It’s a time of great excitement as your child begins a process that will eventually result in high school or college graduation. But, it is also a time of trepidation and worry. What are you to expect and how will your child adapt away from home and its routines? Your child probably experienced baby-sitting, perhaps some day care or attendance at a playgroup. However, the parents have been the primary care-givers since birth. So what can you expect as your child enters preschool?
We all know that children have distinct personalities and will have to adapt to a group setting with other children of the same age as well as follow directions from the teacher and other adults.
The best way of finding out what happens in preschool is to look at the program from a highly skilled teacher’s perspective and in doing so obtain insight into what constitutes an excellent preschool and one that is not so good.
As the teacher you know you are going to meet 15 to 20 four-year olds for the first time. They’ll arrive around the same time. Some will be excited, some tearful, others a bit shy. The likelihood is these children won’t know one another and yet they’ll be together for the next three to seven hours a day, five days a week, for 9 months.
It’s not hard to imagine the hubbub that these children will create on the first day. There are good-byes to say, coats to hang and backpacks to unpack. Yet, maintaining a calm pleasant environment is essential. Children will be uncomfortable and anxious when they don’t know what to expect so it’s up to the teacher to establish ground rules and a beginning routine that sets the tone for the day.
As the teacher greets the arriving parents and children, it will be important to have another adult helping out. This ‘assistant teacher’ can help the children put away their belongings and then settle them in with some table top activities such as puzzles, Duplo blocks or drawing individually or in pairs. Alternatively, this assistant might lead some group activities such as singing or playing follow-the-leader.
Once all the children have arrived, it is time to introduce the daily routine of large group circle. Here the teacher talks about the plans for the day, reads a story and has questions for the children, who learn to take turns in answering. One of the hard lessons for children is to realize they don’t have the undivided attention of Mom but instead the teacher may interact with the whole group, several children or an individual. The child needs to know that the teacher is available and will be carefully monitoring what is going on.
The teacher needs to be very attentive when children are playing together. They may need to redirect a child to avoid a conflict, play with a small group to form a ‘bridge’ that will help a socially inexperienced child participate with the group, talk with a child who is not interested in playing but instead seems distracted and upset.
For some teachers, the most difficult part of the day is managing the many transitions that take place. It takes a great deal of skill for teachers to move a group of children through these transitions efficiently and without distress or disruption. Again, routines can help make transitions smooth. How will children ‘clean-up’ toys at the end of playtime? What will they do when they have finished eating their snack or lunch? What routine will help them prepare to leave the room for outdoor play?
As your child begins preschool, it will help a lot if she has already had a chance to visit the classroom and meet the teachers before the first day of school. That way, instead of everything being strange, she will recognize one of the adults and the classroom space.
It is important for you to talk with your child and pay attention to his feelings. Is she excited to go to school each day, or worried? Does she talk about friends and activities or is it possible she is not forming positive relationships with the other children or the adults?
If you are able to volunteer in the classroom for a few hours a month, you can learn a lot about how the teacher goes about creating a classroom community, how she manages conflicts among the children, how sensitive she is to individual children. And, of course, you can use that time to also observe how your child is adjusting to this new environment and new experiences.
Lucia French retired as Taylor Professor of Education at the University of Rochester and is a leading expert in child development. She was lead developer of ScienceStart!