How long will she bawl? Who will comfort her? Will she be cuddled, maybe until her sobs subside? Will she be too distracted to eat? If not, she might become cranky and have a melt down… Will she make a friend? What will happen if a peer shoves her? The concerns can be endless. The truth is, we will never know if all their needs will be met. There are numerous children to be attended to and the dynamics of each setting are so different. Yet, parents must brave the settling period at some point.
These ideas worked for our family and if they can help your family in this important transition, that will make one fewer stressed child and will help parents beam.
If we aren’t truly prepared, success may be delayed. We can, however, help prepare the child even if he or she is still a baby.
For example, the thought of our little Karishma being away from home before she turned three had not even occurred to my husband and me. Until one day during a new social situation, I watched her explore the new environment and engage with other kids, as usual. Not once did she glance back at me. On other occasions, she would sometimes look for me and once she spotted me, she would usually continue what she was doing. After sharing this with my husband, we agreed that she would benefit from a few hours per week in a school, which would also give me some time to myself.
Karishma had good comprehension skills, could communicate her needs fairly well and was almost always very social, so adjusting would not seem to be a problem. Yet, like every mother, I had my pangs. I was just weaning her, and her ultimate comfort still remained strongly with me. Having taught pre-schoolers, I was comforted knowing that their sobs taper off everyday, but this involved “our” 22 month-old who was technically considered a baby. Plus, I did not know as much about the struggles of settling babies and toddlers because my area of expertise was with preschoolers.
A part of me also felt guilty as I looked forward to enjoying some quietness and maybe sleep. I resolved that if Karishma bawled for more than a couple of days at school then I would keep her home for a while longer, but only after I gave my best effort to give her a good start.
Just before we visited the potential school for their toddler program, I spoke briefly with Karishma about where we were going so that she would know what to expect. The concept of school was not important of course, so I emphasized familiar terms such as “playground,” “friends,” “toys,” etc. There are studies showing that babies and toddlers understand more than typically presumed. My husband and I tend to speak to our daughter as if she comprehends everything we say and this might have contributed to her ability to actually understand a great deal.
During our visit I took a couple of pictures and quick videos (with permission). We were lucky that Karishma had a chance to socialize briefly in the playground while we waited for the administrator to arrive. During our time seeing the classroom with her, we pointed out and also handled various learning materials to make them “real” to her. We only briefly met her teacher but, most importantly, she “experienced” her new environment. On our drive home we chatted about the school. She seemed interested.
Since the playground is a big highlight for little ones, try to coordinate a time when they can spend a few minutes there with other kids.
For the next two weeks we looked at and talked about the photos and videos from our school visit. We also visited the school website and looked at the pictures of both her teachers. In my opinion, viewing the videos and teachers’ photos was critical to help entice and build familiarity with the new environment, and her teachers were the two very important people to whom she would turn to in place of mom and dad. If the school website does not have teachers’ photos, look for them on social media.
I often repeated to her that while she was in school having fun with her friends at school I would be shopping for our home. I would be enthusiastic of course.
I would ask, “Who will be helping you in school?” Karishma would cheerfully respond with her teacher’s name.
“Where will Mama be?” She would respond, “shopping!”
“Where will Dada be?” “Work!”
“When will Mama come to pick you up? After?” “Lunch!”
I encouraged her to repeat this sentence word after word …”Friend, come on, let us, play.” It was not intended for her to actually say it to a peer but it was to warm her up to her time there. We had a lot of fun with this. My concerns subsided.
Children thrive in routine and familiar environments, so preparing young children is the key so that they know what to anticipate. Even we adults don’t enjoy surprises that we do not understand.
It is hard to have a good day when our physiological needs are not met. The importance of breakfast is not overrated. Sleep is especially important for babies, toddlers and kids, of course. So, we were committed to early bedtimes for our daughter, especially since she would need to leave home early.
It was still always a rush getting her dressed and coaxing her to finish her porridge when all she wanted to do was enjoy a leisurely morning. This was an awakening for me even though I am a pretty organised person. Rushing a child is just plain pathetic and counterproductive for everyone involved. So I slowly learned to have everything ready in advance and then just focus only on her needs.
I took advantage of the small comforts that could keep Karishma in a good mood through the day in her new environment. So I picked clothes that she liked. Together we picked out a fun water bottle, a lunch box with several compartments, and a fun bag. We spoke about all her favorite foods that she would find in her lunch box. Once she was comfortable in school then the bells and whistles would not be neccesary. She participated as I labeled her belongings with her name so that she also developed a sense of what is hers and what belongs to others.
We would pretend she was in school, so that she would open her lunch box and eat at home during lunch time. I placed a sticky note with a lipstick kiss in front of her and put it in her lunch box, saying our love and kisses will be with her. I reminded her that I would be coming to pick her up around the time all the children finished eating from their lunch boxes. This way, she could anticipate my return instead of endlessly guessing when I would arrive.
To simulate going to school in the morning, at the front door I would ask her to pretend to wave goodbye to me as my husband walked her toward the car. She enjoyed all of this because I injected a lot of excitement into her experience.
I also maintained a very positive outlook and visualised her settling in very well.
Most schools invite parents to visit for “observation.” I asked the administrator if we could attend the day before Karishma officially would join, and the administrator was obliging. So again, I shared with our daughter that we would be spending the morning in her fun school with her new friends.
