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My son has been going to a small, in-home daycare since he was less than a year old. He enjoys it, but currently there are only 3 boys that are about the same age as him (ranging from about 6 months younger to about 1 year older), and none of three attend 5 days a week consistently (they seem to average about 3 days a week).

The other children are all younger (from about 8 months to 14 months of age) and not yet verbal, so my son (age 3-and-a-half) has little-to-no interest in them.

My son gets along well with others, and has some friends outside of daycare. He is not at all shy, and loves to strike up conversations with anyone we meet.

A couple of months ago, we put him on a waiting list for a more formal pre-school-through-kindergarten program. We're expecting a spot to become available late this year or possibly early next year.

Rather than wait until the last minute, I'm looking for tactics and strategies for making the transition as positive for him as possible.

How can I get him excited about it? How can I keep him from getting upset about leaving his familiar setting? How can I best prepare him for going from having 2-5 other kids with him each day to having 10 or more classmates?

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3 Answers 3

The biggest difference I see between 'formal' daycare with large classes of similar age kids and informal at-home daycare is being able to behave well in large groups with relatively little attention paid per child. I'm going to see this first hand to some extent; my first child is getting close to 3, and is leaving daycare to stay at home with mom (but likely will go to preschool next year). My second is almost a year, and so won't really have had any of this preparation.

The best way to prepare for that, from what I've seen, is to go to storytimes and other 'large group' activities (gymnastics, for example). That will get the child used to being in large groups with one or a small number of adults 'in charge' while still allowing you to help teach him the control and self discipline necessary.

Also note, from what I've seen in other children, behaving in groups is something that's not too hard for them to pick up, even when thrown to the wolves; humans have a bit of herd mentality in them after all. When mommy and daddy are gone, my son behaves incredibly well in a group setting - while he acts out considerably when we're there. So don't be too worried if it seems like he's not handling things well when you're around - it's when you leave that you need to be more concerned with.

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The transition will probably be harder for you than it will be for him. Joe's answer above was spot-on in getting him comfortable with being able to behave with limited supervision would be a good starting point. Enrolling him in a sport (gymnastics is pretty good depending on how full his class is, tee ball, soccer) that requires short periods of waiting also helps him build his patience. There will be times when his teacher physically can't get to him as quickly as he's accustomed to and he will have to wait a moment or two.

If your son is not yet potty trained or it's something you're working on, he should be prepared to be fairly independent in the bathroom when it comes to wiping, washing hands, etc. especially if he won't be starting until closer to age 4. Different preschools have different rules for this particular thing (my SIL's daycare would not let her daughter advance to the 3's class until she was potty trained. My daycare did not have this requirement, but it's not the first place I've heard of), but educate yourself about it so you can work towards it if you need to.

Once your son is accepted, take him in to visit BEFORE his first day. Meet his teacher, visit his classroom, meet the director and assistant director of the school. Spend some time learning where things are in the classroom. When we enrolled my son in his preschool, he suddenly started having potty accidents even though he hadn't had an accident in MONTHS. Come to find out, he wasn't sure where the bathroom was and he was too shy to ask. Once I showed him where the bathroom was, it wasn't a problem anymore. So take the time to show him the bathroom, the water fountain, the sink where he'll wash his hands (a lot of times their bathroom and sink are in their classrooms--if not, ask his teacher so you can show him). Show him the playground and the different centers in his class. You can talk about his daily schedule so he'll kind of know what to expect when he goes in.

I think the big thing is to accept that he will probably be sad and maybe a little angry when the time comes to leave his in-home daycare, and that's perfectly normal and expected. Maybe driving by the new school and saying, "This is where you're going to be going for big boy school" would be a good starting point. If he's sad or angry that's ok, and he needs to know that, and it's ok to be scared and excited and everything all at once (even if you're outgoing, it can still be tough to be the new kid). The goal is to make sure to channel those emotions in a positive way. Maybe you and he could go pick-out a good-bye present for his old teacher (a little picture frame with his picture in it maybe?) and a hello present for his new teacher.

