Tag Archives: toddler

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

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In the U.S. most programs for children tend to be limited to children who are all close to the same age – for example, the children in a kindergarten class all turn five somewhere between Sept 1 of that year and August 31 of the next year. But some programs (like Montessori schools, Sunday school programs at churches, or scout troops) are multi-age, with a broader age range. (For example, I teach a multi-age STEM enrichment class for ages 3 – 7). Here’s why I love them:

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

  • Knowledge and Skill Development: Younger children learn from older children. Older children reinforce and deepen their own understanding of a topic or skill by teaching it to the younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:
    • Unintended modelling – when an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog), they may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. But children love to learn about what other kids are doing.
    • Social play: The younger ones are exposed to things like better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving which helps them learn these skills earlier. The imaginary play is also richer as the older ones give ideas to the younger ones and have to figure out how to articulate those ideas so the younger one can play along.
    • Casual mentoring. When an older child wants the younger one to participate in a game or activity, she will just quickly explain it to the younger one so they can have fun together. When the older one is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for the teacher to help. (Like putting on boots so they can go outside for recess.)
    • Resources: Younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (At one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to ‘what does this say?’)
    • Intentional teaching. Sometimes teachers will ask a child who has mastered a skill to teach it to a child who hasn’t yet mastered it. The learner benefits by gaining information in a way that may be more fun and more confidence-building than learning from an adult. The child who is teaching has the chance to review his own knowledge from a new perspective.
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • Children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait till second grade, when we cover that.”
    • Some kids are really advanced in some areas and a little behind in other areas. Being in a multi-age classroom makes it more likely that they’ll find peers to fit in with in both those areas.
  • Children may stay with the same teacher for multiple years.
    • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and is better able to tailor the lesson plan to meet that child’s unique needs.
    • There is a stronger parent-teacher relationship.
    • For the child, there’s the benefit of consistency, and a sense of safety and security in the classroom which enables better learning.
  • Less competition / labeling.
    • In a single age classroom, it’s easy to compare kids and say that some are gifted, some are delayed. In a mixed age classroom, it may be clearer that there’s a range of development: the one who does best in math class may have the hardest time in music class, regardless of age.
    • A child who struggles more with social skills might be ostracized by their age peers, but might find companionship in the younger kids in the classroom.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example. “When the teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children’s own “self-regulatory behavior” improved.” (Katz)
    • In group time, I find that the younger ones are better at sitting still and focusing because they see the older kids do so. The older kids like to show off their knowledge and can often answer the questions the younger ones ask – this builds confidence for the older ones and the younger ones are more excited to learn things from the big kids than they are to learn from a teacher!

Types of Preschools

When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.

A couple big picture ideas:

Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. All the children are expected to be engaged in the same activity at the same time – they are all working on a craft project together or it’s math time for everyone. (Think of your elementary school education – structured preschools are using similar methods moved down to a younger group).

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/science-in-support-of-play.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play. Learn more about play-based preschool and activity stations at a play-based preschool, and how play-based compares to academic.

Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it. The teacher is active, the children are passive.

A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she asks the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asks the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and asks the child who loves dinosaurs whether they think velociraptors ate more than T-rexes or less.

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
    • Note: Montessori schools can range in quality and in how tightly they adhere to Montessori methods. The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0 and www.movementforchildhood.com/uploads/2/1/6/7/21671438/heardaboutwaldorf.pdf
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
  • Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are several available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attended Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
  • Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. That may mean the children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/01/07/academic-preschools/)
  • Cooperative preschools. Most  are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes co-ops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, they might attend preschool three mornings a week. On some of those days, the parent drops off. On one morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Co-op isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.

Becoming the Parent you Want to Be

Often as parents we find ourselves making things up as we go along – we think about what we want our kids to do right now, then take actions that give us quick results in the moment. Those actions may or may not be in alignment with our long term goals or visions of yourself as a parent – I’m sure we’ve all had moments of thinking “I can’t believe I just said/did that!!”

