A lot of kids (and parents) feel anxious when their child is getting ready to start preschool. Kids who are already have some anxiety have an even harder time.
Today I am going to share some favorite tips for helping kids with anxiety in preschool.
These are some strategies that I have used with my own kids as they have gone through different transitions into school. They have helped make our experiences much more successful.
1. Choose preschools wisely.
Spend time observing and visiting preschools as you try and decide on the best place for your child. Deborah at Teach Preschool has some great information about choosing preschools that has been really helpful to me. I knew that for my daughter I wanted a play-based preschool where I could be involved and volunteer and also one where there was a low adult to student ratio. For my daughter I also wanted a school that used positive discipline strategies. I think it is really important to decide what your child needs in a preschool before you start looking.
2. Focus on readiness, not age.
I was ready for my daughter to go to preschool when she was three because I thought she would really enjoy meeting new friends and getting to go to her "own school" like her brother did. The moment we entered our first preschool for a visit she went into a complete meltdown and flipped out. She cried, she yelled, and she wouldn't do anything other than glue herself to me and not let go. We had only gone to the office and a small room with a few toys and one other child. Her crying was so disturbing to the other child who was also visiting that we just left. I can't fully describe how traumatic the experience was (for both of us) but will say that I am still approached at parks and recognized as the mom with the hysterical kid at preschool orientation. We never went back.
I decided that we both weren't ready yet. Instead we set up the most amazing preschool co-op with three of my daughter's little friends and their moms for the year. The kids went to "preschool" once a week at a friend's house and different moms took turns hosting each month. You can read more about our Little Preschool set up here. It was such a wonderful way to transition my daughter into preschool.
Many children with anxiety of some sort may need a slower transition into preschool to make it a successful experience for them. Instead of starting them for the full time right away, you could find an especially successful part of the day and have them start then. As they demonstrate success, add more time.
3. Take Pictures
Before preschool started I made sure to take several photos of the inside of the preschool and the teachers so that I could show them to my daughter and talk about them. I also had my older son who went to the same preschool talk to my daughter about his favorite things. Before school we also went on a tour and met with her teacher briefly.
Once school started we took photos any time I was in class. Throughout the week on the days when my daughter didn't go to preschool I would show her photos from the previous week and remind her of fun things that she did.
Although my daughter has fun at preschool, after a few days of not going (since she only goes twice a week), she begins to forget and then when it is time to go again she will get a bit worried and stressed out and say she doesn't want to go. The pictures help jog her memory and get her excited to go back... especially the photos of her friends!
4. Communicate with the teachers
This year I was in the unique position of getting to do some teacher development for my daughter's preschool teachers. When we met prior to school starting I was able to talk to all of the teachers about my daughter, some things that make her stressed out, some triggers, and help them have a general awareness of some of her sensitivities. I was also able to give them some strategies for how to help her. If I hadn't been in that situation then I would've talked with the teachers privately. Because we had that initial conversation a lot of my anxiety about sending my daughter to preschool were alleviated. I also think the conversation opened the door to future conversation and has made it really easy to check in with one another and not feel hesitant to approach anything that has come up this year.
My daughter's preschool teacher is wonderful at emailing me about issues at school and explaining how she handled situations. Her classroom helper teacher is wonderful at noticing triggers and helping diffuse problems before they happen because she is aware of what cancause my daughter extra anxiety.
5. Have a transitional object
Many people have shared awesome strategies to use with kids for when they have separation anxiety. I loved this kissing hand craft that Allie from No Time for Flashcards did with her child. Many kids need some sort of transitional object to help them feel safe when they have some anxiety and are having a new experience that might be scary. We had my daughter put her favorite stuffed rabbit into her school bag. I let her know that she couldn't play with him or take him out, but just knowing that he was at school with her helped alleviate some stress.
6. Help them structure free time
Many kids with some sort of social anxiety have a hard time with free choice time during preschool. It may be helpful to ask a preschool teacher to recommend some more structured activities to kids if they are having a hard time deciding what to do or finding someone to play with. Sometimes by doing a structured activity for a few minutes they feel comfortable enough to go off and do something unstructured alone. For example at our preschool we have blocks and an art project during free time that kids can do. Some kids don't know what to do with themselves during free time and it is too overwhelming. Giving them a job or a more structured activity helps them not get stressed out. I like to look at it kind of like when I go to a party where I don't know anyone and don't have any job. I hate small talk and I get a little stressed out. I prefer having a job or a responsibility or I love when there is a structured game/activity at those parties because then I don't have to just do small talk with random people. Kids can be similar!
7. Acknowledge their feelings
One key way to help decrease anxiety is by listening to kids and acknowledging how they are feeling. It is important to not be dismissive or judgemental when kids tell us that something makes them sad, nervious, scared, or worried at preschool. My daughter has so many things that stress her out that sometimes I would love to just tune her out at the end of the day. By acknowledging her feelings and helping her realize that I will listen to her and I think her feelings are important, she gets far less sad, frustrated, and stressed out.
8. Teach them to find a chill out spot
When my daughter gets stressed out at preschool she sometimes either goes into a meltdown and can't function or runs away. Overall she is actually way less stressed out than I initially thought she would be, but she has her moments. When she runs away from the teachers or other helper parents or just melts down and won't communicate, it is hard for them to figure out what went wrong so that they can help her. I am trying to teach her to find a place that she can go at school to help calm herself down and chill out so then she can talk to people. I think right now that spot is the swing at school. If she gets frustrated or upset hopping into the enclosed swing all by herself helps her reset a little bit.
Other sensory activities like playing with sand or water also tend to help mellow her out a bit.
9. Be aware of how kids communicate their anxiety.
Each child demonstrates their feelings in different ways. Some kids bottle up their anxiety and stay quiet while some lash out, hit, or yell when they are feeling anxious. It is important to be aware of how your child communicates her anxiety so that you can respond appropriately. If your child is feeling anxious and upset and hits a sibling and you respond solely by punishing your child you will miss out on an opportunity to connect with your child and help them solve the problem.