Sam had both arms wrapped tightly around his mother as she opened the door on his first day of preschool. He took a quick peek at the classroom before seeking refuge behind her again. Sam knew his mom was going to leave. She’d been telling him for weeks how much fun he would have at school yet all he felt was terrified.
“Good morning Sam”, I said. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Sam’s mom helped him put his backpack and coat in his cubby.
“I don’t want to stay,” he said. His mom showed him the block area. Although he loved building blocks Sam was smart enough to know his best bet of getting out was to not let go of his mother not even to build colorful block towers.Bravery is doing something frightening. The first days of preschool can require immense bravery for both parent and child.
After hugs and reassuring words, Sam’s mom leaves and the tears he tried to hold back start to flow. “Your face looks really sad,” I said quietly. “I want my mom,” he sputtered. “I know. Your mom will come back after we sing the goodbye song.” “I don’t want to sing, I want to go home”.
Sydney, another student comes over to see what was happening. “Why is he crying?” “Would you like to ask him? His name is Sam.” “Sam, why are you crying?” she whispered. “I want to go home.” he cries. “Oh, he wants to go home,” she tells me matter-of-factly. Sometimes a child’s transition is eased by their peers. By another child asking why they are sad. By offering a hug or asking them to play.
“Sam, would you like to make a note for your mom?” I encouraged. He hesitantly agrees and begins drawing purple circles. “My mom likes purple,” he says quietly. “What color do you like?” “I like blue.” Sam added blue circles to his note. “What words would you like me to write for your mom?” “I was sad. I made circles for you,” he replies. After writing his words I read them back to him, “I was sad. I made circles for you.”Sometimes having a place to put their feelings helps a child move on. For Sam knowing his words, “I was sad” was written down helped those feelings subside at least for awhile.
“Would you like to know what we are going to do before your mom comes back?” I ask. Sam nods. “First we are going to play.” On an empty piece of paper I draw a picture of a block tower. “Next we’ll clean up for circle time and I’ll read a book.” I draw a book next to the block tower. “We always have snack at preschool. Today we are having apples and graham crackers.” I add a picture of an apple next to the book and tower.
I continue on until all the activities for the day are on his list. “The last thing we do is sing our goodbye song.” I draw a happy face. “That’s your momma’s face. She’ll be so happy to hear about your day.” “But my mom has curly hair,” Sam said so I add curls to her face. Throughout the day as we accomplished each item he scribbled the picture off his list. Since time is an emerging concept for preschoolers, having something concrete, like a picture list gives a greater understanding of the time. Sam’s confidence in his ability to navigate the world of preschool grew each time he completed a portion of the day.
At our closing circle I ask, “Does anyone remember being sad when you first came to school?” Hands shoot up as kids eagerly share their stories. Some have forgotten their initial trepidation and insist they were never scared. “Well, remember we can’t stay at preschool forever,” I remind them. “We don’t have beds, pajamas or even toothbrushes here.” This silly idea makes them laugh at the absurdity of staying somewhere without these bedtime necessities.Hearing you are not alone in feeling sad and scared is comforting. Sam was beginning to see that if other kids were able to move from being sad to being happy, maybe he could too. Finding ways to laugh together builds community and friendships.
After singing our goodbye song I notice Sam look around to see if his mom really did come back. I imagine him thinking, “Okay Teacher Teresa let’s see if you were telling me the truth.” Both Sam and his mom do make it through the first day of preschool. He shows her his note and proudly says, “I made purple and blue circles for you when I was sad.”Building trust between a teacher and student is so important. Can I trust you to keep your word? Can I trust you to take care of me?
Each child’s transition into preschool is as unique as they are. Some burst through the door on their first day of school already feeling at home. Others enter timidly with a mix of excitement and dread. Some use words to express how they feel. Some are comforted by hugs and reassuring words. Others need space to observe from a safe distance. Eventually they all need to have their feelings acknowledged and to feel safe and cared for. Teachers are blessed to travel with a child as they build their wall of bravery.
Sam may need more days of bravery before preschool is a place he looks forward to. There may be more tears before he enters on his own instead of hiding behind his mom. We may have more silly conversations and picture lists to cross off before he runs into class with a huge grin on his face asking, “Did you miss me when I was gone?”