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Science-Based Tips for First Day of Preschool

First day of preschool is exciting, but it can also be an overwhelming experience for young children.

This article will give you 6 tips on how to help your child deal with separation anxiety on this important day.

First Day Of Preschool

So you’ve done the research, visited all the preschools in your area, talked to numerous parents and finally decided on the one for your toddler.

It is time to start preschool. Your child has been prepped about the first day of preschool and was sent to bed early.

So are you excited about the first pre-k drop off?

If you’re like most parents, you are dreading the first day of preschool (or daycare).

This is probably the first time you will be separated from your baby for a long stretch of time.

As much as it’s hard for you, it’s a lot harder for your toddler.

When

to start preschool, people may keep telling you stories of how their preschool kids cried for weeks or months before they could settle in the new place

… but kids crying on the first day of school is normal

… screaming and crying are normal

… separation anxiety in preschoolers are normal

… eventually, they will stop and the child will adapt to the new environment

… You just need to get ready and get used to it.

Separation anxiety in preschoolers

Experience vs Science

Many well-meaning people, including experienced teachers, will tell you to drop off, say goodbye and then leave as quickly as possible without looking back.

1st day of preschool can be chaotic and overwhelming for the teachers, too. It’s understandable that they want less distraction and parents to be out of the way.

It is true that most children will stop crying within five minutes after seeing their parents leave.

This strategy has proven to work in the grownups’ eyes.

But a strategy that seems to work for grownups (because then we can go about our business) is not always the best for our kids.

The first day of preschool doesn’t have to be this dramatic.

In the next section, we’ll look at tips on how to help your toddler adjust to this big day.

Some of the advice is counter-intuitive or counter-conventional wisdom, but they are backed by extensive studies by psychologists and researchers.

The advance of technology and brain studies has given us a lot of information on child development. This new knowledge helps us understand child behavior previously misunderstood, dispel old beliefs and allow us to raise healthier and happier kids.

Check out this step-by-step guide to calming tantrums

Calm the Tantrums ebook
Happy toddler - Separation anxiety in preschoolers

Here are 6 tips on how to help ease preschooler separation anxiety on the first day of preschool.

1. Plan to spend lots of time on the first day at the preschool

You may receive a lot of advice from experienced parents when you’re preparing for this big day for your preschooler.

You may hear that parents shouldn’t linger. Otherwise, it would be harder for the child to separate, and the child would be less likely to interact with the new people and environment.

So this tip #1 is exactly the opposite of this traditional view.

A child learns about this world by observing and experimenting.

If you were the toddler still trying to figure out this world, when you were brought to an unfamiliar place and the person you trusted most left immediately, what would you think?

Would you think that …

“I’m in good hands now. I should trust these new people like Mommy told me to”, or

“Oh no, Mommy runs off. Is this a bad place? Who are these people”?

Most younger toddlers would panic.

They’re scared of separation and they’re anxious about what this new environment would entail.

They don’t understand why you’re leaving, why they’re left behind and what these new people and new places would do to them.

Evolutionarily speaking, it was dangerous for a young child to be away from her parents.

Separation anxiety is a very useful trait built into our genes because it was critical for helpless young kids to stay close to the parents to survive.

That is why the separation distress system in the lower brain is genetically programmed to be hypersensitive. 

With the development of the frontal lobes, which doesn’t complete until our mid-twenties, adults learn to inhibit this system and bring it under control cognitively.

But your toddler is not there yet. In fact, they’re still years away from having reliable control of their cognition.

So your toddler’s panicking is normal.

It doesn’t mean she’s weak, spoiled, needy or clingy.

If your child is crying and fussing during the first drop-off, stay for longer with him.

Most teachers will tell you to just leave.

But what if you’re the toddler, do you want to be abandoned when you’re in distress?

Although separation anxiety is a normal part of toddlerhood, it doesn’t mean we should ignore it or let it run its course.

When a kid feels rejected or abandoned, the parts activated in his brain are the same parts activated by physical pain. That means the pain of being rejected resembles physical pain​1,2​.

Just like we shouldn’t ignore a child when he’s physically hurting, we shouldn’t ignore a child’s emotional pain from separation.

Parents being responsive to their child’s distress has been proven to link to better social-emotional competence and the development of secure attachment​3​. Consistent responsive parenting is also associated with faster cognitive and social development in young children​4​.

