First day of preschool: 5 tips for a successful start

Starting preschool is a big transition. Help your child prepare for their first day of preschool with these tips.

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What to do on the first day of preschool

It's a great idea to start the day off strong by celebrating this major milestone in your child's life. Consider making a special breakfast and spending extra time with your child in the morning on the first day. Give yourself enough time so you don't have to rush. As your child heads off to school, think about giving them a transitional object that they can take with them from home to school. Depending on your preschool's policy, this could be a picture of your family, a lovey or stuffy, a book, or a special toy.

Talk with your child about what to expect, especially when it comes to saying goodbye to you. For example, you can tell your child that you'll walk them into school, help them put their things in their cubby, then give them a big hug goodbye. It can be helpful to establish a regular good-bye routine that you do each day at drop off (e.g. a hug, high five, or phrase like "see you later, alligator").

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It's also a good idea to build in room for flexibility. You never really know how drop off will go, so plan ahead for different scenarios. Think about what you'll do if your child cries, and know what your school's policies are regarding where parents drop off and how long parents are allowed to stay in the classroom. It may be that the first week you're able to walk them to the classroom and then starting on week two, you'll just drop them off with their teacher outside. 

It's a good idea to involve the teacher if your child is having a hard time. And remember: once you say goodbye, leave rather than coming back to check in.

Preparing your child for the first day of preschool

Let's admit it: Change is hard on all of us. Think about how you've felt the night before you started a new job – and then think about how many new things your child faces when they start preschool or moves to a new class.

Young kids have a lot of fears – especially when doing something they haven't done before. Preschool fears can cause them to lie awake at night (or sleep more than normal), backtrack on potty training, or suddenly act out with aggressive behavior.

Your child may know exactly what they are afraid of – the big slide on the school playground, or having to use an unfamiliar toilet – or they may just feel scared about school without being able to tell you why. Either way, a few simple strategies will help them feel more comfortable with the new experiences ahead:

1. Get them talking

Encourage your child to open up about anything they're worried about.

If your child isn't very verbal, try playing games that introduce the idea of coming and going: Engage your child in a round of hide-and-seek, or slide cars in and out of a toy train tunnel. Then use the game as a launching pad to talk about how the cars – and your child – will always come back when they go somewhere.

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You can also set an example by gently relating your own fears: "Sometimes I feel scared when I meet a new person, but I try to be brave and say hi anyway."

Once they start preschool, ask your child to share about school, but don't pressure them to share too much. If you want to get more details from your preschooler, ask specific questions like "What was your favorite toy at school today?" rather than broad questions like "How was your day?"

2. Acknowledge their feelings

It's natural to want to comfort your child by saying, "Don't worry, you'll make lots of friends at preschool." But this can actually make them feel more intimidated, since it sends the message that you expect your child to be popular.

Instead, let your child know that you sympathize. "It's really scary to go to a new school, isn't it?" you might say. "How could we make it easier?" And, it's always a good idea to acknowledge their feelings rather than give your child the impression that you think their worries are silly or trivial.

3. Try to keep things consistent at home

Too many changes at once can be disruptive. For the first few weeks before and after starting preschool, try not to plan too many things after school. Allow your child a chance to relax and decompress after the stress of going through a big transition. 

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4. Let your child take the lead

Involve your child as much as possible in finding solutions to their fears. After all, your child is more likely to try a strategy that they thought of – at least partly – on their own.

For a younger or less verbal preschooler, offer several possible "fixes" for your child's dilemma, then ask them which they think might work. (See below for specific fears and possible solutions to try.)

5. Visit if you can

If your child is starting preschool or moving to another class, they may worry about unfamiliar surroundings. Help your child feel more comfortable by visiting their school and classroom before their first day.

If your child hasn't met their teacher yet, make the introductions and encourage your child to join in an activity or two. Help your child find the cubby or hook where they'll store their things, and let your child check out the tempting new toys or activity stations. That way, on the first day of school you can say, "Hey, now you can go back and play with that game you saw!"

Preschoolers often feel anxious about a new playground, especially if it feels big or has challenging equipment. To remedy this, you might be able to visit the school's playground after hours so your child can climb on the play equipment or ride their tricycle without the intimidating presence of other kids.

