Back to school: Here are 8 tips on how to prepare your toddler for preschool

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Going to preschool is a big deal for you and your child. It’s only natural to experience some feelings of anxiety as the first day of school approaches.

Many thoughts may be racing through your mind: Will he cry when I leave? Will the kids be nice to him? Will he be scared?

Your child also may have some worries as the big day approaches.

“They don’t know what to expect,” said Bethany Coe, lead teacher at Oakland Family Services’ Children’s Learning Center in Pontiac. “Some of them have never had a school experience and are scared about being away from their parents and being with strangers.”

Here are some tips on what you can do to make the transition to preschool a smooth one:

1. Begin a school day routine

About two weeks before school begins, gradually start to wake your child up earlier until you get on the school’s schedule. If your child takes a nap, try to schedule the nap at the same time naps will be taken at school. It’s also important that your child has a regular bedtime.

“If kids go to bed late, it’s hard for them to adapt so they are more emotional, cry, and have tantrums,” Coe explained. “Getting a good night sleep is key.”

2. Visit the school and teacher

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If the school has a “Meet the Teacher” or open house event, bring your child. This will give your child an idea of what school is like before the first day. During this time your child will be greeted by his or her teacher, explore the classroom, visit the playground, and possibly meet children who may be in the same class. If the school doesn’t have an open house, request a tour of the school and a meeting with the teacher.

3. Talk to your child about the school day

Knowing what to expect can relieve many of the worries your child may be experiencing about school. Talk to your child about what typically happens during school: You will be meeting your teacher; you will meet new children; you will go outside and play; you will have snack time. Remember to also discuss with your child where you will pick him or her up after school.

4. Pack a special item from home

Being away from home can be tough for some children. Place in your child’s backpack a special stuff animal, blanket, photo or other item that will give comfort at times when he or she may feel sad or homesick.

“Sometimes kids can’t verbalize how they are feeling, but holding that special item may be enough to calm them down,” Coe said.

5. Practice self-help skills

Have your child wear clothing that is easy to take on and off. Practice zipping and unzipping jackets and avoid tennis shoes with laces if your child cannot tie them. Belts also are not recommended for preschool.

“Sometimes parents send their kids with belts on their pants and they have an accident because they can’t get their pants off fast enough,” Coe said. “Have them wear shoes without laces so that they can get them on and off easily, which reduces stress. I also would suggest sending extra clothes that they can keep at preschool. If they have an accident, it will ease their anxiety if they have their own clothes to wear instead of other clothing.”

6. Read books about school

There are many children’s books that tell stories about the first day of school. These books often talk about the worries the character may be experiencing, meeting the teacher and classmates, as well as the daily school routine. Visit your local library where you can check out the books for free!

7. Engage in pretend play

What better way to get your child familiar with school than play? Children love role playing and this is a fun way to engage your child and figure out what happens during the school day. Take turns playing the teacher, student and parent.

8. Saying goodbye

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For many parents the toughest part is leaving their child at school and saying goodbye. Coe recommends parents stay about 15 minutes on the first day to help ease the child into the classroom.

“Once they say goodbye, they need to leave right away,” Coe said. "When they drag it out, it makes it harder on the child. Always say, ‘I’ll be back’ or say who will come and get the child, whether it’s grandma, dad, or a friend. The internal fear of a 3-year-old or 4-year-old is they will be left at school, especially for those kids who have never had a school experience. If it’s their first school experience, they need to know they will be picked up. It’s very important for parents to say goodbye and not sneak out. That will give them more anxiety if they do not see their parent.”

This year, Coe will not only experience the first day of school as a teacher but as a parent as well. She will soon be dropping off her triplets for their first day of preschool.

“I’m feeling anxious for them,” she admitted. “I’m going to try not to cry because that will make it harder on them. If you are crying, they will start crying, and that’s not helpful.

“You can prepare kids all you want, and they still could be anxious and cry. It’s normal and you just need to accept that.”

Oakland Family Services provides preschool classes at the agency’s Children’s Learning Centers in Pontiac and Walled Lake. Learn how you can enroll your child.