It’s that time of year when many parents consider preschool for their child for the first time. Oh, the joys of several hours alone, no child attached to your leg as you vacuum. And, at the same time, your heart saddens with this new layer of silence in the house.
While it’s not quite clear if you are ready for this separation, the bigger question parents ask: Is my child ready?
It can help to know about the stages of child development concerning object permanence as well as personality preferences.
A child’s fear of a parent leaving one’s sight is developmental and first begins with an awareness of object permanence. This mean knowing that an object still exists, even when hidden, and requires the ability to form a mental representation of an object.
Babies can tell about people leaving before they can tell about people coming back. The more a child understands and has experience that people return, the less anxiety there will be upon separation.
There comes a place in a child’s development regarding separation anxiety where parents may sigh with relief. They may think, since my child is aware of object permanence, she will be fine with my leaving. Many aspects of development spiral back around, though, playing out again when the child is in a different developmental window. It’s not surprising that at one point, the child seems completely fine with separation, only to revisit its difficulties again.
Around 2 years of age, children will begin to show preferences that are part of their personality regarding separation. Some children don’t give a second glance as they run toward a group playing at preschool. These may be extroverts or interpersonal learners who are craving social interaction. Other children will act more slowly, perhaps wanting to first observe before they partake in a group activity. They may be introverts or observational learners.
While some children are ready for an independent experience before others, until they are about 4 or 4.5, many display some anxiety over the enormity of a group situation without the support of the parent.
Observe your child carefully in new situations. Your child’s preferences will emerge.
Imagine that you get hired for a new job. You are told you start the next day. No one tells you what time you should show up and when you do, you are led to a desk and told to go to work. There is no explanation, no chance to observe others, and no idea what is expected. You have a sense of panic that you might really screw up. For some children, this is what the first day of preschool is like.
I have been contacted by frantic parents who report that the start of preschool has created chaos in the home. The child’s behavior often reflects unhappiness with the internal and external changes that are occurring.
To reduce this chaos and help create a positive preschool experience, observe how well the child is doing with other small separations. If the child has never been left at a babysitter’s or grandparent’s house, then she doesn’t yet have practice being with another caregiver. If the child wants to stay close to the parent at playgroups, then she may need more time before daily separation occurs. If the child shows great discomfort in playing on her own while you do something else, like the dishes, this might be another indication.
One of the best ways to help a child learn about separation is to give small experiences first before stepping into a scheduled routine of daycare or preschool.
How to Practice:
- Separate from you. Provide a practice opportunity for separation time. On a day before you go to the park, brainstorm ideas with your child and let her pick one that she will try at the park while you hang back. Perhaps it will be five minutes on the monkey bars while you swing on the swings. Or she may go up to the popsicle vendor and order and pay for one herself.
- Similar Experience. Before preschool starts, have some experiences with a sitter. Be in the house the first few times she comes. When you do leave, keep the length of time short. Let your child know when you will return. “You’ll play some games with the sitter and have a snack. I’ll be back soon after snack time.”
- Visit. When it is time to start an organized experience like preschool, visit the school. If the child has some friends there, take pictures of them having a good time to look at together.
- Routine Charts. Make cards that shows visuals of your child getting ready for school, driving there, the good-bye, and the parent’s return. Take a look at these several times a day before starting school.
Sometimes a child is not ready. They might need some weeks to settle in to this new idea or catch up to the experience developmentally. If there is the luxury of waiting a month, sometimes that’s helpful. Observe your child’s level of independence at other experiences – music class, the park, a play group – to help gauge if holding off is a workable, short-term solution.
As far as parent readiness, that’s tricky as well. As you enter on to the path of many future separations, be ready with as much self-compassion as you can muster. The first time can pull extra hard on the heart strings.
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-210-1100.