Parents' Anxiety about Starting Preschool

Parent Q&A

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  • Considering sending my daughter to nursery school for the first time at 2.5. She has been with me full time since birth. She has always been very attached. She now has a secure attachment to another caregiver (my best friend) who she spends 4 hours with each week, and would happily do more. But that is much different than a group setting, with masked teachers (we are considering a small private school with 10 kids in the classroom). Does anyone have experience with separating for 5 hour stretches at 2.5, with a highly sensitive child? I am strong proponent of the RIE philosophy but am not finding anything relevant via Lansbury. I believe my concern in this area is far from the mainstream so I am looking particularly for people who have a similar experience/situation (my mom said, "what do you mean, just drop her off and tell her you'll be back later."). Thank you!

    Hearts Leap is a preschool that has a very loving, attachment-focused approach to caregiving. Could be a good option! 

    My son was with me exclusively til he was 15 months old (so a different situation) but I was also worried about his transition to part-time daycare, and the provider suggested I take him there to play before dropping him off. It was over the summer during Covid so I wore a mask and we primarily played while the children were outside. The first time I took my son he clung to me and didn’t want to leave my lap. Then he gradually warmed up. We ended up visiting every day for two weeks, and then doing a trial drop off for 30 minutes and then a couple longer trial drop offs. I’m not sure if that whole process was necessary but by the time I did drop my son off it went incredibly smoothly and he didn’t even cry. Every child and situation is different but I felt this worked for us. Good luck!

    Not exactly the same situation as you, but I'm also a fan of Janet Lansbury and RIE and also spent a significant time as my daughter's sole caregiver before she turned 2 - she was with me at home until age 1, then had a nanny she adored for 6 months until COVID forced us to end the nanny relationship, leaving her home with me and my husband while we attempted to continue working, and then we started at a preschool in September right as she turned 2. We decided to send her for the full day and I was worried how she'd do since she's never had a regular playgroup or anything even remotely like a daycare or school setting. There were a couple of things the school did that I think helped tremendously with the transition, and maybe you could ask for something similar. First, they sent a teacher to each new child's house the week before we started, for an outdoor, masked meet-and-greet, and the teacher brought a stuffed animal that my daughter would be able to recognize in the classroom on her first day (to this day we still hear about "puppy"!). Then they had a 30-minute window the day before school started for her to come into the classroom with both parents, see all the fun toys, and meet the teachers (no other kids were there at the same time). On the first day she barely looked back when we did the curbside dropoff, which we hadn't practiced before. Was not phased at all by the masks and was perfectly fine keeping hers on all day. I was shocked! She didn't nap for a couple of days but by day 3 or 4 she was napping at school. I know every kid is different so I hope you have a smooth transition and that your daughter loves school! :)

    We parent our 2.5 year old also following RIE, and though a different situation, I recently consulted my friend who is a clinical psychologist specializing in attachment, transitions, and trauma, to chat about some of my anxieties about my 2.5 year old going through a lot of transitions (caregivers, a hospitalization, and settings) beyond our control! I don't know if this helps at all, but my friend was quick to reassure me that if a child has a strong primary attachment (you!), other transitions and attachments (which will of course, still be hard) will come from that base attachment. And that these new challenges will build a healthy resilience. The counter example was heartbreaking studies of foster children without primary attachments, who then were unable to form strong attachments even with consistent school or daycare. Anyway, I'm not a psychologist myself, so I'm translating what I have heard, but I can assure you as a mom that my sensitive 2.5 year old has gone through a lot more transitions than I have wanted, but she's done great after each adjustment period (which for us has been about 2-3 weeks of more tantrums, sleep disruptions) and it's helped me to keep this bigger picture in mind. More practically, I would graduate that transition time if you can? Start with 1-2 hours, work up to the 5 over the course of a few days?

    We are a RIE family too and I also sent my son to preschool around that age. The first week is tough on you and the child then you both start to adjust. The thing I found helpful was to think about how your child can handle this challenge. She will have lots of challenges in her life and you will be there to support her and comfort her but you don’t need to fix everything for her. That helped me that first week. I reminded myself that it is hard but my boy can do it and he did and he has been a self confident kid that loves school ever since! Good luck. 

