Remember your first day of work and how apprehensive you felt? You had to adjust to a new environment, new people, and new rules. Now imagine having to do that at a very young age. No wonder starting preschool is such an overwhelming experience for many young kids – as well as their parents.
The good news is, schools are there to help both of you with this big transition. One of the most important things you can do before your toddler starts school is to visit the centre beforehand.
At Mindchamps Preschool, for instance, teachers arrange an orientation session for parent and child. They go through the centre’s routines and activities, and find out about your kid’s routine at home, says Elaine Chia, its senior director of Education (Early Childhood). “If your child needs more time to ease into an unfamiliar environment, we encourage her to visit the preschool a few times with you and your spouse before she starts.”
She will have to get used to new naptimes, mealtimes, and perhaps even new types of food. During the orientation session, find out when she will be doing various activities, and help her adjust by implementing them at home. For instance, some children eat only porridge at home, notes Yvonne Tan, senior principal at Learning Vision @ NCS (National Skin Centre). So, the centre invites children to taste its meals during orientation.
“We share with parents the healthy menus that will be served in school, and encourage them to let their kid try different types of food at home, such as spaghetti, rice, and cut-up veggies and meat – everything except mashed food – before starting school.”
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MUMMY, DON’T LEAVE
Separation anxiety is the most common problem, our experts say. Not having Mum, Dad or their primary caregiver around, and being away from home, can be extremely distressing. It is therefore not surprising that she will cling to you during the first few days and cry a lot, or be withdrawn.
If your toddler doesn’t speak English or Mandarin, she may find it even more difficult to adjust. In such cases, Yvonne of Learning Vision says her teachers will speak to her in the language she’s more comfortable with – if it’s not a mother tongue they know, they’ll learn simple phrases such as “Drink some water”, “Please eat”, or “Let’s play”, and use body language.
Over at NTUC First Campus, teachers encourage parents to sit in with their kids for the first three days, although this is not compulsory. “This not only helps the children adapt to their new environment, but also gives the teachers a chance to get to know them better by communicating with the parents,” says Ruth Chia, project manager for curriculum and programmes.
Adds Elaine of Mindchamps: “In the event that your child needs more time to adapt, our teachers will work with you to understand what she is going through and discuss a few coping strategies and solutions to dealing with her fears.”
If you plan to sit in during her first few days, don’t carry or hold on to her all the time. She’ll find it difficult to let go, and won’t explore her new environment, says Yvonne of Learning Vision. “Before enrolment, we usually discuss the topic of separation anxiety with parents anyway,” she adds.
“This prepares them mentally, and gives them the chance to prepare and support their child. We also encourage parents to pick up their child early the first few days, as this will help her understand that her parents will, indeed, return after a while.
“If you are concerned about her feeling unsettled, and need assurance that she is in good hands, you can call our centre’s office to check up on her, because separation anxiety is something that parents experience as well.”
And if your tot starts to cry because she’s insecure, there’s no need to rush to her side – her teachers have been trained to help her without disrupting the class. After all, one crying child can set off the other kids, and that’s not ideal for maintaining a secure and settled environment.
“For example, our English teacher will attend to that crying child, and the Chinese teacher will carry on with the activities as usual for the rest of the kids who have settled down,” Ruth of NTUC First Campus explains.“To help calm the child, the teacher might read books or sing songs or rhymes to her about going to school.”
She suggests packing your kid’s favourite toy or a security blanket to help quell her anxiety during the first couple of weeks.
I’LL BE BACK
Knowing that first-time mums and dads are equally apprehensive, teachers at Learning Vision centres make it a point to speak to them on the first day, Yvonne says. “Teachers usually share with the parents how well their child played, slept and ate, as these tend to be parents’ most common concerns.”
They follow up with e-mail messages that detail your little one’s first week and month, and share photos. “These e-mail updates and pictorial documentations help to comfort parents,” Yvonne says.
It’s essential that both the teachers and you help her feel calm, and assure her that she will be safe under their care, Elaine says. Always say goodbye to your child and give her a loving hug when dropping her off, and then leave the premises immediately. “You should never just sneak out and leave without saying goodbye, as this may cause your child to feel abandoned. This may, in turn, reinforce her perception that the preschool is a bad place to be in,” she explains.
Do your part to ease her anxiety at home, as well. Lauren Tan, principal at Pat’s Schoolhouse Claymore, says to reassure her that you love her very much and that you will be back in the afternoon to pick her up, for example. “If a child knows what to expect, being dropped off at preschool for the first time becomes less intimidating,” she points out.
“As she becomes more familiar with her new surroundings, she’ll begin to accept going to school and even look forward to it. The preschool can also send home little notes with lyrics to songs that were sung during the first few days, and you can sing these to her at home.”
Related story: Should you change preschools?