Education Nursery

Settling into Nursery without Tears

The first day in nursery is a big step for young children. It can be an emotional time not only for the children but also for their parents. This problem will be potentially be exacerbated for parents and children who have recently moved to a new country.

The period of adaptation to the school environment will be different for everyone. Some children will build relationships very quickly, which can make the process smoother. For other children who have never been cared for by anyone other than their parents, the process of building relationships can be slower due transition to the new environment, leading to common doubts and worries of the parents and children’s tears.

Sometimes, the experience of an alien environment can provoke a strong stress reaction. This inevitably will lead to tears, making some parents fearful of leaving their child, especially on the first day of school. As a parent, it is important to know that it is normal to have doubts and fears at the beginning of the schooling life of their child. Therefore, a successful settling in period is beneficial to both children and parents.

The British Association for Early Childhood Education defines the settling in period as the time before a child joins an Early Years centre. During this period children can visit the school premises with their parents and stay for a while to get to know the staff, the other children and their new environment. This transition is crucial for young children’s development and emotional wellbeing and the focus on this process should be parent/child – led. This means that the key person  (the main person who will guide the child during the settling in process) should go at the speed of the child because the settling in process could have a significant impact on the child’s capacity to cope with change in the short and long term.

To help your child adapt into their new environment, research consistently advocates adhering to the following steps – leading to a settling in period minus the tears.

Step 1

Talk about school

Prior to the child’s visit to the school, it is recommended that parents talk to the child about their visit.  It is important to explain to the child that they will join school soon. And that it is a place where he or she will learn new things, meet new friends and, most importantly, be safe.

It is helpful for the teachers to know the interests and background of the child so they can prepare a welcome activity for the child which helps to develop trust and relationships. For example, at the International School Zurich North, we have many children join us who speak neither English nor German at home. We work with the parents of such children to acquire a few words in the child’s mother tongue in order to provide a degree of reassurance and familiarity.

Step 2

Introduce the new environment and the key person

During the first visit the child will explore the room and play with the parent and the key person. When the adults observe that the child is relaxed and smiling, the parent should disengage from the activity but remain present in the room. Children need time to bond with their key person and to become familiar with the classroom routines and the environment in order to feel happy and safe. Several pre-start visits to the school may be necessary, don’t worry if things don’t go exactly as you would hope on day one.

Step 3

Agreed signal

Before starting Step 3, the parent and the teacher will agree a signal to indicate to the parent that they can now leave the space for a very short moment and then return – I usually use a simple ‘thumbs up’ which allows me to maintain my focus on the child.

This process will be repeated many times and will lead to the child being able to cope when the parent physically moves a short distance away and is not engaged with the play. The key person will watch how the child reacts and if the child looks relaxed and engaged with the play it means he or she is ready for the next step.

Step 4

Short separation

This step is critical to prepare the child for the separation from their parent. When the time is right, parents will come into the classroom with the child, but as soon as the child is engaged with games, the key person gives the signal, and the parent leaves the room or separates from the child for few minutes.

This step will tell the key person and the rest of the staff if the child can cope with a short separation. Some children might need many repetitions of this action before the child is ready, while other children might need only one. The important thing is not to rush. A good Early Years setting will understand this and be as flexible as necessary.

Step 5

Increasing the separation and learning to say goodbye to your child

This step is very important for the parent. In this step the Nursery staff will help the parent to learn to say goodbye to their child and to leave. Here the key person will give the parent the agreed signal in Step 3 and the parent will say to the child that they are just popping out to get a book to read so the parent stays out for few mins and comes back.

The stress and anxiety start the moment that the child does not see their parents which is why the key person and the parent have to be sure that the child is ready for the parent to leave for a few minutes. When we are sure that the child is ok for the parent to leave the room for a few minutes, the homeroom teacher or key person will know that the child is ready, and it will make no difference if the parent is gone for five minutes or an hour. It is at this point that a parent can say goodbye and the child will know that their parent will return.

Step 6

Once the child starts school it is important that the staff members provide the same routine the child experienced during the settling in period. I put a visual indicator of the daily routine on the board in my classroom to address the anxiety that can result – in children or adults – from uncertainty about what is ahead.

Step 7

Stay in touch

It is very important to build a strong communication channel between the parent and the school so that both parties know how the child is settling into Nursery. Some Nursery settings will send photos or videos through the day or send a text update or even a brief phone call to update if the parent wants particular reassurance. Parents can look forward to reading the communication book about their activities at the end of the day. Parents should discuss with the Nursery Staff beforehand to know the best ways to keep in touch.

Settling in your child gradually is often the best way, so they are given time to get used to the new environment, people and routines. Depending on your child’s needs, many nurseries will suggest a phased introduction, where you stay with your child for the first couple of short sessions.

Ultimately, it is the parents’ decision on how to make the settling in period easiest for their child.  But remember, even if you are crying inside at the thought of leaving your child all day, make sure your little one doesn’t pick up on your distress. A successful and tear-free start to a child’s schooling career is possible when parents and teachers work together in partnership.

About the Author

Juan Mejía is a teacher of Early Childhood Education at International School Zurich North, an international school based in Zurich, Switzerland. Juan has a bachelor’s degree in Infant Education and a Master’s degree in Neuroscience and Education. He has developed his professional career with teaching classes in international schools around the world. He believes that preschool education is a very important stage because it embeds the values that help us to mature happily and that the time in Early Years is indispensable for the development of socialisation skills.

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