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Its so funny, I was writing mine while you posted this and I love that we have some over-lap in what we said :-) So true about the potty as well as the transition being harder on mom and dad than on him! And I wish I could vote up more than once for pointing out the need to be clear about where the bathrooms are and how that all works at the new school!!!! –  balanced mama Feb 22 at 2:17

I'm guessing your son will do very well right off the bat. I'll start this by saying a lot of times - especially with the outgoing personalities, the parents are way more freaked about changes like this than the kids are. If you don't treat like a big deal (but also don't surprise him with it - go ahead and talk to him about it) he probably won't think it is that big a deal either. It is a good idea to start addressing the change now and just continue to bring it up somewhat casually and with a bit of an "oh this is going to be so fun and exciting" kind of tone occasionally throughout the next (stretch of time) so it doesn't come as a shock, but also don't expect him to be upset by the change either (sometimes we create our own problems with our own negative expectations and outlooks - they are far better at reading our tone and knowing when we are stressing about something than we like to think).

If he is joining the school at a time when many of the kids are new to the school I wouldn't worry about any of these first two categories (except the bathroom skills), but if he joins when most of the kids in his class have already been at the school for awhile you may find these first two categories helpful.

Essential Skills to Have in Order to Attend Confidently (At most schools)

A Caveat - no preschool child is perfect at any of these yet, and teachers expect to continue working on these. However, children should generally have some of these skills and exhibit them more often than not in order to not be "in trouble" all the time. These are the kinds of skills that if problematic will be brought to your attention to deal with right away.

  • Going Potty and Bathroom Skills: This varies slightly from school to school (even classroom to classroom depending on the age of the kids within it) but at many more formally organized preschools, children are expected to handle their bathroom skills supervised but without a lot of assistance. Things such as wiping, washing hands, pulling pants back up. . . are all things the teachers will help with when a child is having trouble, but they expect not to have to help with these things regularly. When I was in a three's classroom (where they were expected to already be potty trained) I had a student that had never even tried to wipe for himself upon arrival to the school - it wasn't a big deal, but the first thing we did, was talk to the mom about how to help him learn to do it for himself (that same day) and we started him on a plan to achieve self-wiping within two weeks of arriving at school (who-ever does the laundry at your house, might want to prepare for seeing some skid marks from time to time). If the school does potty training, they are less likely to be as strict about this in classrooms where there are children who are not yet potty trained, but independence in this area is just a good thing as soon as possible anyway.

  • Social Skills: Things like sharing, taking turns, waiting for the teacher and listening will be practiced and there will be goals toward improvement in areas where a child is weak, but while teachers will expect to need to prompt kids, help with conflict resolution and the like, they will expect any child to have had Some experience in these areas before attending. As your child has already attended a day care, (for parents of children who have not attended daycare, don't worry, play-groups, siblings, time with extended family. . . all count!) you probably don't need to worry about any of this.

  • Circle Time: We had a loose expectation that at two, a child should be able to participate in circle time (sitting quietly ready to listen, raise hands etc.) for about five minutes, by four the expectations was closer to fifteen (at the beginning of the school year, closer to ten and twenty respectively in spring). Again, this will vary from school to school and no sane teacher will expect perfection (especially at first) but some sense of being able to sit and listen to a short story/ participate in a calendar talk and other such activities will be something he will do on a daily basis at least once per day right away.

Skills that Are Helpful to Have (but most are not necessary)

  • Dressing Skills: In the US, I believe most states regulate there can never be more than 10 kids/carer present in the classroom until children are at least five. Your state may be different, but I believe that is still generally the standard. Because of this, preschool teachers can help with getting shoes emptied of sand after outdoor play, buttoning coats and other general dressing difficulties for kids this age, but if your son can confidently handle whatever clothes he is wearing, he won't have to wait his turn for help as much - a big plus when you are three/four.

