By Rebecca Parlakian,, Senior Director of Programs at ZERO TO THREE.,
Your young child has just had months of time with you at home. Most likely, there have been no other caregivers outside of your own family, due to shelter-in-place guidelines. But now—as communities begin to re-open—you may be facing a major transition for your family: Heading back to child care. If you imagine this change may be harder for your child after months of “just you,” you are probably right.
Here are some tips for managing the preschool transition post-COVID:
Remember that this is not just a regular transition back to school. Your family went through a tough time. You managed a lot of stressors—balancing work and family demands, financial concerns, worries about illness. Even very young children sense when there is stress in the household. Your child has managed this period of confusing changes and now they are encountering yet another big transition—going back to child care. Stress adds up and our resilience can be run down over time. Your sensitivity and patience are key ingredients for helping your child make a successful move back to their care setting.
Your worries are important. As communities re-open, you may have concerns about the safety of your child’s child care program. Many parents are feeling this way. Talk to your child’s teacher and the program director to learn what procedures they are using to keep children safe and healthy.
Use pretend play to explore the routines of preschool or child care with your toddler. Take turns being the parent, child, and teacher. Act out common daily routines, like saying good-bye to mommy and/or daddy, taking off your coat, singing songs, reading stories, having Circle Time, and playing outside.
Read books about child care. If you’re able to access a public library (or online stories), choose a few titles about going to preschool or child care. Talk about the story and how the characters are feeling. Ask how your child is feeling (excited, scared, worried, happy?). Check out titles like The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas, Bye-Bye Time by Elizabeth Verdick, or Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney.
Listen to your child’s worries. It’s tempting to quickly reassure your child and move on, but when you listen and respond to children’s worries, they feel safe and supported. Explain that starting something new can bring up worries and questions and that lots of people feel that way. It can also be helpful to share a time when you started something new and how you felt.
Suggest coping strategies. When you allow your child to share her worries, you can help her think through how to deal with them. For example, if she is worried about missing you, the two of you can make a book of family photos to keep in her cubby and look at when she is lonely.
Notice nonverbal messages. Most 2- and 3-year-olds are not able to use language to fully explain how they are feeling. Your child may “act out” his worry by clinging, becoming withdrawn or more fussy, or by being more aggressive. Another common reaction is for children to begin using more “baby-like” behaviors. For example, if your child is fully potty trained, he may start have toileting accidents. He may ask that you feed or dress him even though he can do these things by himself.
It’s natural to be frustrated by this return-to-baby behavior. But by meeting your child’s need for nurturing with love and patience, you’ll find they soon return to their “big kid” behavior. Remember that your child is facing—and managing—a big change in their life. They may need more support from you during this transition.
Get back into the routines of bedtimes and waking times. The transition to child care is easier when you are not also dealing with an tired, cranky little one. In the week before your return to your child’s program, begin to use “school night” bedtimes and wake-up times so that everyone can get back into the child care routine.
When your child starts back, ask whether there is a new drop-off routine. Because of new health screening and sanitizing requirements, you may not be able to stay with your child to help them transition during morning drop-off. Talk to your provider about new drop-off procedures and ask if it will be possible to have a teacher stay with your child to help them with the separation.
Consider letting your child bring a special object from home. Does your child have a favorite stuffed animal or blanket that offers comfort? Check with your child care program to confirm your child can bring this object from home. A favorite teddy bear can ease the transition when you say good-bye at drop-off. A family photo in your child’s cubby can also be comforting.
Talk with your child’s teacher about how you soothe your child. When teachers use similar comfort methods, babies and toddlers feel more safe and “at-home” in the child care setting.
Keep your tone positive and upbeat. Children pick up on the reactions of the trusted adults in their lives. So try not to look worried or sad, and don’t linger too long when it’s time to go. Say a quick, upbeat good-bye and reassure your child that all will be well.
Think about creating a special good-bye routine. For example, you can give your child a kiss on the palm to “hold” all day long. Or, the two of you can sing a special song together before you leave. Good-bye routines are comforting to children and help them understand and prepare for what will happen next.
This hasn’t been an easy few months, but the return to child care is one sign that life is going back to (a new) normal. Supporting your child through this process—staying patient and loving even in the face of challenging behaviors—is a loving way to take that next step, together.
Looking for more information? Visit zerotothree.org/coronavirus for our latest resources and updates for families.