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A smooth start

When your child starts preschool, she may experience separation anxiety and regressive behavior. Child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow explains what you can expect.

By Gail O'Connor

The transition to preschool is often marked with two steps forward, one step back, as your child grows and learns in amazing ways — but at the same time, regresses in some behaviors, too. Child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow, M.D., is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and co-author, with T. Berry Brazelton, of Touchpoints 3 to 6. He's also a former preschool teacher and gives this advice about how to ease your child's transition.

Starting preschool is a big step for many young children. What are some of the biggest challenges they face?

The most common challenge for most kids is saying goodbye to their parents, or trouble separating. For some children this may be their first time out of the home. Others may have separated before, but are now in a new, possibly more demanding situation (if they have to share the adult caregiver with a number of other children).

How can parents help soothe their children's separation anxiety?

First, they can look within for whatever ambivalence they have about leaving their child, because he will pick up on those feelings. If there's any hesitation or discomfort or doubt — which there often is; you hate to leave your child when he's unhappy about it — but if you don't feel good about where you're leaving him, or about the fact that you have to leave him, your child's going to feel, "Well, maybe this isn't really a good place or idea." The first thing you have to do to prepare your child is to prepare yourself.

How else can parents help ease the transition for their preschooler?

There are a number of things you can do to prepare your child. Prior to starting school, take your child to visit the classroom and meet the teacher. If there's a way of having a playdate with one of the other children who will be attending the preschool, that's great, because then the children can welcome each other when they begin school. You could give your child a transitional object, like a favorite blanket or teddy bear they can carry around with them all day; or even a story so the teacher can read it. And give your child lots of reassurance that "Mommy's coming back," or "Daddy's coming back."

To reinforce the idea, you can play a little game in which something disappears from sight but your child rediscovers it. Roll a ball under the couch and say, "Look, we can't see it. Do you think it's still there? Let's go look." When your child finds the ball, you can say, "See, even though we couldn't see the ball it's still there, just like Mommy when she went to work." What you're doing is reinforcing "object permanence," a concept that comes earlier (by the end of the first year) but can be threatened by the emotional challenge that separation presents.

What are some of the ways preschool helps a child grow?

For some children this may be the first time they're going into a group setting where the attention by caregivers will be divided among several children. Learning to share the relationship to the teacher will be a major new gain. Also, the child will be learning to make friends, share, take turns, and hold back on impulses, areas in which they're still making progress. Preschool will present them with more opportunities to practice these skills. They'll also have opportunities to learn about other children's feelings, and to discover the joy of being generous. It's very early, but you'll see examples where the child will say, "Do you want to play with this doll?" That's their little gift, and they're learning the internal pleasure they get out of that.

Also, at this age kids love the daily routine of preschool. They get excited about mastering the schedule — they know when storytime and snack and lunch and nap happen — and they're really thrilled with themselves. Their fantasy play becomes stronger around this age, and there are ways of being more elaborate with their imagination when other children are around. They also benefit from their peers in terms of language acquisition, and even motor development. You may start to see them climb up on a slide more readily, for instance.

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