Starting at nursery or preschool is a huge change for the whole family. Your child will have to adapt to an entirely new environment, in which he has to cope without his parents and far more independently. He will have to get used to new rules and develop relationships with the other children. You know as well as I do that children don’t grow up and become independent overnight. Moreover, we parents aren’t much more prepared for this sudden change than our children are... But there are a few things we can do to make this big transition a little easier.
In this post, we answer the three most common questions parents ask about settling into nursery or preschool and then give you a few key tips that will help get you off to a flying start:
How soon will my child settle?
Let’s tackle the hardest question first. No matter how much time they have spent at the playground, some children absolutely love being with other children their age while some find it a big shock. Each child is also used to a slightly different approach at home and has his own unique personality. So some children have to learn to be more respectful of others, while some will find they need to be more assertive.
These days, many nurseries offer a phased introduction – starting with just an hour or two per day and gradually increasing the time spent at nursery – indeed, some insist on it. Some nurseries may allow a parent to stay with their child for the first couple of days. Don’t be afraid of talking to the staff – they will always be happy to learn more about you and your child. If any problems arise at nursery, tell them how you would approach that situation at home. Read the information you get from the nursery and ask about what their plans are each week, so that you can talk to your child about it and prepare him for what is likely to happen at nursery.
Should I say goodbye or just slip away?
“Just pop her down and go, she’ll survive!” It’s possible that you’ll hear plenty of this kind of advice, but don’t let it sway you. Things will go as smoothly as they possibly can if your child feelssecure. She doesn’t know yet what nursery really is, and she can’t grasp what it will mean to be there without you for a few hours. Talk to her, describe what will happen, and reassure her that you love her. Plenty of things might be obvious to us adults – like the fact that we won’t leave our children at nursery forever – but our little ones need to be reassured of these. They need to know that we still love them, that we think spending time at nursery is fun, and that we are looking forward to picking them up. Make sure you explain exactly when you are going to leave (“I’ll help you take off your shoes and we’ll hang up your coat, then I will give you a big cuddle and Miss Lucy will hold your hand and I'll wave to you as you go into the yellow room.”) and when you will be back (“When you finish eating your lunch, I’ll be waiting at the door.”), and do your very best to make it all happen as you promised – after all, you don’t want to lose your children’s trust. Don’t be surprised if your child cries, and do comfort her, but don’t stay too long.
Why is he suddenly so different at home?
Big changes bring about a whole range of emotions, and children – adults too, sometimes – find these hard to manage. Some children may respond by refusing to go to nursery. Others may appear to be coping really well, but they are actually pretty stressed out. It could be that your child used to be placid and happy and is now crying whenever anything doesn’t go his way, wetting himself, complaining of headaches or tummy aches, throwing toys, biting… So often, we parents try to fix those behaviours without addressing their root cause. Whatever the behaviour, it is a good idea to help your child process his emotions. Don’t downplay his problems; instead, help him to manage them. And never tell him to stop crying – we all know that tears can help us to heal.
Children will only relax fully when they feel safe. That’s why the nursery teacher might tell you that little Alice was wonderful all day, but then you find yourself gnashing your teeth as she throws one tantrum after another at home. It is very hard, but if you realise that it is actually a privilege that she is expressing herself to you (yes, really!), it is easier to accept it and work on helping your child process those emotions.
Seven magic tips
Seven is often a lucky number in fairy tales. So here are our seven magic tips for coping with the fact that your little baby is already starting nursery/preschool:
Acknowledge your own fears and worries about the new situation. Without that, you won’t be able to work on them further. It could be worth trying out whether your child finds it easier to be dropped off by the other parent – a grown-up who finds drop-off easier may be calmer and that will rub off on the child.
Never threaten your child with nursery. If you want your child to go to nursery happily, you mustn’t connect it with anything negative. On the contrary, talk about other children your child knows and likes to play with at nursery, tell your child how much you loved nursery as a child, what you learnt there and who you played with.
Talk and play with your child. Ask yourself why he is (un)happy about going to nursery. However tempting it might be, try not to respond to your child’s complaints with “Oh come on, there’s nothing wrong!” but instead offer support and ask more questions. You might manage to uncover the real reason why your child is scared of going to nursery and then be able to help solve it. Often, it helps your child a lot just to know you’re on his side. Most children also like to play out situations over and over again – you can take advantage of this and get them to play “nursery” with you, with their grandparents or with some soft toys. Play acting is also a good way to show your child what to expect from nursery / preschool and what he can look forward to there; at the same time, by watching him when he is playing you might find out how he sees things at nursery.
Work on bonding and feeling secure. Nursery tends to be your child’s first significant separation from you. Assure your child that you love her. Connect with your child’s nursery teachers so that your child sees that you trust them and that she can depend on them while you’re not there. Some nurseries allow your child to bring a favourite soft toy from home. If not, here’s another tried and tested trick: draw a tiny heart shape on the palm of your child’s hand and also your own. “Charge up” your child’s heart by holding hands, and then, when you’re not with her, she can squeeze the heart in her hand and know that she’s still connected to you.
Train independence. As your child gets older, take care to choose clothes and shoes that he will find easy to put on and take off. Explain to him how to ask for help if he needs to, and that there is nothing shameful about needing help.
Cuddle your child. Don’t worry: you won’t end up with a spoilt brat. All that will happen is that your child will feel relieved when she sees that she can relax, be less independent for a moment, and nestle in your arms for a while. In other words, she will feel better when she knows that you’re always there for her.
Spend quality time together. You will have less time together now, but don’t forget about the time you do still have. Cook up a tasty dinner together. Curl up together under a blanket and read a good story. Explore somewhere new together at the weekend.
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