The adjustment to preschool

Here’s a question from Meredith: “My daughter (23 months) has just started a preschool class that meets 2 days/week for 4 hours a day. She cried the first day, which was expected, because I did too. She has now cried all 4 days she’s attended. I know it might take a while for her to adjust, but it is affecting her sleep patterns (nap and bedtime) quite a bit. She is also much more sensitive, whiny, and sometimes uncontrollable, which has not been her nature until now. Any suggestions for talking to her about school or should I wait a few months and try again? I thought for sure she’d be ready by now!”

Actually, I think a two-year old is going to be “less ready” than a one-year old would have been. Many two-year-olds are quite clingy, and have a rough time with transitions. That the preschool is only two days a week will actually make it harder for her—she’ll be less able to adjust to a new routine that’s so infrequent.

So: first, ask yourself why you’re putting her in school. Good reasons might be because she seems bored at home, or because she seems to enjoy group playdates. Another good reason might be that you need the time for yourself. Less-good reasons would be because you’re feeling pressure from other parents, or because you’ve read somewhere that two-year olds “should” be in school. There’s no convincing evidence of any lasting benefit or detrimental effect of enrolling a child of this age in a day program, so it’s more a matter of individual needs and family situations. Certainly, if a child is enjoying school, that’s a good reason to do it. But if you don’t really have good reasons for having her in school, this might be a good time to think about it again.

If you’d like to proceed with a plan to at least try to help her get used to school, here are some ideas:

  • Do “play therapy”: act out little routines and plays with her stuffed animals, going to school and having a good time. This is a great, indirect way of communicating with a toddler.
  • Have a quick, short, no-lingering drop off. “Bye, see you later!” are good last words. Don’t hang around. You must hide your own anxiety and ambivalence. Kids pick up on that stuff, believe me!
  • Have her bring something very special, like a blanket, or make a little pin she can wear with a picture of you on it.
  • Don’t go check on her, and don’t call.
  • Expect that drop off and pick up will be the worst times for both of you. But also expect that within a few more weeks that she’ll be enjoying herself, most of the time, after you’ve gone. If she isn’t, set a time-limit on how long to keep trying: something like “If there isn’t any improvement in two weeks, I’m going to withdraw her from school. But I’m going to keep trying until then.”

Anyone else have any good ideas? Post a comment!

Best of luck! Let us know how it goes, and if you come up with any other good ideas to help her!

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2 Comments on “The adjustment to preschool”

  1. kellan Says:

    Do children need preschool at 24 months? My child attends play groups, gymobree classes twice a week, and music class once a week for socialization purposes but does not attend preschool. My husband and I have very mixed feelings and honestly the main reason we have not done preschool is financial one’s. We can “afford” preschool but we would rather spend that money some where else. Are we doing our child an injustice?

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    “Need” is far too strong a word; some 2 year olds will enjoy preschool, and some may get some benefit from the social interactions especially. But by kindergarten, children do just as well whether they’ve been in preschool or not (this is true for children from stable & good socioeconomic backgrounds. For disadvantaged children, early preschool is more definitely beneficial.)

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