Even if they have siblings who have “been there, done that,” sending a child off to preschool for the first time is nerve-racking. Will they feel scared? Will they cry? Will they pee their pants?! A child’s first day of pre-K is a big day filled with tons of emotions for family members and caregivers alike. Fortunately, there are ways to make this transition go smoothly — and it all starts at home.
“The single-most important thing parents can do when their child is going to school for the first time is to fully process their own feelings,” says Emily Shapiro, an early childhood admissions consultant in New York City. “Of course it’s scary to put your child in the hands of people who are seemingly strangers, but you want to protect your child from your own anxieties so they’re more excited than nervous on their big day.”
While getting mixed emotions in check plays a big part in lowering stress for kids on their big day, it isn’t the only way to have a great first day of preschool. Here are nine expert tips for a successful first day of preschool.
1. Take time to sort through your feelings
It’s perfectly normal and valid to have mixed emotions on a child’s first day of preschool, but like Shapiro says, it’s crucial to sort through these feelings beforehand so you can present a strong, calm front on the big day.
“Whether you talk to your friends and family, journal or use a favorite go-to outlet, it’s important to work through your big feelings in advance, so you’re not losing it at the door to the classroom,” says Ruthie Arbit, licensed independent clinical social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in maternal and pediatric mental health.
Arbit notes that it’s OK to matter-of-factly explain to kids how you’re feeling beforehand by saying something like, “I also have a lot of big feelings about you starting school soon, and here are some thoughts that help me…”
While having that conversation, you’ll do well to manage your own ambivalence and hesitation, Arbit says.
“Kids are very perceptive and rely on parents and caregivers to help them keep calm when things are scary,” she says.
2. Visit the school together
“Most childhood development programs have a phase-in schedule, where you can take the child in for a visit before school starts,” says Shapiro. “Take advantage of that. It helps children get a sense of the classroom while you’re with them.”
Arbit suggests taking a photo of the classroom during such a visit so you can study the picture together and try to find specifics in the classroom at home.
“Before the first day, you can remind soon-to-be students of something particular in the classroom, such as a toy or picture, they liked,” she says.
3. Pack a piece of home
Both Arbit and Shapiro recommend sending kids to school with a memento or two from home.
“Family photos are very helpful for kids when they go to school,” says Shapiro. “It supports their knowledge of object permanence. They can deeply believe that you exist when you’re not there.”
You may also consider tucking a scarf that smells of you or a lovey into their backpack.
4. Nail down the morning routine
Don’t wait until the day of to make sure kids are up and at ‘em at an appropriate time. Not only will it be jarring, but it will serve as yet another schedule change they’ll have to get accustomed to.
“The previous week, do the morning routine as much as you can — get up, get dressed, eat breakfast and even walk or drive to school,” says Shapiro. “If all of those things aren’t brand new to your child, then they won’t have used up too many of their resources for getting to know new things.”
5. Don’t talk about it too far in advance
According to Shapiro, talking about the first day of preschool too far in advance will only serve to build anxiety and confusion because the child is never going to know if the next day is the day.
“A week before school, explain to kids what they’re going to do the following day,” says Shapiro. “Then, the night before school, routinely tell them what they’re going to do the next day, just as you’ve been doing. This way, they’ve had the experience of hearing about the next day multiple times, so they can picture and anticipate what’s to come.”
6. Give them some control
Let kids pick out their backpack, lunchbox and any other fun school supplies you may be required to purchase.
“Engage kids by having them pick out their backpack, help pack their lunch and put name labels on things,” says Arbit. “Not only will it be exciting for them, it will give them more control in the preparation process.”
7. Mimic preschool rules and routines
Have a child who naps whenever? You may want to work on changing that when you’re about a month or so out from school starting.
“It’s a good idea to get on a similar schedule to the preschool schedule,” says Arbit. “If a child normally naps at 2 p.m. and school has the kids on a noon nap schedule, try to get your schedules aligned.”
Having kids wake up earlier than they’re used to (in order to get ready for school) may prompt them to get sleepier earlier than usual. And if they protest a new nap time initially, keep at it by using the same nap time routine you’ve always used. If they refuse to go to sleep, quiet time during the school’s designated nap time is a good alternative.
Additionally, Arbit recommends getting kids accustomed to any procedures that may feel foreign to them at school.
“If a child is going to have to take off their own coat or use a different type of potty, try to get them acclimated beforehand,” says Arbit. “That said, don’t fret if their home life is different from the preschool setup. Preschool teachers are angels with pixie dust, and kiddos will learn to sleep in a new cot and do new things in no time.”
And of course on the morning of the big day, plan accordingly.
“It’s a good idea to wake up earlier than usual to account for anything surprising that may happen on the first day,” says Arbit. “Also, have everything ready the night before, so the morning can be as seamless as possible.”
8. Walk them through their day — and add in something fun
“If your child has questions about what the day will be like, walk them through it by giving a quick schedule,” says Arbit. “You can say something like: ‘In the morning you will have some free play, delicious snack time, playground time, lunch, nap and then I’ll see you.’ Kids like knowing what their day will look like.”
Arbit also suggests giving kids something fun to look forward to at the end of the day, such as a beloved meal.
“Tell them that after you pick them up, you’re going to make their favorite mac and cheese dinner,” she says. “This is the bookend to their morning routine and will help give them some clarity on what the day will look like.”
9. Don’t sneak out — and don’t linger too long
If a child starts fussing when it’s time for you to leave, it may be tempting to sneak out, but don’t.
“When you sneak away from a child who’s crying, you’re protecting yourself from having to experience their displeasure because it’s more comfortable for you,” says Shapiro. “Your message essentially is: ‘I can’t tolerate you being upset.’ Additionally, sneaking out can create a situation where a child refuses to engage in anything when you drop them off in the future because they’re being vigilant about you leaving.”
Try to have a teacher or aide help calm the child down, and, as long as he or she isn’t genuinely afraid — but more so protesting your exit — it’s OK to say goodbye and leave.
“You have to trust the people you chose to care for your child,” Shapiro says. “You can’t console and leave at the same time.”
On the flip side, as hard as it is to see your child in uncharted territory, don’t drag your farewell out too much, especially if they seem OK.
“Don’t linger too long at preschool drop-off,” says Arbit. “Try to get the child engaged in an activity before you leave and give them a few warnings. You can sit down together and start playing a game and give five-, three- and one-minute reminders before leaving. You can also introduce your child to another child, so they have a buddy when you leave.”
Most importantly, when you’re walking out the door, try to keep things in perspective. “Remember that kids are more resilient than you think,” says Arbit. “Even if the change is hard at first, they’ll adjust pretty quickly.”
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