This fall, many young children may be returning to in-person classes or preschool after a long time away, and some toddlers may be joining their first group activities with peers. Parents may worry about how their child will adapt. We can support the transition by: getting ourselves ready, choosing the right program for the moment, preparing children by teaching social skills and self-help skills at home plus talking to them about what to expect and what will be expected of them, then supporting them through all the new experiences in the first few weeks of class. We should expect that it will not all go smoothly and all children will have some rough days at school – because that has always been the case!
I know this feels like an unprecedented situation, and yes, COVID is unprecedented. But parents have always worried about sending their child off to school and wondered how they can help with the process. Those steps that parents have been following for decades all apply here, and we’ll throw in a couple COVID specific tips in our suggestions about what you can do to increase the chances that the transition to in-person learning will go smoothly.
If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that, and they’ll be anxious too. So, before you start talking to them about going to classes, do whatever you need to do to build your own confidence that it will be OK. Get support from others if needed.
If you’re worried about COVID – remind yourself that even if children catch COVD, they typically have mild cases. (Yes, there are exceptions – some children who get very sick – but the chances are small.) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a return to in-person school. You can also think about layers of protection – all the things you can do to reduce the risk for your child. [If you’re evaluating whether or not to return to in-person classes, here are factors to consider.]
If you’re worried your child won’t adapt well to being around other children, listening to other adults, or being away from you, keep in mind that children are very resilient – they often adapt to things much easier than adults do.
Ideally, you should work on your worries out of sight of your child. But, if your child notices your anxiety, then trying to pretend it’s not there can actually cause them more worry than if you just calmly say “I’m feeling worried now – here’s what I’m doing to calm myself.”
Planning for Success
Jumping from social isolation at home to a full-time program could be overwhelming for some children. Some parents are choosing to start small with a program that meets for only a few hours a week, and gradually build up to more. Some are choosing to start with a parent-child class or a cooperative preschool where they can stay with their child in the new setting to help make the transition to being with other kids and adults easier. Some will choose full-time school but simplify the rest of the child’s schedule to keep things manageable.
When looking at programs, I would consider their COVID protocols: Vaccines for the adults, masking for everyone over age 2, increased ventilation / more outside time, and social distancing can all reduce the risk.
I would also look more broadly at their approach to scheduling and rules. I would look for one that has a nice balance between providing structure with predictable routines and a little flexibility to adapt to your child’s needs of the moment. Our children really need both predictable routines at this time and responsiveness to their needs as they re-adapt.
Preparing Your Child
While returning from COVID is new, asking kids to adapt to new situations is not new. So there are a lot of things we know to do to ease transitions into toddler classes, daycare or preschool.
- Teach self-help skills. Help your child learn how to put on their coat, take off their coat and hang it up. Help them learn how to open their string cheese or yogurt containers by themselves. Teach handwashing skills, and also practice how to use hand sanitizer.
- During COVID, teach them how to wear a mask, how to take it off to eat, and put it back on, and what to do if their mask gets wet or dirty. (Early in COVID, many parents wondered if they could ever teach their child to do something “as weird” as wearing a mask – but remember, that’s not weird to a kid. It’s no weirder or harder to learn than how to wear pants in public.)
- Teach and practice social skills: how to make friends, how to invite someone to play with you, how to ask to play with a toy someone else is using, taking turns, and so on. Set up playdates where your child can practice these skills.
- During COVID, teach them about “giving space” around them rather than crowding other kids. In dance classes and sports classes, teachers have long used the idea of “bubbles” – imagine you have a big invisible bubble around you and so does everyone else and you can’t bump inside anyone else’s bubble. You can teach and practice this. Be careful not to give your child the message that it will always be dangerous / scary to be close to other people. Just say that right now with COVID we need to make extra space.
- It always helps to teach emotional literacy skills – how you can tell how someone else is feeling. During COVID, be sure teach your child to watch for body language and tone of voice since they can’t see facial expression for people who are masked.
- Create routines. What routines can you establish at home to make it easier to get out the door in the morning? If you’ll need to be up earlier in the morning than you’re used to, do you need to adjust bedtime? Learn about what routines they use at school and try to have similar practices at home. (For example, washing hands before snack time.) If your child will use new tools at school – like a backpack or a lunchbox or water bottle – get them early and practice.
Preparing them for Class
Talk about what to expect at their class, and what will be expected of them.
- There are lots of great books and TV episodes about starting preschool. Some good book options include “Rosie goes to Preschool” by Karen Katz. (video) “Maisy Goes to Preschool” by Lucy Cousins (video), Lola Goes to School by McQuinn (video), Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool by James Dean (video). Or watch “Learn what happens when Sadie starts school.” These provide good starting points for conversations and for pretend play.
- Note: Many books address separation anxiety and other fears. If your child is already fearful, these can be reassuring. But if your child is feeling confident, don’t read these books – you don’t want to introduce anxiety! Some examples: Bye Bye Time by Verdick (video) is great for kids who are just a little anxious – it helps you develop a ritual for goodbye time and a plan for them for what to do if things are hard. “Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney (video) is about a llama who has a really rough first day at school – it’s a perfect book to read after your child has a rough day. “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn (video) is about a raccoon child who is very reluctant to go to school – if your child is already reluctant, it offers good tools. Or watch Daniel Tiger Goes to School.