Since we were invited during morning “circle time,” I shared with her that she would be sitting with her other friends and her teacher. I gave her a heads-up that moms can only sit in one end of the classroom and there can be no talking with their children (we passively provide comfort). I repeated a few times that I would briefly leave the room to drop off papers in the next room and that I would be back.
Circle time went well. She casually glanced at me once. I gave her a cool smile, keeping a very neutral energy. Afterward, while she was engaged with the classroom activities, I quickly told her I was stepping out to drop off the papers next door and would be back. She nodded hurriedly. I timed this so that we would leave as soon as I returned, simulating a typical day. Being out of the room for a short time is important. Even if your return is quick, your child experiences that short time without you and also your return as you promised, which provides security for future separations.
The school had the option to use their drop-off line where the parent stays in their car while a teacher helps the child out of the car seat. This was very useful because physically parting from your loved one makes for a painful separation. If your school does not have this option, the other solution is to have someone to whom the child is not very attached drop her off. If you do bring your child into the classroom, never, ever do a disappearing act. Even if your child is visibly upset, say you are leaving with a wave or a flying kiss (anything too affectionate will result in clinging that becomes hard for everyone involved, so share lots of casual hugs at home/in the car before school). When your child turns around expecting to see you and you aren’t there, it can be traumatic. I witnessed this with some of my pre-schoolers when I was teaching. Please also do not linger outside the classroom, as your child may see you which would disrupt the transition, plus you got to trust the teachers.
We planned to use the drop-off line once Karishma had settled into the school. Her teacher told me that Karishma did really well and seemed ready for the drop-off line, which was comforting for me to hear. On our drive back home, I chatted a lot with Karishma about her time in school. I also told her that the same procedure would happen the next day.
If you cannot schedule an observation day just before the start date, try to schedule one as close as possible or ask if you can use the first day to mimic another observation. This arrangement would especially be beneficial if your child has trouble separating.
I discovered the huge potential window before bedtime. What you talk about and how you prepare them just before they fall asleep seems to help prepare a child for the following day, especially when there are important events. Somehow it seems to seep into Karishma’s subconscious. So as we settled her into her bedtime, we excitedly communicated to her that that when she woke up, we would quickly be getting ready as it would be the big school day! I again reminded Karishma that Daddy would drive up to the entrance, one of her teachers would come get her from the car seat and she would wave goodbye to Daddy. Karishma was in agreement with all this.
First time away from mom, dad and home for longer than three hours!
That morning I was not nervous at all. I made sure I was very matter-of-fact. Children sense our energies so be very mindful. I gave her quick hugs instead of a prolonged one (I thought that parting from a snug feeling was not appropriate for this morning) and gushed, “Have fun!” She waved goodbye to me and my heart somersaulted.
My husband too was on board with all our preparation. During their drive to school, she was quiet while he went over what she could expect when they arrived. When the teacher took her out of her car seat, she was pretty serious and he too was very matter-of-fact. Karishma did not look back or wave to my husband — she probably knew what this meant and was bracing herself for it. Children are amazingly resilient and these transitions are like milestones.
I had included a note asking her teachers to say the same consistent things that I had been saying if she asked where we were. I called the office in the middle of the morning to check how she was doing and the administrator said all was fine and there were no tears. At pickup time, I was there early and I was anxious to meet our dear darling and her teacher. In general, its best to arrive a little before dismissal time because you do not want your child searching for you among other parents and not seeing you, which would be especially disappointing during the settling period.
Our little twenty two month-old munchkin saw me through the glass door, beamed, rushed closer in anticipation and then ran into my arms when the doors opened. She looked very excited and she distractedly responded to my questions. Her teacher shared that Karishma had a great day and that she did ask for us and they had responded accordingly. It really helps to have warm teachers and they were just so lovely. We couldn’t be more grateful. I chatted excitedly with Karishma about her day in school on our drive back. She was beaming.
Side note : A week passed since she started school and everything was going great. One morning, it so happened the administrator was helping and came to get her from the car seat. My husband said she was near tears and luckily her teacher showed up just in time. I never thought to prepare her that another teacher or administrator from the school might come to take her to her teachers. Preparation, preparation, preparation. It is astounding when situations like these occur, and it is so easy to see the direct correlation on how children operate. We will talk more about this in another post.
Initially, attending three days per week is recommended, and then gradually increasing is an option. Two days can be too little if your child has a difficult time separating because by the time they get comfortable, they are back to their comfort zone — home.
Lastly, one of the most significant factors was responsiveness toward Karishma since birth. We never let her cry longer than a few seconds without one of us comforting her. Why I am a fan of this approach (often called Attachment Parenting) is simple. If you reached out to a friend when you are in need and that friend repeatedly didn’t show up, would you continue to reach out to her again? No. You might instead just turn to another friend or seek your inner strength if it comes to that. A baby does not have these options. She is at your mercy. Their cries are all that they have and when that communication is attended to, they feel secure no matter what. They don’t need to keep an eye on you all the time in case you disappear because they know you will always return, because you always did. Nobody wants stressed out babies.
I wondered about the very important skill of self-soothing. Then I thought, Karishma has a lifetime to learn so many skills and for this stage we chose to instil a solid sense of security over self-soothing. While not always convenient, it has been well worth it for our family.
Each child is unique and you would know best how to modify these ideas to suit your family’s needs and to make neccesary arrangements with the school. If you are torn between making some modifications, try to think about it from your child’s perspective and you will find a suitable idea.
This transition phase can be confusing and tumultuous, however, the phase can pass quickly. Maybe you will find some useful ideas here and your little one may have a shorter settling-in period … my best wishes are with your family.