    Hey there, I think i understand exactly where you are coming from. My son started preschool at 2 years + 2 months, and he always had a lot of difficulty separating from me (mom). His preschool was very kind and understanding, and one teacher in particular took on the special role of being his primary "person" there for him to bond with in the classroom. They were also OK with us spending some extra time with him at school in the mornings (the first week or so), like hours even. He went 3 days/wk for 9 hrs/day. That might not be allowed for you now, in Covid times; our current preschool doesn't allow parents past the doorway, so that's something to ask about.

    Otherwise, I would do LOTS of prep with her - look up and read all the books that will be helpful. We used 'The Kissing Hand' all throughout preschool, and again now with my 2nd son. And finally, just know that some kids will have a hard time saying bye at preschool, for a lot longer than "normal". It's a bell curve. My son was sad (to varying degrees) at drop-off all thru his preschool years, and into elementary school. He isn't sad all day, he just has a hard time saying goodbye. It's just the way he's built. Good luck!

    It has been a few years since our kids attended Broadway Children's School, starting with the two-year-old program.

    At that time (it may still be operative), the two-year-olds had only two hours of separation from the parents.  They got a bite-size dose of socialization, enough so they found friends they wanted to have play dates with. But it was not such a long stretch of time that anyone got fatigued and behaved badly.

    The program included a "parents' meeting" with the school director for an hour or so, which was pleasant socialization for the moms (and occasional dads) as well.  Meanwhile, the teachers were reinforcing hand-washing routines and singing songs with the children.

    That IMHO describes an ideal situation.

    Would it be possible to start with a two-hour "workday" for your little one, and gradually ramp up the time?

    Some kids would be fine with five hours, others would not be.

    We found, and I believe this is common, that after the moment of separation is concluded, most kids take an interest in the preschool and start to play and interact.  If the child is really unhappy about being there, they will tell you clearly in words or actions.

    Just a note RE the school side of things: Talk to them about what their procedures are for new students, if you haven't already. Our preschool won't just let parents of new students drop them off and leave on the first day; we had to spend quite a few days at the school with her to help her adjust (and this was for our child who had been in small daycare settings since she was 5 months old, so she was used to social situations similar to this). We felt like it was too much for us (she didn't attend for the whole day at first, and one of us stayed in the classroom at first, then in another room for a while with check-ins, etc etc), but it might be a good way to adjust a more sensitive kid, such as yours, to a really new environment. Good luck--preschool is awesome and so good for little kids!

    If you would like insight into a RIE-friendly way of introducing your daughter to preschool, you could always talk to one of the wonderful RIE associates. Many of them do consulting, and many of the less known (but still good) ones might be easier to get an appointment with than Janet Lansbury. I took a parent/child class with Patty Ryan, based in the Bay Area, and she does consulting ( There are two others in the Bay Area that I don't have experience with, but who do consulting: Jennifer Doebler ( and Christina Vlinder ( I have also consulted myself (several times!) with Wendy Kronick while taking a class with her. Good luck!

    Lol actually I agree with your mom, with one refinement. (RIE principle of child's autonomy). Tell your daughter exactly what time you will be back (RIE principle of Predictable Environment). Of course she cannot tell time, but if you tell her "I will be back at 3:00," then she has something concrete to grasp on to instead of wondering for hours when you are coming. My daughter was in daycare/aftercare from 12 months until 11 years old (please don't judge, it was not by choice, we needed the income) and with very few exceptions I picked her up on the dot of 5:30 every day. To this day she says that was a gift because she always knew when I was coming and I never let her down. My daughter is sensitive but she loved preschool! Being around kids and books and toys and running around, it enhanced her sense of independence and curiosity. It was really a valuable time. For your daughter's sake, please don't overthink this or let her catch on to any nervous vibes. (RIE principle of trusting the child's competence.) You can apply most of the RIE principles to the act of you sending your daughter to preschool, whether or not the school follows all of the principles shouldn't be the point.

    We are in a very similar situation. Full time me and the boy since birth. I’ve recently started reading books telling stories and talking a lot about going to school. Learning about it and talking about what might be expected has seemed to really help and he’s starting to become curious and asks about going. I plan on doing very short days in the beginning and see how it goes from there. Haven’t found the right fit yet but hopefully will feel comfortable starting soon! Good luck!