- Here are recommendations for kids starting kindergarten or first grade: https://www.thoughtco.com/childrens-picture-books-about-starting-school-627520
- Talk about what to expect at their school. Visit the school, if possible. Or, at least look at pictures or a video tour if available. Visit the outside of the building and walk around. Show your child pictures of the teacher. Get some materials like they’ll have in the classroom – like markers – and practice using them at home. There’s an idea called a social story which was created for kids with autism – where you create your own little book with pictures that clearly describes what to expect, what’s expected of them, and what they’ll do if something is challenging – I find these can benefit any child, so you could create one for your child.
- Teach and practice how to interact with a teacher. Explain that the teacher is there to help them and will take care of them. Explain that the teacher is in charge. Teach how to get the teacher’s attention and how to ask for help. Teach them that sometimes they have to wait for a grown-up to be available to help them. Play listening games (like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, or Copy the Rhythm I Clap).
- Pretend play. Pretend to be going to school – who will play the parent? The child? The teacher? Play at things like: waiting in line (with stuffed animals), doing circle time, taking turns, asking the teacher for help, saying goodbye at drop-off time.
When Classes Begin
- Don’t make too big a deal of the first day. That anticipation and excitement can turn into anxiety.
- Don’t introduce all new clothes and shoes and backpack on the first day. Let them wear familiar and comfortable items. Pack their favorite foods, and pack the exact same lunch for the first several days so they know exactly what to expect. Ask your school’s policy about “transitional objects” – for some children, having a toy from home or a picture of family or favorite book, can help them adjust to all the new things around them.
- Note: pre-COVID, this was often a stuffed animal, but during COVID, only send things to school that can be easily cleaned.
- Allow extra time to get there – you want time to relax beforehand, remind your child what to expect, and get there with everyone calm. (Note: this is especially true if you have a child you think of as shy – I call them “slow to warm up.” These children do best when they can arrive a little early, before most of the other children and settle in. They don’t do well running in frantic and late to a full and busy classroom.
- Build a relationship with the teacher(s), other kids, and other parents. When your child sees that you feel comfortable interacting with them all, they will feel comfortable too. Let the teacher know what things most engage and calm your child. (When my child was three, I told his teacher(s) that any time Ben was feeling worried, all they had to do was ask him about the planets, and give him nine objects to line up to show which was closest to the sun and which was furthest… it was guaranteed to calm him any time!)
- For drop-off programs, ask if it’s possible to stay a while at drop off time in the early days. (It may not be possible during COVID.)
- When it’s time to leave, keep your goodbyes brief, radiate confidence that they will be OK. Do say goodbye – don’t try to sneak our when they’re not looking. Tell them what they will be doing while you’re gone, and when you’ll return. (Be sure to honor that promise, and be prompt and predictable for your return.)
- Make your goodbye ritual simple and sweet. Make sure your child is either settled into an activity or knows that to do next, or hand them off to an adult for care so that when you walk out the door, your child has something else they’re focused on other than your absence.
- Remember that fear of strangers is developmentally normal for all children 7 months and up, and that separation anxiety is common in all toddlers around 18 months. If you see them, they’re likely not due to coronavirus or anything you did or didn’t do. And any advice that you can find for separation anxiety at any time will apply, whether or not it’s COVID specific.
- Resist the rescue. If your child is sad/crying when it’s time for you to go, be caring and validate their feelings but stick to the plan and leave. Trust the teachers to be the professionals they are and manage the common challenges of separation anxiety. Typically a child who cries at drop off times cries only briefly and will soon calm down.
- After class, give your child a chance to debrief and talk about how the day went.
Handling the Challenges
You may be one of the lucky few parents that everything goes well for and your child sails on through with no challenges. Or you may have a toddler who bites his classmates. If that happens, it’s not your fault and it’s not because of COVID isolation – it’s because sometimes toddlers bite their classmates. If your seven month old cries when strangers hold them, it’s good to know that 7 month olds have always been prone to fear of strangers. If you have a child who has a hard time sitting still for story time – maybe it’s because they didn’t have to sit still during quarantine… however, there have always been children who had a hard time sitting still! And the teachers will work with your family through the challenges, as they always have.
Be careful not to catastrophize. If your response to every setback is stress, anxiety, and “why does everything always go wrong?” that makes it worse. Try to have a resilience approach – “this is hard right now, but we’ve faced hard things in the past, and we’ve made it through, and look how much we learned.”
Some things to be aware of: if your child is having big feelings, it’s important to acknowledge them, not just try to distract them away. Regression is normal – for example, a child who was potty trained may have accidents – don’t punish or shame, just acknowledge the issue and say “let’s try to do better tomorrow.” If your child is really clingy, maybe they just need more snuggling for a while – soothe and reassure them. If they are misbehaving, remind yourself: children who are loved will always try to do well if they can. If they are misbehaving, ask yourself – is there a skill or support that they are lacking? If so, help them build it. Ask yourself – could it be that they have an underlying need that is driving the misbehavior? If so, meeting that need may resolve the issue.
Be patient and remember that any challenges are just a phase. Just keep doing your best every day and encourage them to do their best, and you’ll make your way through to the other side of this challenging time.
- There’s lots of helpful articles, including some on school jitters and separation anxiety at https://www.pbs.org/parents/back-to-school