Not every toddler will suffer from severe separation anxiety.

Given enough prior preparation and maturity, your child may be able to understand what preschool is about and will not cry much.

In this case, you just need to confirm with your preschool kid when you will return and do that.

But for children that are younger or have a harder time, they will need more help. Do NOT feel pressured to abandon your child just because the teachers say it’s ok.

2. Lots of hugging and holding

When we are distressed, our lower brain triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, to prepare our body for fight-or-flight reaction. 

To help a child in distress, hugging is one of the most effective ways.

Hugging or holding facilitates the release of oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, that can cause the level of cortisol to drop.

3. Don’t forget to say goodbye when leaving and point out the time of return

No sneaky disappearance – sneaky disappearance may make the parents feel better because they don’t have to face the child’s devastating cries.

But to the child, being abandoned damages the child’s trust in you.

So don’t just sneak away. Make sure you say goodbye before you leave to build trust.

Some parents develop a goodbye routine to make the departure slightly easier and more fun (e.g. goodbye song, goodbye handshake, etc.)

Point to the clock and let him know when you will return to pick him up (and mean it!) even if your child doesn’t know how to read the clock yet.

It’s important that he knows you will return at some point.

4. Pass the holding on to a teacher

Sometimes it is not possible for parents to stay for an extended period of time. Sometimes your toddler may still be upset even though you’ve already stayed there for an hour to help her adapt.

If your child still hasn’t calmed down when you have to leave, have a sensitive teacher hold her.

Ask the teacher to spend time talking to her and calming her.

Your toddler should not be still crying or extremely anxious when the holding ends.

Young children cannot regulate their own emotions effectively. They need a lot of external help to do so​5​.

5. Shorter days at first

Pick up the child early on day one.

Over the next few days, slowly increase the time he stays to ease him into a full-day program.

Even if a child seems fine, it doesn’t mean he is fine inside.

Cortisol has a circadian cycle. It is naturally high in the morning and reduces as the day goes on. Studies show that young children in daycare have levels of cortisol continually rising throughout the day rather than falling despite the lack of detectable distress from the outside​6​.

A child can be in distress without crying or looking stressed.

His emotion is just hidden or bottled up.

This is particularly common in cultures where crying of children, especially boys, is highly discouraged.

To make things worse, children who do not appear to be upset are unlikely to get the comfort they need, prolonging the internal dysregulation. 

Having a sustained high level of cortisol can lead to hypersensitivity of a child’s distress response system and a multitude of health issues later in life.

So even if the child has stopped crying or seems to be doing fine, it is still better to have shorter days at first.

6. Always be positive and encouraging

On drop off or pick up, be encouraging and be patient, even when the child may not be in her best behavior. 

A child should be able to feel that going to preschool is a positive experience. It’s not a place where her normal behavior will be criticized or reprimanded.

Positive life experience in the early years forms an important foundation on a child’s brain development.

Final Thoughts On The Big Day For PreK

For many families, preschool is their child’s first major opportunity to acquire or refine social skills. But it may also be the parent’s first opportunity to be socially judged whether we are apt parents (by teachers, of all people). We may be under pressure to do what other parents do or what the “authority” tells us. But being a good parent means making decisions in the best interest of our child. Do the right thing and demonstrate to your child how not to cave in under social pressure.


References

  1. 1.
    Eisenberger N. The neural bases of social pain: evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosom Med. 2012;74(2):126-135. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22286852.
  2. 2.
    Eisenberger N. The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2012;13(6):421-434. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22551663.
  3. 3.
    Landry S, Smith K, Swank P, Assel M, Vellet S. Does early responsive parenting have a special importance for children’s development or is consistency across early childhood necessary? Dev Psychol. 2001;37(3):387-403. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11370914.
  4. 4.
    Denham SA. Maternal Emotional Responsiveness and Toddlers’ Social-Emotional Competence. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. July 1993:715-728. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1993.tb01066.x
  5. 5.
    Potegal M, Davidson R. Temper tantrums in young children: 1. Behavioral composition. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2003;24(3):140-147. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12806225.
  6. 6.
    Watamura S, Donzella B, Alwin J, Gunnar M. Morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol concentrations for infants and toddlers at child care: age differences and behavioral correlates. Child Dev. 2003;74(4):1006-1020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12938695.
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