Preschool Preparation: How to Reduce Tears, Tantrums and Separation Anxiety for your Child (and Yourself)

The first day of preschool may be a milestone in your child’s life that results in conflicting emotions for you as a parent, and upheaval in your child’s everyday routine.  It is normal for you to have mixed emotions, including feeling sad and nostalgic, as you prepare your child for the first day of preschool.  Being prepared can help you and your child make the transition easier, and paves the way for a positive preschool experience.  Please refer to the Parenting Tool Box to help prepare your child for preschool and to reduce the tears, tantrums and separation anxiety for both of you.


1. Manage Your Own Emotions- It is normal for you and your child to feel anxious about starting preschool, but it is important for you to be calm, positive and confident about going to school.  Your child can pick up on your tone, your body language and your attitude, so be aware of the messages you are sending. 

2. Read Books about Preschool Together- There are many books about going to preschool, but make sure the message is positive and will benefit your child.  In researching preschool books, I found some that can actually create more anxiety or fear despite the fact that the book is meant to be positive.  I always recommend that my clients read the reviews and excerpts to make a more informed decision.

Several preschool book recommendations:

  • Preschool Day Hooray- Strauss
  • The Kissing Hand- Penn
  • I Love You All Day Long- Rusackas
  • Maisy Goes to Preschool- Cousins

3. Visit the Preschool with Your Child and Meet the Teacher- This allows your child to actually see and experience the school itself, and gives your child an idea of what to expect the first day.   Hopefully your child will also have the opportunity to meet the teacher and perhaps even meet some of the children in the classroom or on the playground.

4. Personalized Preschool Picture Album- This idea comes from Stephanie, founder of Modern Parents, Messy Kids (MPMK), or as Stephanie acknowledges, from “a friend of a friend.”  The idea is to take photos of your child’s preschool, label them and make them into a personalized book to read and look at with your child.  What an awesome idea- wish I had thought of that!  You might include photos of the teacher(s), the play area, lunchtime, naptime, reading corner, playground, crafts table, drop off area, ride on toys, etc.  See the MPMK website for Steph’s fantastic example of the book she made for her own preschooler.  The Power of Moms website is also a fabulous resource for busy mom’s.  Be sure to check it out to find a wealth of ideas and suggestions!

5. Create a Kid Friendly Calendar- Kids like to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and who will be there, just as much as adults like to know these things.  It gives your child a sense of control, which is why children do well with routines and structure.  Make a kid friendly calendar using stickers and pictures that will show your child what and when certain things will happen.  For example, if you intend to pick up your child after nap time, use an appropriate sticker or picture to illustrate that. 

6. Enroll Your Child in a Group Activity-  Allow your child to participate in a group activity, especially if it is a “class” with a teacher and students, such as dance class, gymnastics, art class or sports.  This gives your child the opportunity to experience rules, taking turns, listening to the teacher/coach, sharing, and the concept of having to interact with new children and adults.  Stay in the background if possible and encourage your child’s independence and willingness to try new activities.

7. Preschool Supplies- Allow your child to pick out a new backpack, lunch box, nap time mat or other appropriate preschool supplies.  The school may even allow your child to bring something of comfort from home to help ease the transition, such as a special stuffed animal, doll or blanket.  However, some schools may discourage this and you have to take into account that the special item may get lost or ruined.  Personally, I would recommend a different solution…. see #15.

8. Set Up the Preschool Routine-   Set up consistent times for meals, naps, bath and bedtime and stick to the schedule as much as possible.  Your child will be reassured by the predictability of the routine, and it will help prepare your child for the structure of preschool.  It also helps your child understand the concept that there are specific times for different activities.   In school your child will not be able to play, eat, or snack whenever she wants, and will have to follow directions from the teacher.

9. Help Your Child with Transitions-   Many children struggle with transitions both at home and at school.  You may give your child verbal reminders: “after we finish reading this book, it is time to take a bath,” or “when the timer goes off, it is time to brush your teeth.”   Use of sounds, bells, timers, alerts as well as verbal reminders will also be helpful.

10. Communicate with the School and the Teachers- Attend a parent teacher night if it is offered.  Ask as many questions as needed to make sure you understand how to prepare your child for the first days and weeks of preschool.  Be sure to clarify where to drop off the child and which teacher will be there.  If you are dropping your child off prior to class time, ask if your child will be in the same classroom with the same teacher, or in a different room with a different teacher.  This should be explained ahead of time to both you and your child.

11. Songs and Games-   Ask the school and teachers if they can share a list of the most common songs and games played in school.  It might be fun for your child to learn some of the songs and games ahead of time before school starts.  Think how proud your child will be when it is time to participate.  Don’t worry- there will still be plenty of things to learn.

12. Emphasize Pretend Play and FUN-  Most children love to pretend play, and that is why doll houses, tents, forts, kitchens, dream houses, and race cars are so popular.  Perhaps your child will love to play school, and may even want to be the teacher, reading you a book and telling you what project to do next.  If your child is interested, tell your child you will be the student and he/she can be the teacher.  If nothing else, once school has started, this is a great way to find out what is going on in school!

13. First Day of School- Preparing for the first day actually begins the day before.  Prepare everything ahead of time to save the hassle and stress of getting organized in the morning.  Remember that your own stress and anxiety will negatively affect your child, so make sure there is enough time to get dressed, eat breakfast and get to school on time.

14. Second Day of School Depending on how your child did on the first day, the second day may be easy or more difficult than the first day.  However, your calm and reassuring attitude will communicate to your child that you have confidence in the school and the teachers. 

15. Separation Anxiety-   It is normal for you and your child to experience separation anxiety.  As a parent, it is crucial for you to be calm, reassuring, firm and consistent when saying goodbye.  Create a short and sweet goodbye ritual that is comforting, while at the same time, reminding your child when you will be back to pick him/her up.  Perhaps you can put a sticker or picture in the child’s lunchbox to visually remind the child when you will return.  Don’t linger and prolong the goodbye, as it is more likely to escalate the distress for both you and your child.  If your child is having a very difficult time, discuss the situation with your child’s teacher and ask for specific and concrete suggestions.   In the book recommended below, Pantley recommends using a magic bracelet to help your child feel connected to you, which will provide comfort and reassurance throughout the day.  This is the solution I referred to in #7 above.

If you need extra help with separation anxiety, I recommend the book:

The No Cry Separation Anxiety Solution: Gentle Ways to Make Good-bye Easy From Six Months to Six Years – Elizabeth Pantley (2010)

16. Starting Preschool in Summer or Fall- There are probably pros and cons as to when to start your child in preschool.  Some children might benefit from starting in the summer where there is more time to play and have fun, and will not be bothered by changing classrooms or teachers when preschool starts in the fall.  Other children may do better starting in the fall, when there is more structure and less change, due to teachers and staff on summer vacation.

Here’s to a good start to preschool.  And one more thing, don’t forget the Kleenex!