The shops have taken down their Christmas decorations, there are “Back to school” adverts on TV, most people have returned from holiday…. yes, it’s January and most mothers are counting the sleeps before the schools start again. There are however, some parents and little ones who might be apprehensive rather than excited about starting school for the first time, and although it’s common to see the little Grade 1’s on TV shedding a few tears for mom, it’s a lot more daunting to take your toddler to school for the first time!
Of course the question on the minds of parents with toddlers going to school for the first time is “Will she cry?”. And the answer is probably yes. As a nursery school teacher with nearly ten year’s experience at settling young children in at school, I can tell you that there are some children who don’t cry when left at school for the first time, but those are few and far between. The majority of toddlers (under the age of 3) do cry on the first day and most of them cry for a few days, or maybe even weeks.
This I’m sure is not doing much to set your mind at ease about leaving your little one at school for the first time, but I think it’s important for parents to not have unrealistic expectations. Your children feel happy and safe with you and it is daunting for anybody to face a strange new environment for the first time. However, we have found more often than not that how parents and teachers react to the inevitable tears, impact on how quickly a child settles down at school. This means your attitude and that of everyone in the family is important and being positive and proactive helps a lot!
Preparing yourself and your little one before Day One
Children as young as 12 months understand some of what parents say to them, even if they just pick up on your tone of voice or body language. So chat to your son or daughter a few times before the first day. Make it casual and positive and reassure them that they will enjoy school and that you will fetch them when it’s time. Of course there could also be some physical preparation and a new outfit or school bag will go a long way to create some excitement for the first morning.
For mom and dad mental preparation is necessary. Be positive whenever you talk about school in front of your child. Discussing your own worries about Day One with your partner or even with a friend or family member over the phone when your child is within earshot, could cause them to start feeling worried themselves and little children sometimes even start thinking mom is expecting them to cry!
If you walk into school with your son or daughter with a positive attitude and a smile, your child will see that mom is not worried and this might help them with their confidence.
The first dreaded drop-off
At Bright Beginnings we have a little quote which we always use at this time of year: “A quick goodbye helps us not to cry”. This is our golden rule and has been proven to be effective over and over again. Most nursery schools give orientation sessions before Day One where parents and children can look around the classroom and playground, so it should not be necessary for mom or dad to hang around for more than 5 minutes or so on the first morning. Your child has to get used to the school environment without you, and being around “to soften the blow” does not really work as it just creates the possibility in the child’s mind that mom can stay at school and when she eventually leaves they get very upset.
You can take some time to confirm with your child’s teacher that she has your contact details, what time you will be back and logistical issues such as bottles, dummies and nappies. Most schools have a communication book for each child and it will help if the arrangements for the day could be written down as that saves time and your instructions won’t be misunderstood.
Then very importantly you have to take some time for the quick goodbye. We have found that it is better to say goodbye and confirm that you’ll be back soon, rather than to slip away when the child is not looking. If you leave without saying goodbye you might have a very clingy child for the next few weeks who is scared you will leave the moment their back is turned. Rather give a quick hug or kiss and walk away with a smile. This might well spark some tears, but as most teachers will tell you, the tears usually don’t last long.
It is best not to linger outside the classroom or to go back in if you have forgotten something. Rather ask another staff member to check on your child if you are very worried. Most schools won’t mind if you phone after an hour or so to check if your child has settled down. At Bright Beginnings we also have a policy to contact parents if a child cries more than usual. We then give the parents the choice to collect the child, depending on their own schedule and how they want to handle the situation.
How to minimise tears over the first few weeks
The way you say goodbye will definitely have an impact on how quickly your child settles down. Try to minimise chatting to the teacher or other parents for the first few days during drop-off time. Rather keep that for when you collect your child. It is also useful to make the day a bit shorter if you are able to. This means dropping your child off a bit later and fetching her a bit earlier. If you are able to do this, it might help your child gradually get used to being away from you for longer periods.
Some children do not cry on the first day as there are lots of new toys and playground equipment to try out and the general build-up to going to school is very exciting. Many little ones might start crying on day 2 or 3 however, as they quickly pick up on the morning routine, or even the direction you are driving in and then realise that the time they are going to be separated from you is looming. This is a good time to chat about how much fun school was the day before and that the morning will pass quickly and that you will come back to collect your child.
Remember that your child will always take their cues from your behaviour – even if it is nonverbal, so try to stay positive even if you have gone through some mornings of serious crying, and try to minimise discussing the incidents of crying with family and friends in front of the child. Small children love attention (like all of us) and if they hear you discussing their crying with their loved ones, they might keep up the crying just for the attention.
It is up to you and your family to decide whether you should reward your child for not crying. Star charts work very well for little children, but generally for a short period only. It might be enough to just give your little one some extra cuddles and tell them how proud you are of them.
How long will they cry for?
As with all people, children are all different and it depends on the child’s personality and their ability to start coping with being separated from you. In my experience, most children cry for about two to three weeks. This doesn’t mean that they spend five or six hours a day crying. There are usually a few tears at the time they are dropped off, and maybe now and again when boredom, hunger or tiredness sets in. But generally the children start having some fun, get distracted and are kept busy enough to forget that mom is not there.
In the 12 years that Bright Beginnings has been going, we have managed to settle all the little ones who started school with us and we’ve learnt a few tricks to make it easier on them. Most children find a specific staff member that they are happy with and within a day or two they will mostly not cry when that person is around. The other very powerful tool we have at school is ROUTINE. Routine makes the little ones feel safe – they can start anticipating what will happen next and they can adjust to the environment. The older children even start understanding that mom will come to fetch them after lunch or nap time, and that often gives them some “peace of mind”.
When should you consider giving up?
For some families giving up is not an option, both parents might have to work and they might not have alternative child care available. In that case, discuss the situation with your child’s teacher or the school’s principal, preferably not when your child is present. They will usually be able to think of something that can be done to make things easier. You should also be able to get some idea of the school’s efforts around settling your child. It is difficult to decide if one should try another school – making another change is bound to unsettle the child even further, so unless you are unhappy about the treatment your child is getting at school, it’s better to push through.
If you are in the position where you are able to make the school day shorter, that is always useful for a child who is battling to adjust to school. Giving up to try again in a few months might also be an option, but we have found that it doesn’t necessarily make the child less apt to cry and just prolongs the whole process.
Everyone gets there in the end
I would not be able to count how many small children have gone through this process in the years I have been teaching. Rest assured they have all eventually stopped crying and started enjoying their mornings at school. I can also guarantee you that the teachers and assistants who work with these little children do so because they have endless love to give and they are some of those rare people who will love your children like their own! Like The Beatles say “All you need is love!”, but in our case we’ve found that some play dough and finger paint also helps!