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Smoothing the Path: Preparing Your Child for Preschool or Daycare

Sara Chapman, MA is an Educational and DIR® Consultant in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Starting preschool brings new learning opportunities for your child across a wide
range of developmental areas including social, emotional, motor, and intellectual
development. New and unexpected challenges also await your child, which lead
to uncertainty and can cause stress. Your child will have many new experiences,
be exposed to new sights, sounds, people, environments, and activities, and will
experience separation from you that may invoke anxiety. Preparing your child
well in advance can help him or her know what to expect and support a smoother
transition into the school setting. It is important to remember that transitioning
into school is a process and takes time. The goal is to reduce your child’s apprehension
and help him or her develop a positive experience of school from the start.

Sara is a graduate of the DIR® Institute and a DIR® Facilitator, through the Interdisciplinary Council for Learning and Developmental Disorders (ICDL). Sara is also an Associate Faculty Member of the Profectum Foundation and a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).


Ten things you can do to prepare your child for preschool or daycare

1. Visit the school with your child prior to your child’s first day.
– Coordinate with the school team so that your child has an opportunity to visit
the classroom and get familiar with the environment at his/her own pace with
no demands.

2. Develop a transition plan.
– Work with the school team to develop an individualized plan that works for your
– Some children benefit from attending the first few days with you and/ or fading
your time as your child adjusts. Other children benefit from a clearly established
goodbye routine and do best when parents avoid drawing out the goodbye. You
know what will work best for your child.
– Minimize other changes to your child’s schedule as he is adjusting to this new

3. Create a photo album with pictures of the new school, teachers, and
students to help your child anticipate what to expect.
– Take pictures of the different areas of the classroom, your child in the
classroom, classroom teachers, students (if permitted) and toys/ objects your
child shows interest in during the initial visit or ask the school team if you can
come in to take pictures.
– Place the pictures in a small book or mini photo album that you can look at and
discuss together.

4. Create a goodbye ritual.
– This may be the first time that your child is away from you for an extended
period of time and separation might be difficult.
– BEFORE the first day of school, consider playing hide and seek/ peek-a-boo
games in which you say goodbye and quickly come back. This playful and
positive experience will help prepare your child for learning to say goodbye.
– Create a routine for saying goodbye that is predictable and helps your child
learn to anticipate this transition. Think of the successful ways you say goodbye
in other situations and use those as a template for developing your school
– Create a “hello/goodbye” book that depicts this experience with photos of you
waving goodbye and then returning to hug your child on each page. This allows
your child to hold this image in his mind during these experiences.
– Avoid “sneaking out,” even if you think your child will not notice as this can
create more uncertainty and anxiety for your child. Always say goodbye!
– Your child’s attention might be diverted when you leave, but he or she
will become anxious about where you have gone, search for you, and/or
become upset. Your child may cling to you all the more the next time he
or she even suspects you will be leaving. Although sneaking out
spares you his or her pain and protest in the moment, it damages your
child’s basic trust in you as his protector and safe haven. If you
demonstrate confidence in your child’s teachers and in his or her ability
to enjoy school before you depart, your child will absorb your sense of
safety in the new environment and that will help him or her to feel safe.

5. Create a social story and/ or visual schedule to help your child
understand new expectations.
– The story could illustrate the morning routine, the transition to school, and favorite
activities in which your child can participate at school.
– Be sure to use real photos and images of your child in these scenarios as much
as possible to keep things more concrete. Stories and visuals will be less
beneficial if the symbols do not have meaning for your child.
– Visual information helps children to organize and make sense of their experiences.
– Take pictures of each step of the morning routine to help your child be
more independent in preparing for school. Organize these in a schedule.


The more independent your child feels, the more control he or she will feel over
his or her experiences. This in turn works to decrease anxiety that can often
arise during periods of uncertainty.

6. Establish ongoing communication with the school team.
– Develop a way in which you can easily and regularly communicate with the
school team. A communication notebook that travels back and forth in your
child’s backpack will make it easier to maintain regular communication about
happenings at home and school. You’ll want to learn about your child’s
experience during the day. It also helps the teacher to understand fluctuations in your child’s behavior and  your
child’s state of mind, if you let them know about changes in sleeping or eating
patterns, if your child is constipated, suffering from allergies or coming down
with a cold, or a parent is out of town, etc.
– If you are more comfortable with email, check to see if the teacher would be
willing to communicate through email as a way to maintain ongoing
– It’s important that you develop your own relationship with the school team,
including teachers and administrators. If there are any school practices you
wonder about, such as whether children are expected or required to nap, be
sure to speak with the teachers about them and let them know what you know
about your child.

7. Create a passion poster.
– Develop a list or images of your child’s favorite toys, objects, activities to share
with the school team. You are your child’s best expert, so help the team learn
the most they can about your child BEFORE the first day of school.

8. Allow your child to bring a favorite object or toy from home to school for
– Some children feel grounded when they are holding onto a familiar object or
photo, particularly during transitions.

-Check with the teachers to find out if objects from home are welcome in the classroom or kept in a cubbie, and prepare your child for the school’s expectations.
– If your child wants to bring the object they sleep with, such as a blanket or
stuffed animal, it is best to buy a spare (or double) and send the extra to school
so that the sleep object will not be misplaced.
– You can also loan the school photos of family members that your child can
reference if he is missing you during the school day.

9. Engage in play with your child at home.
– Join your child in play with his or her favorite toys and activities. Through these
playful exchanges, you will help your child develop stronger connections and
positive experiences that he or she can draw from in school.
– These times of play will also help regulate your child and provide more
opportunities for engaging, problem-solving, and learning that can be
generalized to school.

10. Breathe!
– This transition may be just as challenging for you as it is for your child.
– Be sure to take care of yourself, so that you can be mentally and emotionally
available for your child.
Keep in mind that it may take any child some time to adjust to this new setting,
possibly months. You may notice that your child becomes clingier and may also
see new behaviors develop or old patterns resurface. This is all to be expected
with any major transition. Reassure yourself of your confidence in the teachers.  Stay empathic and confident in your child’s ability to find comfort in his/her new surroundings.  Be sure to maintain open communication with the
school team and allow time for your child to forge new relationships.

Written by Sara Chapman, MA and Barbara Kalmanson, PhD

Barbara Kalmanson, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist and Special Educator in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Academic Dean of the ICDL Graduate School, Senior Faculty for the Interdisciplinary Council for Learning and Developmental Disorders (ICDL) and Senior Faculty of the Profectum Foundation.