  • Name recognition: Since everything from his cubby to his artwork will be labled with his name, it is great if your son can pick his name out of the crowd (first name and last initial) and even better if he can write it too. Again, this is not necessary - the teachers will work with him on both skills if he doesn't have them already, but they will be some of the first to be worked on.

  • Recognition of Certain Symbols: many classrooms do weather, how am I today and calendar talks daily. In these circumstances, the teacher will introduce the symbols and again, it isn't a big deal if he doesn't already know these things, but it can be helpful to your son if he has at least seen some of these things before. Things like what the days of the week are, what a calendar looks like, how a sunny day vs a rainy day might be depicted in a picture and finally (but less commonly) how emotions are depicted on "faces" made with a circle and a few simple lines (happy would be a smiley face, angry might have eyebrows pointing in) can help with the "how am I feeling today" can come up on a daily basis and feeling confident with at least some of this material will help him feel more a part of the group right off the bat.

For your son to be most comfortable and ready for the change, it is good for him to feel in control of the situation and not be surprised by it. Most kids that are outgoing don't need a lot of preparation for starting preschool other than just helping with an understanding of what to expect - and there are a lot of resources to help with that.

The first resource is the school itself:

Schools often have a system for inducting their new students into the school culture and expectations. As a spot opens up, you are likely to get a memo addressing this very question from your school with specifics your school has found helpful for its particular community. In any case, take their suggestions to heart - they come from experience.

  • Once you know a spot is opening up and have a time-frame with which to work, see if you can have your son visit the school (if you haven't already). Let him "tour" the school with you, ask questions of the director or teacher that heads the tour, meet the teacher in whose class he will be in and maybe even spend a half hour or so in class with the other kids (if possible).

  • Get to know the daily schedule. Let him know what will happen when
    he arrives in the morning, approximately when snack will be (relative to other things in the schedule like outside play, circle time, drop off. . . ) He doesn't need to know every detail, but if he has some sense of the types of activities he will do, when snack, lunch, nap and pick up are he is likely to feel more comfortable.

Books and Videos To Introduce Formal Classroom "Basics"

  • While your son isn't starting elementary, there are a lot of things a formal preschool program (especially one that also has a K level classroom) shares with an elementary school. So, using books and videos intended for teaching about or addressing this milestone can be tremendously helpful in building confidence. LeapFrog's Let's go to School is an example you could check out if you'd like. I know it is available on Netflix Streaming. Little Critter's First Day of School is another good example from books. These are just two quick references with which I am familiar - there are a plethora of these, so please don't think these are the only, or even the best options out there. Your local children's librarian will be a great resource on this one. One of my favorites for "first timers" to being away from Mom and Dad is "The Kissing Hand." though it is a little long for a three year old - you may want to pre-read and "cut" if he has a short attention span.

Just introducing a few books and or videos like this into the mix over the next few months will allow your son to work through any general questions or concerns he might have in this "fictional" kind of way. It can help to open up conversation between you if he is worried at all too.

How you are a Resource

  • You probably already have a "drop off" routine as well as a "pick-up" routine. As much as possible, don't change these. If you've always given him a "monster kiss" and a hug before you left him at drop off, do the same thing at the new school and reassure him ahead of time that you will continue to do the same thing at the new school (unless he asks for a change - then of course, if its reasonable, go with it).

  • He may be concerned about missing old friends - where possible, set up some play dates and let your son see you exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with the parents of his friends.

Trust the Teachers

With small teacher/child ratios, preschool teachers are generally pretty able to get to know their kids pretty well. Build a rapport with your child's teacher as soon as you know who that will be, ask questions and be interested, but also know they are there to help your child and will be aware that he is new to the community. They'll help guide him through challenges in those first days and alert you to any problems if they crop up. You've chosen this school for good reasons and I'm sure you've done due diligence to be sure it will be a warm, welcoming and appropriate environment for your child. Relax in knowing that even if he has none of the skills I listed in the first two sections - he'll get there and not only will he have your help in doing so, but also a host of educators from the school as well.

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