Daycare or Preschool: Helping Your Child Adjust

How can I make sure my child feels ready for daycare or preschool?

For starters, remember that both you and your child will need time to get used to the new setup. Try to be patient; even if you make every effort to prepare your child, it will probably be a few days before she comes skipping over to you at pick-up time, more eager to show you her art project than to go home.

Here are some tips on what you can do beforehand:

  • Learn as much as possible about the daycare center or school before your child’s first day, so you can answer her questions about it. And make a point of telling her — without exaggeration or false enthusiasm — about one or two of the fun activities she’ll get to take part in, either in the classroom or on the playground.
  • Talk about the change calmly, expressing confidence that it’ll go well. Your child will pick up on your expectations — and probably fulfill them.
  • Visit the daycare center or classroom with your child before her first day. Introduce her to the director or teacher, and let her check out the place and people at her own pace. Hold off on urging her to talk or play until she’s had time to get comfortable.
  • Find a story about a child going to daycare or school for the first time, and read it together. Some good books are See You Later, Alligator, by Laura McGee Kvasnosky; Will You Come Back for Me? by Ann Tompert; Adam’s Daycare, by Julie Ovenell-Carter (most useful if your child, like Adam, will be going to a daycare based in someone’s home); and, for toddlers already fond of Carl the gentle rottweiler, Carl Goes to Daycare, by Alexandra Day. If your child is starting preschool, she’ll love Amanda Pig, Schoolgirl, by Jean Van Leeuwen; Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen; or Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, by Joseph Slate.
  • Introduce more structure to your child’s day during the weeks before she starts daycare or preschool. You can add “story time” right after lunch, for example, or “quiet time” after playing in the yard. If you take it a step further and adopt her program’s basic schedule for a couple of weeks before her first day, you’ll help her slip easily into the routine.
  • Give your child some practice in following directions, cooperating with others, picking up toys she’s used, and making choices. Turn the learning process into a game, if possible, or at least keep an easygoing attitude about it. (Most children will behave better for their teachers than for their parents, so don’t worry if your child resists.) The two of you can take turns putting pieces into a puzzle; you can give your child some fun instructions (“pick out a crayon, and draw a flower”) or even play Simon Says. When you present choices, be specific and limit the number of options (“Do you want to look at a picture book or play with blocks?”).

Here are some tips to help the first day go smoothly:

  • Many daycare centers allow and even encourage parents to spend some time there the first day (or first few days). You’re probably the best judge as to whether this would reassure your child or simply inhibit her interactions with the teacher and other kids.
  • If you think it might comfort your child, ask her to pick out a beloved toy to take along. If the program has rules against this, suggest that she bring a photo of you or of the family pet, or let her choose something that reminds her of you — a hair clip you wear often, one of your gloves.
  • If you’re starting a job or going back to work when your child enters her program, explain what you’ll be doing while she’s there.
  • Sometimes kids worry that their parents won’t be able to find them. Make sure your child understands that you know how to get to the center or school from wherever you’ll be, and that you know how to call the place as well. You may also want to mention that the grown-ups in charge will be able to call you if it’s ever necessary.
  • Be clear about who will pick her up and when. Find out from the director or teacher what the last event of the day will be, and tell your child that she’ll see you after the group does this activity.
  • Never sneak away when it’s time to say goodbye, even if she’s having a great time. Give her a quick kiss (as long as it won’t embarrass her) and a cheerful “See you after the sing-along.” If she cries, screams, or clings to you, be supportive (“I know this is a little scary”) but firm and calm. It’s often helpful to develop a brief goodbye ritual — waving through the window or blowing a kiss from the doorway — so your child knows what to expect and you’re not swayed to drag it out.
  • Once you’ve left, don’t come back until it’s time for your child to go home.
  • Arrive a little early to pick her up during the first week or so, and from then on, take steps to ensure you’re never late. Two minutes of waiting can seem excruciating to a child when “all the other kids” are gleefully greeting their parents.

How can I tell if my child is adjusting?

On the way home, ask your child what was fun or special about the day. Ask which kids she likes playing with. Don’t ignore the negative, though: If she hints that she doesn’t like something or someone, encourage her to tell you about it.

If your child isn’t forthcoming, don’t pester her. Just stay open to anything she wants to say. Take every opportunity to visit the center or school and to have a friendly chat with the adults in charge. Instead of telling them how you think your child is getting along, ask their opinions and show that you’re open to suggestions on how you might help your child have the best possible experience.

What if my child has trouble adjusting?

Be patient. Some kids cry at every parting — or every reunion — for a while. Ask the director or teacher whether your child seems to be enjoying herself the rest of the time. Here are some other suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t criticize the instructors or program in front of your child. If she hears you complaining about the pick-up rules or saying that her teacher is thick (even if she doesn’t know what that means), she’ll feel uneasy and resist settling in. She needs to feel that you approve of the place and trust the people she spends so much time with.
  • Keep your child’s attendance regular. If you let her skip preschool because she begged for a day at home or stayed up too late the night before, she’ll likely give you problems any time she doesn’t quite feel like going. It’s actually tougher on most kids if they think they have some choice in the matter; each morning they stew over whether to raise a fuss about staying home. Make it clear that you expect her to go unless she’s too sick.
  • If your child continues to be anxious, try to find out if there’s a specific issue. She may be at odds with another child in her group, or perhaps she has misunderstood a rule and fears she can’t comply with it. If she’s having trouble making friends, see if she’d like to invite other children in the program over on the weekend. Watch how she plays with other kids: Does she show off, boss them around, or try too hard to make them like her? While it’s a bit painful to recognize disagreeable behavior in your own child, it can offer a good opportunity to guide her gently toward developing social skills.

Further Resources

National Institute of Child Health & Human Development


Pantell, Robert H. M.D., James F. Fries M.D., and Donald M. Vickery M.D. Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent’s Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care, Eighth Edition. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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