Starting preschool is a significant milestone in a child’s life, their first step toward independence and formal school. Although filled with infinite possibilities, it is often an emotional time for children and their families. How can educators, in these early years of schooling, support children to take the necessary steps away from their parents and caregivers with confidence? While there are many different ways to welcome children to your setting, the following four tips may be ones that you have not considered. The key is to have fun with them and make them your own!
Tip 1: Social Story
Social stories are a fabulous tool to share information with parents, caregivers, and, most important, children. Originally designed for children with autism, social stories can be adapted for all children to support their social and emotional learning. Create a social story that brings your preschool to life, use language that is appealing to your audience, and include pictures to add meaning to the information that you want to share. Stories may include a picture of your preschool, images of teachers, and interesting places or materials that are part of your daily routine. The story becomes a resource to help children prepare to be members of your learning community, to see the environment, and to understand the daily schedule. I have made social stories as Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and, more recently, as a short video to send to families two weeks prior to starting school.
Tip 2: Waving Windows
Drop-off time, when students have to separate from the people they love, can be one of the hardest parts of the preschool day for everybody, including parents, children, and early childhood professionals. One way to support children as they say goodbye is to establish some waving windows where children can go to wave one last goodbye or blow a kiss to their caregiver. This special place gives children some autonomy and space to say goodbye to their carers. Using the waving windows can also become a familiar routine that assists young students with processing their feelings. In my classroom, this area was set up at a long window facing the school gate that was near the classroom door. It was decorated with pictures of families and artwork made by the children. I have seen other programs utilize the outside hallway of the classroom, brightened by a huge banner with the words “Kiss and Drop” and colorful images of children and adults waving goodbye. Ideally, it should be a place where caregivers can say goodbye without entering the classroom.
Tip 3: Stable Groupings
Early learning environments include many opportunities for collaborative learning. Literacy groups, rotation stations, and science projects are some good examples. Take these opportunities to facilitate relationships between children who otherwise may not choose to work together because of their difference in experience in backgrounds. To do this, set up stable groups of children with intention—groups that are not based on ability and that are formed to give children an opportunity to work for a sustained period of time with others from different backgrounds. The model supports students to build their collaborative skills and have the time to practice working/collaborating with others. For example, in literacy circles, you can assign each student the role of noticer, wonderer, learner, or explorer. Here’s how we put those roles to work discussing the book Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt De La Peña.
Student A (Noticer): “I noticed that there were lots of different shapes in the pictures—arches, squares, circles, and rectangles.”
Student B (Wonderer): “I wondered where all the people were going on the bus.”
Student C (Learner): “I learned that you can learn all sorts of things on a bus.”
Student D (Surpriser): “I was surprised that they could have a concert on the bus.”
Each group shares their responses with the class as part of a whole-group conversation.
Tip 4: Preschool for Puppets!
Have a puppet join your preschool at the beginning of the year. Puppets can contribute to a positive classroom environment and create a playful atmosphere. Children delight in puppets, and their physical presence can motivate and engage them in a range of learning opportunities. Puppets also open up opportunities for the educator to better hear the needs of their students. When a child and adult communicate through a puppet, a three-way conversation occurs that can be less confrontational for a child because it doesn’t require them to communicate directly with the adult.
Here are a few potential times of the year to involve a puppet in supporting the social and emotional learning of your students. At the beginning of the school year, educators can invite the puppet to share how it feels about starting school and invite it to share its interests and its favorite and least favorite parts of the day. When the puppet is given this permission, children may be able to identify with the puppet and be more willing to express their views.
The puppet can also provide children with a voice to engage in conversations with adults and other children about other school matters, such as testing, returning after vacations, or other significant events. The magic of the puppet in this situation is that it provides a distance or protection because it is not the child speaking—it is the puppet. Educators can gain insight about the children in their care. Use the puppet to ask open-ended questions. An example may be to set up a scenario in which the puppet is joining school and feeling a little nervous. After setting up this situation with the children and introducing the puppet, invite them to help the puppet with a question such as, “I wonder how we can help our new friend learn about our school.”
The answers from your little “experts” will amaze you, and you can continue to draw on these ideas to welcome the children to your program. The puppet can also be part of the steps above and be included in the social story, a friend to wave goodbye with at the waving window or a member of each of the learning groups, helping children move confidently into this wonderful phase of their life.