Parents can help children prepare for their first encounter with formal education -- full- or half-day kindergarten -- with "rehearsals," encouragement, extra attention and patience, advises Elizabeth Timberlake, associate professor of social work at Catholic University and the author of dozens of articles on early childhood education.
Timberlake, 47, who sees children and their families in her clinical practice, says parents and preschoolers often face the kindergarten passage with some anxiety.
"It's the first time a teaching group really observes what kind of a job the parents did in raising their child . . . Parents wonder, 'How is my child going to reflect in the outside world? Will this group I'm turning my child over to teach my child the values I want him to have? Will they nurture and protect him as I would? . . .' "
Among measures she suggests to allay fears and make the transition easier:
*Share your excitement about this step in the child's growth toward independence. "Children need to feel excitement about going to kindergarten, that it's an opportunity, that it's fun and creative."
*Visit the school. Take the child to play on the school grounds. Meet the teacher ahead of time, when possible.
*Have your child meet other children who will be in his or her class.
*Stage one or more "rehearsals." Make a game of going through the school day ahead of time, complete with snack time and rest time, perhaps in a play group with other children. Before the first day of class, rehearse the logistics of getting to school and back.
*Try to give children extra attention before they leave for school and on their return, when they may want to share their day. Allow for an adjustment period, especially if it's an all-day program.
Timberlake, who admits she's "ambivalent" about full-day kindergarten, says, "It's a physically tiring day and it's an emotionally tiring day for a child of that age to have to develop his natural body rhythms into the fairly rigid pattern of nap time, play time, eat time that has to go on in a group living situation . . .
"One of the things we need to sensitize parents to is that their children may come home at the end of the day tired, cranky, worn out and starved for parental attention. The parent, meanwhile, comes home from work tired, having to put supper on the table and not always sure he or she has the energy to focus on the child. It's important for parents to try to come up with a way they can do their daily chores at a time other than when they first get home from work. That's the time when parents and child need to be together."