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Switching Preschools

Advice for a smooth transition and one family's story

It wasn't that our 2-year-old daughter Charlotte was unhappy at her preschool. In fact, she loved it. Every morning, she rushed in, settled down next to her favorite teacher, and beamed as she opened her bag of toast all by herself. The curriculum included lessons in Spanish, sign language, and computing. After five months, Charlotte seemed to be thriving.

Yet the place just didn't feel right. My husband Ted and I were more interested in social development and recreation than Charlotte's ability to identify the color verde. And for all the talk about academics, Charlotte often came home talking about the Backyardigans and Barney. Worse, the quality of care seemed to drop off during after-school. By 5 o'clock, there was often only one teacher, standing like a traffic cop, too harried for a thoughtful goodbye. When I raised my concerns about teacher/child ratios, the director answered brusquely, "You never need to worry about ratios here," instead of explaining staffing or assuring me that my child was in good hands.

Then one day a teacher complained that Charlotte had been disrespectful and asked that I take away a toy that night as punishment. When I pressed the teacher for details, she treated me like a parent who thinks her child can do no wrong. She wagged a finger at me. "It's not the first time she's been disrespectful." Her tone was familiar, and that weekend I realized why. As Charlotte lined up dolls to play school, she chastised them, wagging her finger and lecturing them unkindly about sitting still.

That did it. When we found out that there was a spot at the preschool that had been our first choice, we snagged it for the following year. It was March, and Charlotte would be switching in July.

Worried about how to break the news to her, we asked the director of the new school and experienced parents for transition strategies. Take a break between schools, some suggested, so we scheduled a vacation right before Charlotte's start date. Don't switch mid-school year, others advised, so we planned to start with the summer program. Give a simple explanation about why she'll like the new school, friends said, so we figured we'd talk up the huge outdoor playground. And finally, they said, act casual.

This would be hard.

As weeks passed, Charlotte spoke more affectionately of her teachers, especially the one with whom I'd disagreed. She came home talking about fire safety, a visiting dentist, and the fruit a teacher shared at lunch. The after-school staffing situation improved. Ted and I had second, third, and 30th thoughts, but stuck with our decision. We still didn't feel that we were partners in school-day happenings. We wanted to understand the philosophy behind the thousand small decisions that shaped our daughter's preschool experience. And we were missing the warm and fuzzy.

The new school was more family focused. And its baby room was the sunniest and best-staffed infant room we'd laid our eyes on. (We were hoping to have a second child.)

Finally, one night after dinner, we broke the news. "After we get back from Grandmother's, you're going to a new school." Then we quickly added that there was a big, fun outdoor playground.

"Oh," she said, and then came a question I hadn't anticipated. "Do they have a potty?" She'd been using preschool kid-sized potties for the past two months. Absolutely, I assured her. Charlotte went back to coloring.

Over the next few weeks, we referred to the new school in lots of positive ways and Charlotte made goodbye cards for her teachers. At pick-up on her last day, she held the cards her teachers made for her and a picture with handprints of her classmates. She hugged everyone goodbye, but the only one with tears in her eyes was me.

Driving to the new school for our first visit, I worried about pulling her out of a place that she loved. Was I being unrealistic about what a full-time day care/preschool center could provide? No matter how good the nursery school, it couldn't fully ease this working mother's guilt.

Pulling into the parking lot, my anxiety ebbed. The director had suggested that we visit before Charlotte's first day, sometime when kids were playing outside so she could join in. On the playground, we found lots of kids and energetic care providers (more than the state-required ratio!). Plenty of friendly faces reassured the awkward newbie and engaged her gregarious daughter too.

And the bathroom passed the test of a not-quite-3-year-old: artwork on the walls, icky-less floors, and a sink she could reach. Charlotte used the potty three times. Rushing back from her last bathroom trip, she climbed into a plastic wagon, and I knew it was going to be okay.

After vacation and another visit to the new school, we began our less-than-easy first week. Monday and Tuesday went smoothly, but by day three the novelty had worn off. Charlotte sobbed when I started to leave, clinging to me as she'd never done before. "Parents always come back," the teacher said, holding out her arms. By the time I reached the sidewalk, Charlotte was cheerfully waving from the window.

A year later Charlotte is doing great. She's one of the big kids at school now. In line to go outside, she'll peer into the baby room and see sister Leah with her gummy grin. No place is perfect, of course. Sometimes at drop-off, Charlotte still doesn't want me to leave. But parents' questions are always welcome. And Charlotte's tone of voice at the end of the day is like the gentle language we use at home. The other day she lined up her dolls and pretended to be a teacher. "These are my kids," she boasted, never wagging a finger. In fact, her kids are so well-behaved that she never has to order them to listen, let alone ask their parents to punish them that night. "Good," she purrs to her charges. "Goooooood."

When to Move Your Child

No preschool is perfect. But when is imperfect enough to warrant switching? Not clicking with a teacher, small problems with a school's routine, or curriculum alone may not justify the stress of changing preschools, says Tasha R. Howe, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. "If a child is happy, learning what you want them to learn, and it's safe and stimulating, then you probably don't need to move them."

Change is in order, Howe says, if there are:

  • health and safety issues, such as unsanitary conditions or inadequate childproofing
  • high student-to-teacher ratios or frequent staff turnover
  • too many "timeouts" or an emphasis on punishment rather than redirection, distraction, and logical consequences.

Beyond that, the decision of which school is best for your child is largely a personal one. Trust your instincts — parents know best.

Easing the Transition to a New Preschool

  • Visit before your child's first day, pointing out books, some cool blocks, or a slide that he can look forward to playing with.
  • Talk about the upcoming change in a calm, matter-of-fact way. Children manage transitions differently. Some may need to talk a lot before the first day, others may not. Follow your child's lead.
  • Have your child meet teachers and kids from his new class in advance so he'll recognize familiar faces.
  • Describe the school-day routines — eating, napping, and bathroom procedures — beforehand so there are no surprises.
  • Read books about starting school, like First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg (Charlesbridge Publishing, $7).
  • Together, plan a special way to say goodbye at drop-off on his first day.
  • Once your child is settled in his new school and has found things he likes there, visit his old school or plan a playdate with one of his former classmates.

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