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Practical Wisdom on Starting Preschool -- and Much More
Here's what
Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum
shared with

The authors of the excellent book, Practical Wisdom for Parents, talk to about the challenges of starting preschool, parent worries, and the school application process.

Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum served as the co-directors of the well-respected 92nd Street Y Nursery School and have a combined 60 years of experience as educators. How can parents help children adjust to starting school?

Ellen Birnbaum: Routines at home provide a sense of what school is like. It also helps to visit the school, learn the names of the teachers and if possible, have a photo of them. Before school starts we help the parents and children become familiar with what to expect on the first days of school. Reading books about starting school, like My First Day of Nursery School by Becky Edwards. In Practical Wisdom for Parents you describe several different transition styles of preschoolers when they adjust to school. What are some of the common threads when the separation goes well.

Nancy Schulman: The separation goes well when the parent is relaxed and confident. It sends a positive message to the child, and helps transfer trust to the teacher. We give parents as much information as possible to help them know what to anticipate. Parents need to know that it’s okay for a child to cry a bit -- that’s one of the ways young children express their feelings. Teachers know how to comfort them, and expect it to take time to adjust. Things will be okay. If separation is difficult, good communication the school will help.

There are some approaches we’ve found work well. Be sure to be on time for arrival and dismissal. Make sure to greet the teachers in a friendly way, and please, turn off your cell phone. Say a short goodbye to your child, but don’t wait for a response. And don’t feel guilty. You are giving your child a gift.

Ellen Birnbaum: There are things you can do at home, too. It helps to have a calm, unhurried bedtime and morning routine so everyone gets to school feeling calm. Do you see parents worrying more now than in the past?

Ellen Birnbaum: Yes, they worry about their children’s safety and are anxious about their children succeeding. September 11 created a lot of underlying anxiety for parents. Also, there are now so many do’s and don’ts about health risks. Extended families aren’t around as much, so the grandparents may not be available to provide support and reassurance. Parents working long hours often feel guilty and stressed and expect a lot of themselves. How do you provide reassurance?

Nancy Schulman: We tell parents that raising children is not a sprint but a marathon. They don’t have to be perfect. There are only two things that are most important – loving your child for who he is and setting limits.

Ellen Birnbaum: You don’t need to give your kids everything at once. Wait for them to be ready. They don’t need so much so early. They need time with you and time to play. How do you convey to parents that what they do is more powerful than what they say?

Nancy Schulman: Kids are always watching and listening. They want their parents’ approval and they like to imitate what parents do. As adults we’re often not aware of our own behavior, or the example we’re setting. How do you feel about “helicopter parents?”

Nancy Schulman: It’s problematic when parents hover too closely because it inhibits children’s ability to be independent and solve problems for themselves. Going to preschool gives children the opportunity to learn how to be an individual apart from the parent and learn to be part of a group. Cell phones have contributed to parents feeling the need to always be in touch. What about all the specialists and classes?

Ellen Birnbaum: Children don’t need to be over programmed with too many organized activities. They thrive on downtime, especially when they’ve been in school all day. For instance, instead of cooking classes children can cook with their parents.

Nancy Schulman: Parents are feeling pressured to have their children master skills at an earlier age. If children are doing too many of these classes, they get burnt out and lose interest later on. We suggest no more than one activity for 3 year olds and 2 for 4 year olds. Children get very tired and need time for play. You deal with the school application process each year. How can a parent explain the interview to a child?

Nancy Schulman: Even if the parents are loaded with anticipation and anxiety, for the children it’s a chance to play. Parents can describe what the experience will be like – for instance mentioning that there will be blocks and puzzles. Be positive. Look happy and interested. Kids will pick up your vibe.

Ellen Birnbaum: Also, don’t speak for your child – let your child speak for himself. Trust that the professionals know that children have different styles, and that there are some who need time to warm up. With preschool spots so tight in your school and other schools, how can parents keep from taking “rejection” personally?

Nancy Schulman: It’s really hard. This is often the first time the parent can’t control an outcome. But it isn’t rejection. Parents need to understand that there are lots of wonderful schools and not invest so much in any one place. They need to keep in mind that schools give siblings priority and schools try to find a balance between boys and girls. It can be a painful process and there are many wonderful schools that can provide an excellent first school experience. We remind parents that they are the most important influence in their child’s life. What do you find impresses you in a parent?

Ellen Birnbaum: We’re impressed with the parent who is supportive of a child’s being himself. It’s great to see the parent who accepts a child as he is, and doesn’t have unrealistic expectations. A parent who encourages a child’s independence by teaching self-help skills and setting clear limits is the most impressive.

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Copyright© 2008 Dr. Istar Schwager
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