    Actually, Janet DOES have a blog post about this, and the basic gist is that separation is mostly about the parents’ anxiety, not the kids’, and that your mom is right that a quick and firm goodbye is what your daughter needs from you:

    A few helpful quotes:

    It might seem traumatic for him sometimes, but I don’t believe it’s traumatic so much as dramatic. He’s having a dramatic—not that it’s fake, but just this dramatic goodbye to somebody he adores so much. Let him have this. Let it be okay. Be the confident one. Trust your child to experience this process.


    So we are the ones that add so much onto this rather than just accepting, “Yeah you really don’t want me to go. You’re holding onto me. I’m going to take your hand off my arm. I know, it’s really hard right now. I’ll see you when I get back. I love you. Goodbye.” Bravely going off, being brave for our kids because they need this from us to be able to handle new situations.

  • Are there other parents out there who are worried about how their child's new preschool will be handling the preschool transition, given social distancing guidelines? Our child's preschool, which we enrolled him in many months ago, is being fastidious about keeping class size small, having teachers wear masks, sanitizing, etc. My anxiety is *not due to concern about infection*. 

    I'm anxious about how my son will react to being dropped off at a school where all the adults are wearing masks, where they may not allow me or his father to enter the room, let alone stay for a few hours, and where the caregivers may not be physically comforting distressed children, and where children will be encouraged to keep a distance from one another. This all sounds really dystopic to me and I'm worried about how my son will be able to adjust to this kind of situation. 

    I'm having the same anxities. The transition is hard no matter what, but is definitely heightened now. It might be worth getting some pictures of the preschool teachers with masks on and off and having him learn their names, and also to have your kid see you wear a mask regularly so it seems normal. Oof.

    Hi! My daughter is 2.5 and returned to preschool a couple months ago (when they opened).  I had similar concerns - not about contracting the virus but the new "norm".  I'll be honest, I haven't noticed a difference with her at all.  The preschool teachers are so caring and she loves the outside playtime and interaction with other children.  It's amazing how resilient children are. However, note that kids usually have a hard time with the preschool transition in general.  It took my daughter about a week so that is normal and shouldn't be confused with the whole mask thing.   

    Hi! I am actually in the exact situation that you are in. I plan on moving our child to the waitlist and reevaluate closer to January. My child has only been cared for at home, so I had the very very exact concerns you do. Aside from those concerns, something else I kept in mind was how the school responded to initial closures and how they handled tuition. My particular school had interactive zoom meetings and YouTube videos of teacher doing lessons, and asked parents to continue paying tuition with different tiers depending on your situation (although the tuition being asked was still significant). All of this might sound great...if you had an older child but for 2s-3s with short attention spans, it does not seem worth the tuition they are asking. With the current raise in Covid cases and the predicted surge during flu season, I feel like we’re looking at another school closures.

    Hi there! Is this his first time in daycare/full time care outside of the home? I can't speak to your school or how your son will react but we switched our son's school and he started a new one last week. He's doing great and just as happy as can be to be around kids again. The school had him visit before, just us, him, and the teachers, so he was introduced to the space. Yes, the drop off is brief: we wash our hands, go inside, they take his temp while we sign him in, and then we say good bye. He's done just fine with it, whereas at his old schools, where we could linger, it was a diaster 50% of the time. The teachers are all wearing masks, and yes, they are teaching/encouraging social distancing, but they're two and three year olds so you know, they're still playing together, sharing things, and having fun. The teachers are still loving and caring. They're not touching just to touch, but they will certainly comfort a child if they need to. I was worried after 19 weeks at home how it would go to be back at school, in a new environment, with new people, and new teachers. Kids are so adaptable! Honestly it was harder for me than it was for him! We talked a lot about it in the weeks leading up to him starting. "You're starting a new school in a couple weeks! What are you most excited about?" "Won't it be so great to play with kids again?" "What do you think you'll do at your new school?" All of these were great ways to get him excited and looking forward to going. Does the school have a google photo album that they're able to share with you so that you can show him pictures of what he'll be doing? Has there been any conversations with the school about setting up a time to visit so he's been in the space? It might be a rough week, but you'll make it through and everyone will do great! Good luck! 

    My son is scheduled to start mid-August and I could have written this exact email. I too am very concerned about just dropping my son off to a basically empty room with socially distanced playing. The preschool he's going to has agreed to arrange a one-on-one meetings with me, my son, and the teacher (I'm not sure exactly how that will work, maybe I'll stand across the room or something) and also some times where we can visit the outside playground outside of school hours. Maybe that's something that your preschool would be willing to do? I wish I had better suggestions for you.

