You can begin preparing your child several weeks before her new
program starts. If she previously went with you to visit the school
or center, remind her of what she saw: “Remember the blocks and
puzzles you played with there?” If she’s never seen the school,
describe the building, the toys, and the activities. Let her know
about snacks, lunch, and naps, and reassure her that the school has
bathrooms and places for her coat and other belongings. Mention the
name of someone she knows who will be in the program with her; if
she doesn’t know anyone in the school; tell her there will be many
other children her age there. If you know who your child’s teachers
will be, tell her their names.
If your child is under two, you won’t be able fully to prepare her
for nursery school or day care because she won’t understand much of
what you tell her, although you can still describe whatever you
think will interest her. She will basically have to experience the
new program and the separation firsthand. You and your child’s
caretakers will have to be understanding and nurturing as she
adjusts in the early weeks of school, and you may have to be
flexible about your own schedule so you can take her home early if
On the first day of school, before you leave home, talk to her about
the separation that’s coming: “After we get to the classroom, I’ll
stay for a few minutes and then say good-bye.” Tell her what time
you’ll be coming back and what your driving arrangements will be. If
she’ll be in a car pool, tell her who will drive. For the first few
days of school you may want to do the driving yourself to help her
adjust to her new situation.
Be patient as you say good-bye to her the first few days. Many
children, especially those under three years old, have a difficult
time leaving their parents, particularly if the program lasts a full
day. Your child may want to say good-bye several times, or she may
cry. Don’t threaten her or say, “Be good and stop crying,” or, “Be a
big girl.” She needs support, not pressure. You might be able to
eliminate some of her anxiety by letting her bring along a favorite
toy or blanket. Try arriving at school fifteen minutes early so you
can spend more time with her before you go. Or give her a special
little treat when she gets in the car or a “love” note or picture to
carry into school with her.
You should not try to sneak out of the school without saying good
bye, even if you think such an action might keep your child from
crying. Eventually she will notice you’re gone and may become
frightened and upset. Although it’s painful to see your child cry as
you go, you should still say good-bye to her. You might feel better
if you wait outside the classroom door, listening for a few minutes
until she’s calmed down.
As time goes by, she may continue to have trouble leaving you at the
school door. Children two years old and younger don’t understand
that you’ll return, no matter how often you tell them. This may make
them anxious in the morning and off and on throughout the day.
Consult with your child’s teachers. They may be able to help by
giving your child extra comfort and reassurance, and getting her
involved in activities.
It might take your child several weeks to adjust to school or day
care, and during that time you may see some changes in behavior such
as bed-wetting, nightmares, decreased appetite, more frequent
whining, and reluctance to go to school. Getting used to a program
is more difficult for some children than others, but most children
are affected in some way during the early days of a new situation.
You’ll have to be patient and understanding as your child adjusts.
If, after several months, she’s still showing behavioral changes and
seems unhappy, talk to her teachers and stay to observe the program.
You might even drop in unexpectedly to see how she is, and to try to
find out why she isn’t enjoying herself. As you watch her, ask
yourself the following questions: does she seem to have friends she
enjoys? Is she one of the youngest children in the group? (If she
is, she may feel less confident and accepted.) Is she getting enough
attention from her teachers? If the program seems inappropriate,
take her out and find a better one. But if you’re unsure, wait a bit
before making your decision. Your child just might need an extra
amount of understanding and time to adjust to day care or school.