How to Help Kids (and Parents) Survive the First Day of Preschool
It’s shocking how fast those sweet babies grow up to be little humans, ready to begin their educational journey with preschool. Families have helped their children with everything up until this point. And now, their little ones are about to venture out and start learning all on their own.
The transition of sending a child to preschool for the first time can feel anxiety-ridden and strange for both parents and kids. “First days can be a little scary and sometimes difficult,” says Holly Bryski, early childhood educator and junior account executive at HiMama. “This is a transition for everyone. But understanding the children’s interests can make their first day a blast!”
The more ‘first days’ you navigate as an ECE teacher, the better you’ll get at helping families adjust. But experience doesn’t have to be your only teacher. We asked some expert educators to help us craft this survival guide to help you assist children and their families on the first day of preschool and beyond.
Tips to help students survive the first day of preschool
As a preschool teacher, you want to make sure your students have an easy transition into your classroom. These tips will help you squash those first-day jitters for the little learners in your care!
1. Focus on necessary skills the first day
“The first day is stressful for teachers too,” says Elizabeth Malson president of the Amslee Institute. There are so many variables to contend with, not least of which is a group of nervous preschoolers. So Malson says it’s better to prioritize the most essential parts of the environment on the first day.
“Some teachers give a school tour, teaching children the layout of their environment so they can explore and start to feel comfortable,” Malson says. “However, other teachers remain in the main classroom, exploring workstations and establishing nap areas and bathroom policies.”
Whatever your approach, Malson encourages teachers to be very mindful of how overwhelming a new class can be by reducing the number of activities on the first day.
2. Show them the toys!
Lots of activities and shuffling around might get overwhelming—but Bryski encourages teachers to bank on the excitement kids will have about new toys and play areas on the first day. Sometimes the simple redirection of pointing out something exciting can help a child adjust to their new environment.
“The classroom is always full of fun toys to explore,” Bryski says. “If the child loves a certain toy—such as toy cars—showing the child all of our toy cars and tracks can make the first day a bit easier. It can often bring comfort to the child as we are providing them with something familiar.”
3. Post the daily schedule
“I really like having a daily schedule visible, communicated in a method preschoolers understand,” says Crystal Paschal, preschool teacher and owner of Feminist Books for Kids.
Kids often feel more secure when they understand a routine. “Those first few days, we talk through the schedule at the beginning of the day, and as we move to each new activity, using the ‘Now - Next - Later’ method,” Paschal explains. “For example, I’ll say now we are reading books, next we will eat lunch, later we will play outside.”
4. Ask the children whether they have questions
The tried and true methods of crouching down, looking children in the eyes and speaking slowly can go a long way when you want to check up on your young students. “Ask questions about how they’re feeling, normalize their feelings and encourage positive thinking,” says positive psychology author Amba Brown.
“Don’t assume that they understand or know even simple things,” says Michelle White, former school counselor and advisor at Weldon. “They may be concerned about something that you have not thought of. Be open and willing to listen.”
5. Give them a creative way to express their feelings
Some kids will transition into their environment with gusto, but for those who are feeling shy or upset, sitting down to color or make a creative project can help them express how they feel.
“Have them draw pictures and talk about what they are drawing,” White says. “They can draw the preschool or draw their home and share about that—sometimes having those tangible drawings and an outlet for expression can be helpful.”
Tips to help parents survive the first day of preschool
Parents are often more nervous than their children on the first day of preschool. Pay attention to these tips to help parents make the most out of this transition as well.
1. Communicate throughout the day
If you’ve just left your child sobbing in the classroom, nothing lightens your heart like seeing a picture of them laughing 20 minutes later. “I like to text or email a picture during the day so the parents can see their children having fun,” Paschal says.
“If time allows, I also like to make individual phone calls to parents on the first day, to let them know how things are going and to give the opportunity to ask questions.”
2. Encourage parents to talk about preschool before the first day
Giving kids a heads-up about what’s coming at school will help relieve the nervousness caused by fear of the unknown. Paschal encourages parents to talk to their kids about preschool long before the first day. “Be sure to visit the school with your child, and read books about the first day of preschool.”
Malson even encourages helping children visualize their environment through photos or videos.
“Relating first-day activities to familiar events such as the library or book reading at the store can help them understand what activities will occur at school,” Malson says.
3. Write a welcome letter to parents for the preschool
Before the first day, many schools send important materials to students’ families like allergy questions and school policies. This is a great opportunity to write an introduction letter to preschool parents—or even to the preschoolers themselves.
“Our teachers mail letters to each student telling them how excited they are to meet them in the fall and have them in class,” White says. “They also ask that they draw a picture or bring a lovie with them to share with the teacher on the first day as an icebreaker.”
Each school has its own way of managing communication with parents, but adding a personal touch shows parents you are invested in your work and helps them understand what you are all about.
4. Share your preschool routine
If parents know what the average preschool day will look like, they can start to practice routines at home with their children. “Getting up at the correct time, getting dressed, hand washing and eating breakfast will establish a routine which will help reduce stress and anxiety on the first day of school,” Malson says.
5. Provide ideas for quick goodbye rituals
Speaking of consistency, encourage parents to come up with a goodbye routine with their little one. Parents might feel a jumble of emotions on this big day, and it’s easy for children to feed off of any nervousness, Malson explains. “I’ve seen an excited child grow concerned because of a nervous parent, which made the child hesitate instead of embrace the experience.”
Malson says a quick goodbye can curtail the wild emotions both parent and child might feel.
“Long goodbyes can create tears in a parent’s eyes, amplifying their child’s nervousness.” Even if children are crying or upset, a hug and kiss with reassuring words of love is the best medicine, Malson says. “Preschoolers are braver than they realize and are likely ready to conquer preschool.”
6. Comfort the parents too
“Parents need to be reassured and comforted just like kids!” Bryski says. “This is a transition for everyone, and understanding the parent’s point of view and feelings is just as important.”
Remind nervous parents that children often re-adjust, calm down and have a blast. “We have amazing and fun activities planned out every day and your child will love meeting new friends in the classroom,” Bryski says. “If anything is out of the ordinary, we will always let you know, and we will always send you great pictures to show how much fun they’re having!”
Rock the first day of preschool
Whether you send a preschool welcome letter or post your daily routine on the wall, these tips for the first day of preschool can help you help your students (and their families) fall in love with school.
Curious how to manage what comes after the first day? Check out our article “10 Proven Classroom Management Tips for Preschool Teachers.”