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The most common preschool fears, and how to ease them

Leaving you

On the first day of school, your child may well cry when you leave. In fact, your child may cry every morning for a few days, or even for a few weeks. It's an emotional process for both of you, and you may cry too, and that's normal! If possible, try not to cry in front of your child (we know it's hard). 

Don't panic or feel bad when your child cries, though. The truth is, their tears don't mean that they don't like their new school – in fact, your child may soon grow to love it. It's just that they don't want to be there without you.

It's common and developmentally appropriate for preschoolers to experience some separation anxiety. They're beginning to have a sense of time and know you won't be coming back to get them any minute, and that can be a tough realization. 

The first – and perhaps the hardest – thing you have to do is leave, as calmly as you can. Give your child a big hug, tell them you'll pick them up after lunch or nap, and then depart, even if you hear them wailing behind you. (If you see a meltdown coming, enlist a teacher's help in involving your child in a game or activity – or simply sitting with them until the emotion passes.)

Veteran teachers say the most common mistake parents make is to turn back or prolong good-byes until they turn into tearful marathons. Instead, leave promptly and message the teacher or school for an update an hour or two later. Chances are, you'll be comforted by a report that your child stopped crying soon after you left and has spent the morning playing with their new friends.

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It also helps to find out from the teacher what your preschooler did that day, and to talk about it with them when they get home: "So, you made a collage and played today?" Some parents also make a nightly ritual of naming their child's new school pals in a song, story, or prayer. Anything you can do to emphasize the daily routine will help your child adjust and quiet their fears.

Using a different potty

One of the toughest changes some kids face when starting preschool is learning to use a new bathroom. With so many preschools requiring kids to be potty trained before they're enrolled, using the bathroom can become the focus of a lot of stress – for both you and your child.

If you're panicking because a potty training deadline is fast approaching, take a deep breath – it may be time to rethink your strategy. First, call the school, explain the problem, and find out how hard and fast the rule really is. You may find that the school is open to exceptions, in which case request that your child be one of them.

It's not a good idea, experts say, to push a child to potty train before they're ready just to meet an arbitrary deadline. If the school holds firm and your child really isn't ready, you may need to consider holding them back a bit longer.

An alternative is to put your child in cotton underpants a few days before school starts, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Be prepared for accidents and send extra clothes to school ahead of time. Accidents are common and expected, but many children surprise everyone by staying dry (most of the time, at least) when inspired by a classroom full of potty-trained friends.

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Participating in a group

It might look like fun to us, but to new preschoolers who are participating for the first time, circle time can be, well, torture. Some kids might be overwhelmed by unfamiliar stories and songs or dread being called on to talk. If this is the case, work with your child's teacher to see if they can sit on the sidelines to observe circle time before participating.

One way to help your child weather the spotlight is to practice beforehand. On the way to school, for instance, you might ask, "What would you like to share today? Do you want to tell about the caterpillar you found?" Or, if circle time involves books, maybe ask your child's teacher if you can bring one from home to share. 

You might also want to ask the teacher for a list of songs the kids sing in class, then listen to them at home so they're familiar. Knowing all the words to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Wheels on the Bus" might encourage your child to jump in.

Making new friends

Preschoolers can be just as daunted by a roomful of strangers as the rest of us are. To help your child feel less shy, introduce them to as many of their future classmates as you can on your visits to the school.

If a school directory is available, consider using it to set up a playdate with other families that go to the school. Also, many preschools set up new-student meetups before school starts so kids can start getting to know each other.

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If one of your child's buddies will be in the same school or class, that's even better! Play up the friendship as much as you can, getting the kids together for playdates and emphasizing the fact that they'll both be going off to "big kid" school or moving up to a new class together. If possible, coordinate your schedules so both kids arrive at the same time on the first day and can walk in together.

As time goes on, keep snapshots of your child's school buddies on the refrigerator or in their room and talk about them often. After all, preschool is your child's home away from home, and when your child is there, these kids are their extended family.

Ultimately, this transition is a big one (for both you and your child), but with your support, your little one will likely be skipping into school in no time. 

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AAP. Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxieties. 2007. American Academy of Pediatrics. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Lily Jones

Lily Jones is an educator, writer, and mother. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and dog.