One step you can take toward becoming the parent you want to be is to define – in writing – what that means. This can begin with a process of brainstorming your goals and values, maybe even writing a vision and a mission statement. Then as you find yourself muddling through your parenting days, you can occasionally take time to reflect – am I on course toward my goals? What could I do to course correct a bit? You don’t have to be perfect every day if you’re remembering to check in from time to time to make sure you’re still pointed in the right general direction.

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Brainstorming the Basics

Here are some questions to ask yourself to discover what’s important to you.

  • What are your family’s strengths? What do you do best?
  • What are the most important values you want to pass on to your child?
    • What is the place of education in your family? What value do you place on work?
    • What are your family’s attitudes toward money?
    • How do you view religion/spirituality, and what part does that play in your daily life?
    • How important is it to you to help other people or participate in your community?
  • How would you like to relate to one another?
  • When do you feel most connected to one another?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you fulfilled –brings you satisfaction, leaves you with a sense of completeness?

Answering those questions may be the insight you need to get started.

Figure out what the endpoint looks like

Another approach is “Begin at the end” – think ahead 15 years. What is your vision for:

  • What is your child like as a person?
    • What skills have you nurtured in them: Curiosity? Confidence? Compassion? Determination?
    • What are your child’s core values? (see above)
    • If your child is “successful”, what does that look like?
  • What are the relationships amongst members of your family like?
  • How would you like your child to describe what it was like to grow up with you as a parent?

Creating a Vision Statement

What is a vision statement?

  • It describes what your ideal family life would look like and what you want your family to be someday.
  • It provides inspiration for what you hope to achieve in five, ten, or more years;
  • It functions as the “north star” – helps you understand how your work every day ultimately contributes towards accomplishing over the long term; and,
  • An effective vision statement is inspiring, yet short and simple enough that you could repeat it out loud from memory

Some sample visions from organizations are: “To improve the health and well-being of each person we serve.” (a hospital)  “To inspire students to create a better world.” (a school) “We believe that strong families begin at home and building strong families creates thriving, healthy communities.” (a family support organization)  “To be a vibrant and welcoming community, feeding the human spirit, lighting a. beacon for love and justice.” (a church.)

Write your parenting vision statement. (Try several approaches until you find the one that sings to you.)

Creating a Mission Statement

A Mission statement focuses on a shorter time frame (1 – 3 years). There are lots of possible formats. One format answers three questions

  • WHAT you will do – what specific actions will you take?
  • HOW you will do it – what will be the quality of your actions (this is where you can articulate your values for how you want to interact with your family)
  • WHY – what results or benefits you will see when you look at your kids / your family in a few years?

Here are some sample missions, from the web… I don’t endorse any in particular, they’re just examples.

We are a family who believes that relationships matter most! We value spending time together. We hold each member of our family accountable for responsible behavior. We support each other in our individual pursuits of personal and professional interests. We cheer each other on. We laugh whenever possible. We hold our marital relationship as a top priority because this relationship serves as the foundation of our family. www.everythingmom.com/dynamics/the-family-vision-statement-a-solution-for-challenging-decisions.html

Our home will be a place where are family, friends, and guests find joy, comfort, peace and happiness. We will seek to create a clean and orderly environment that is livable and comfortable. We will exercise wisdom in what we choose to eat, read, see, and do at home. We want to teach our children to love learn, laugh, and to work and develop their unique talents. www.happyfamilyhappylife.com/examples-of-a-family-mission-statement/

Our family mission: To always be kind, respectful, and supportive of each other, To be honest and open with each other, To keep a spiritual feeling in the home, To love each other unconditionally, To be responsible to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life, To make this house a place we want to come home to. [also from happy family… cited above]

I choose to raise children who are respectful and believe they are worthy of respect. I choose to raise children who are confident and who know themselves enough to be true to the song in their hearts. I choose to raise children who are kind and caring and see kindness and caring in the world as well. I choose to raise children who are honest and value the power of truth. [in the post, the author gives concrete examples of how their parenting will reflect this mission http://lusaorganics.typepad.com/clean/2011/12/a-peaceful-parenting-mission-statement.html]

Implementing Your Vision & Mission

Write your Vision & Mission down, and post it where you can see it.

