When it comes to significant life transitions, sending a child to day care or preschool for the first time nearly tops the list. These sweeties are the center of our universe, after all, and leaving them in another person’s care after an extended period of bonding at home presents a range of emotions, questions, and decisions that few new parents anticipate or feel equipped to manage.
As precious as that one-on-one time together is, every child eventually needs to explore the world, and brief separations from parents are a normal, healthy part of growing up. Everyone wins when parents do their homework, carefully evaluating their family’s situation and needs before comparing care options. Whether choosing part-time infant care or preparing for a full-day preschool, maintaining a positive attitude during this process is key to securing the best experience for your child.
“There are many resources to help you on this journey,” says Jackie Baker, a licensed teacher who lives in Sterling. When Baker’s own children were young, she left a full-time elementary teaching position in order to teach at her children’s preschool, Classroom of Discovery in Sterling, where she later became the director. Baker is now finishing a master’s program in reading education at the University of Virginia. She remains the director at Classroom of Discovery while also working as an English Language Learners teacher for Loudoun County Public Schools, giving her broad knowledge of care options for young learners.
The Hardest Goodbye
“A degree of separation anxiety is normal when being apart for the first time, but children who are in loving environments with consistent routines and structures tend to do very well,” says Baker. “The best thing a parent can do when dropping a child off on the first day is to try to keep their own composure, which I know is hard, so keep it short and sweet,” she advises. “Tell your child that their teachers will keep them safe at school while they play, explore, and make new friends, and assure them that you will return to pick them up. Then give a quick goodbye, but do not sneak away. If your child sees you getting upset or anxious, you are sending them the message that school is not a safe place, so it is important to stay positive, reassuring, and calm.”
According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years, when children are building foundations for social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive growth. The Virginia Department of Education is a great resource for parents seeking affordable high-quality childcare, as it supports birth-to-age-5 programming, including the Virginia Preschool Initiative, Early Childhood Special Education, the Head Start Collaboration Office, childcare centers, and family day homes.
“When choosing a center or school, ask for recommendations from friends and family or through social media and online parent forums,” advises Baker. “Make a list and visit each location with your child, but most of all, trust your gut.”
Choosing Day Care
The first goodbye is often for day care, sometimes when the child is just a few weeks old, and the choices can be overwhelming. Obvious considerations are location, operating hours, and tuition rates, but parents should also search for a setting that is safe, healthy, fun, and stimulating. Evaluate each option with your senses. Do you see a clean room with appropriate toys and equipment? Does the room smell fresh, or do you detect odors? Does the temperature feel comfortable? Do you hear kind staff voices engaging with children? Does the food on the day’s menu taste good? Better facilities often operate at maximum capacity with waitlists, so begin searching at least a few months before returning to work.
Some parents are more comfortable having someone they know care for their children in their own home. The benefits include a greater sense of security and more flexible hours and costs, but it will be up to the parent to determine if the provider is following protocols that are standard in regulated day care centers. Be clear in expectations. Even with relatives, ask the caregiver to get certified in CPR and first aid, and verify their immunizations. Discuss and provide written instructions about food storage, feedings, allergy concerns, handwashing and general sanitation, safe sleep conditions for infants (sleeping on back, without bumpers, bedding, or stuffed animals), television and computer screen time limits, and indoor and outdoor supervision. Write out, discuss, and come to a mutual agreement on how to handle payments for vacations as well as sick and bad weather days.
Family Child Care Homes
Some parents prefer home-based care because the hours and rates can be more flexible, there are often fewer children present, and siblings of different ages can be in the same program. Ask to see the provider’s license, credentials, and inspection reports, and make certain every adult living, working, or volunteering at the home has had a comprehensive background check. Ask about teacher-student ratios, and make periodic unannounced visits. “Look for a center with an open-door policy for parents,” suggests Baker.
Day Care Centers
Day care centers generally operate out of nonresidential buildings, have a dedicated director and multiple staff, and enroll more children. These centers are the most regulated and inspected for ratios and health and safety standards, more adults are present, and there are generally more activity opportunities and play equipment. Baker recommends asking how the center promotes social-emotional development and pro-social behaviors. “Look out for large class sizes and high staff turnover, too,” she adds.
Head Start, Early Head Start, and Special Needs
Virginia offers Head Start and Early Head Start — free, federally funded programs designed to promote school readiness for children from low-income families. For children with disabilities, Virginia offers early childhood services as part of its special education program.
There are before- and after-school options plus holiday and summer care opportunities through public and private schools, community centers, parks and recreation programs, and commercial day care centers. In all cases, continue to ask about licenses, ratios, health and safety compliance, and weather closure policies.
Ready for Preschool
Preschool programs typically focus on school readiness, helping children ages 2 to 5 learn to follow routines, listen to directions, and play and work well with others while developing motor and academic skills that will help them transition to kindergarten. The choices are wide — part time, full time, for profit, nonprofit, faith based, play based, and academics based — so be sure to ask each director about the school’s teaching philosophy and lesson plans. Also take note if the school offers scholarships or opportunities to exchange parent volunteer hours for reduced tuition, and find out if potty training is a requirement for enrollment.
“Programs and philosophy vary, so schedule a visit during school operating hours to see if it’s a fit for your child,” says Baker. “At Classroom of Discovery, we believe that children best learn literacy and numeracy skills through play, and we maintain low ratios and small class sizes while having an open-door policy for parents. It’s important to decide what’s best for your child.
Great ways to prepare for that first day of preschool
- Practice short separations beforehand, leaving your child with a trusted person for play dates or while you run errands.
- Schedule a visit to the school with your child, taking time to explore the equipment and engage with the other children.
- Encourage problem-solving at home by giving your child a chance to figure out how to get around obstacles or handle conflicts with playmates (under safe supervision).
- Read books about preschool and talk about school as a fun, positive experience.
- Practice self-help by patiently teaching your child to pull up pants, unzip coats and backpacks, open a lunch box, or put on shoes, hats, and gloves.
- Attend children’s programs at libraries and museums to develop the ability to focus and sit quietly within a group for short periods of time.