Review it on a regular basis and see how you’re doing.

Narrowing the Vision – Action Gap: when the theory of what kind of parent we wish we were meets the reality of how we respond to our child when we’re tired and they’re challenging, it can be easy to get discouraged. Be gentle with yourself – don’t beat yourself up for your mistakes, just use it to help you remember your goals. Ask yourself what you could do differently the next day to move in that direction.

Revise your mission as needed to in order to reflect new values, hopes, and dreams.

More Resources:

On this blog:

  • Here is a free printable worksheet for developing a mission/vision statement.
  • Read about Parenting Style: Authoritarian, Permissive, Balanced and Uninvolved are ways to describe the intersection between how high the demands are that you place on your child, and how responsive your rules are to their individual needs and goals. Are you your child’s Boss? their Friend? A Friendly Boss?
  • Read about Connecting Your Child with their Cultural Identity. What traditions and values will you bring in from your cultural background?
  • Think about what rituals you will incorporate – how will you celebrate holidays? What about the tooth fairy? Bedtime routines? It’s often the little things that define our families.

Elsewhere:

Can We Do Sensory Bins In Class During COVID?

I’m about to return to in-person teaching of toddlers and preschoolers for the first time in 18 months. I have many questions about sensory bins, shared toys, and craft supplies. I don’t have a lot of answers, but here’s what I’ve found.

Official Recommendations for Child Care Settings

Safest Options: Here are some recommended Sensory Ideas from King County public health. These are from May 2020, when worries about surface transmission were high, so the fact that these were considered safe then means they would definitely fit under current recommendations.

  • Individual sensory items in containers. To clean, just wipe down the outside.
    • Double-bagged ziplocks, sealed with tape. Fill with slime, gak, water beads, hair gel, etc. Kids hold and squish around.
    • Fill rubber gloves with sand, lentils, etc. Tie off.
    • Water bottles filled with colored water, oil, sequins, shells, etc. Tape or glue lids.
  • Individual sensory bins in plastic tubs. Each child has their own bin they use each week, filled with rice, beans or other material. Swap tools each week: cups, scoops, toys that can be cleaned.
  • Play-dough in individual containers for each child. For play, put them on a tray, or tape off part of a table. Give the child tools to play with – like cookie cutters. When done, put child’s playdough back in their bag, and clean tools before another child uses them.
  • Give child their own containers of finger paint. Use plastic handled paintbrushes, and clean before another child uses them.

Guidelines specific to sensory bins and shared items in childcare settings

The current recommendations from the Washington DOH (they’re supposedly releasing new recommendations soon) and the CDC, were originally developed when there was high concern about surface transmission.

DOH says (https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/1600/coronavirus/DOH-OSPI-DYCF-SchoolsChildCareGuidance.pdf)

  • “Children should have their own set of items to limit the sharing of supplies or equipment.
  • Some items cannot be cleaned and sanitized. This includes things like playdough and some items in sensory bins or tables, stuffed animals, and dress up clothes. Remove these items from the program unless they are individually assigned and labeled.
  • If using sensory materials, use items that can be disinfected or discarded and replaced between sessions…. All sensory table activities should be supervised for toddlers and preschool children. Hands should be washed before and after sensory table use.
  • Books and other paper-based materials are not high risk for spreading the virus and do not need to be cleaned more than normal.”

CDC adds “Machine washable cloth toys should be used by one person at a time or should not be used at all. These toys should be laundered before being used by another child.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/guidance-for-childcare.html

What is known, but not yet reflected in the guidelines

Does the type of surface matter?

Viruses live a different amount of time on different surfaces. There were studies in the NEJM that looked at half-life – how long till it’s reduced in half and Lancet that looked at how long it took before the virus was undetectable. Department of Homeland Security has a page that addresses estimated surface decay. (Here’s a plain language summary of the research.)

When first “deposited” – like if an infected person without a mask just sneezed droplets on a surface – there’s more virus there. As time passes, the amount of virus drops, till there’s no longer any detectable. (Imagine a puddle on a sidewalk – at first it might be two feet across, then it gets smaller, and then the pavement is just damp, and eventually the pavement is pretty much dry… the water is undetectable.)

When the virus was intentionally deposited on surfaces, it’s virtually gone from paper in a few hours, from cardboard in 24 hours, wood and cloth in 2 days, glass in 4 days, and steel and plastic in 3 – 7 days.

So, that’s how long some small amount of virus might be capable of living (if not cleaned with soap and water, or sanitized with bleach, or disinfected.)

So… if we had someone in class with active coronavirus, and virus was deposited on a surface and we didn’t clean it, there is some small amount of virus on that surface the next day. The question is – how likely is it that someone who is masked and washing hands frequently would catch COVID from that?

What do we now know about surface transmission?

  • In April 2021, the CDC released a brief (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/science-and-research/surface-transmission.html) which stated: “… surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low. The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. The risk of fomite transmission can be reduced by wearing masks consistently and correctly, practicing hand hygiene, cleaning, and taking other measures to maintain healthy facilities.” “… the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection via the fomite transmission route is low, and generally less than 1 in 10,000….” “Routine cleaning … with soap or detergent, at least once per day, can substantially reduce virus levels on surfaces. When focused on high-touch surfaces, cleaning with soap or detergent should be enough to further reduce the relatively low transmission risk from fomites in situations when there has not been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 indoors.” “Disinfection is recommended in indoor community settings where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours.”

How much does cleaning reduce risk?

“From studies of cleaning focused on other microbes, a 90–99.9% reduction of microbe levels could be possible depending on the cleaning method and the surface being cleaned.”

So, if a different group of people is entering the classroom within 24 hours, then cleaning does get you a substantial reduction in risk.

The Context of Our Classrooms

Child care can look like lots of things – there are some 24 hour child cares that are back-up emergency care for essential workers – those might be more likely to have a higher load of any virus, and may be harder to clean between children. A full-time child care with unvaccinated workers might be more likely to have virus, and harder to clean between children.

In the context of my classes, things might look very different and might lead to different decision making. Here are the layers of protection we have in place to reduce the possible viral loads in our classrooms:

  • We require all adults to be vaccinated. (Also, on the Eastside, over 90% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.) We will ask them to do temperature checks, and symptom and exposure checks before coming. This reduces the risk that families will bring the virus to class.
  • We will require adults to wear masks and recommend that children do so. We will also increase ventilation. These practices reduce droplets and the risk of airborne transmission.
  • We will practice frequent hand-washing and hand sanitizing which reduces the risks of fomites being transferred to surfaces.
  • We have much higher adult to child ratios than a typical child care (between 1:1 and 1:5) and can provide closer supervision.
  • Some of our classrooms are only used once a week by one group of families.

Questions there aren’t official answers for

  • If an item is used by one child for a brief period of time, then put away for a week before being used again (like maracas or jingle bells at group time), does it need special cleaning?
  • Given frequent hand cleaning protocols, would it be reasonable to share materials like scissors and markers between children, or is it essential to have a system like a bin of clean markers, and then a bin for dirty markers where any marker that has been used by a child is placed?
  • If children hand sanitize before and after, is a shared sensory bin reasonable? Should it be filled only with materials that can be cleaned with soap and water and sanitized with bleach solution? Could some items (like rice and lentils) maybe be disinfected after class by stirring in alcohol? If health guidelines for child cares allow for sandbox play outdoors (they do) – what about sand in an indoor sensory bin?

These are the things I’m thinking about. If you have additional insight into this, let me know in the comments!

(Re)Adapting to In-Person Classes

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.

Prepare Yourself

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.

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