    Yes, I am definitely with you here. Our son is 2.5 and had been in a nanny share pre-Covid, and with mom/dad and grandparents during Covid. We were planning to transition him to a preschool this fall. The school is taking all the right safety precautions and I am confident that they are doing the best they can to limit risk BUT I am very concerned about having our son's first "school" experience be with masks and no touching and encouragement for distanced play, etc. I am seriously considering waiting until next year to start when he is 3.5 (with my fingers crossed that things will be closer to normal by that point). We sought out a preschool that had an especially nurturing/homey vibe since our son had been at home up until now and I'm starting to feel like the benefits of sending him (more social time and some structured learning activities) are not really outweighing the risk of exposure and the weirdness/dystopian part that you bring up. I change my mind almost daily on what to do, but I think I am leaning toward keeping him home until next fall.

    My son started in June just after he turned two and the transition has been absolutely fine. He isn't bothered by the masks. The school sent everyone pictures of the staff before all the kids came back showing them with and without masks and looking friendly, as well as some other pictures for the kids to see showing them that the tables inside would be spaced apart etc. The school let my son and I come for an hour while the kids were outside the week before he started. I sat at the edge of the playground away from the other kids, and my son got to meet the other children. The staff will be minimising unnecessary physical contact between themselves and the kids but I think they can still hold a child's hand, change a diaper, and give comfort if a child needs it (maybe not hugs, but some sort of physical comfort, I'm sure). My son cried a bit at drop off for about three days but they told us that he would stop once he came inside and start playing. He's been enthusiastic to go every day since then. Preschool has been the best thing to happen to him for ages! 

    This sounds dead-on for us too. Although our 2 year old is getting used to the masks. There is no way a teacher can avoid hugging/touching toddlers. I honestly believe in the “ripping-off the bandaid“ theory with toddler drop-offs. COVID is just helping us get on with it!

    I don't have any advice to offer - just more solidarity.  We are in the exact same boat. In our case, I have asked the school director about this issue specifically, and I became quite sad as I read through all the schools COVID adaptations (though I credit the school with being very mindful and detail-oriented in this aspect). In our case, the school thoughtfully sent pictures of the teachers with and without masks and have described to us the drop-off process in advance.  As our son's start date approaches, we will talk more about the transition and try to prepare him the best we can.  The school director in our case included a note about crying - that we should expect it in the beginning - and to trust that the capable teachers will be able to handle making the new littles feel welcome and comfortable and to keep good-byes, brief, matter-of-fact and upbeat, imbued with confidence that they will have a good time.  The school also suggested that we prepare the kids, letting them know teachers will be wearing masks, just like they see thier parents/guardians or people in public wearing masks.  Gosh, it would have been hard enough to shepherd our Littles throough a new school transition without this dystopian scenario.  I am trying to trust that the kids are resilient, adaptable,  In our son's case, I am hoping that after he adjusts to the new environment, that he will accept that this is how school is - he doesn't know any previous version of school to compare. Sigh.  

    Hello! My daughter had already attended her daycare for a year, and she basically walked right in the door without me. I was impressed! it would be great if there was a way for the primary teacher who will work with your child to do a few 5-10 minute zoom sessions with and without a mask on. That way your child is familiar with their face/masked face/voice. If your one of only a few parents with a 'new' kid, could they consider a for-fee weekend visit, where you, the primary teacher, and your child play in the play room for an hour with masks on? Just thinking of ways to get around the transition days that one would normally have when starting at a new place. I will say that my daughter LOVES seeing the other kids and has such a great time-- at this age they aren't particularly concerned if they are home all the time, but they definitely love all the structure and child-child interaction at school! Best of luck, I hope you find the right balance!

    Reading through and a lot of people seem to be "waiting for things to return to normal" but they might be like this for years. If you fear is legitimately about contracting covid, then that is one thing. If the fear is that your toddler is going to have a weird first year of school, well then you're not giving your kid enough credit! Kids are so adaptable as long as we, the parents, let them be. Yes, our job is to keep them safe, but if your fear is that they will think this is weird, well it is! And if you are afraid that they'll be freaked out by masks? They'll get used to it. Fear of covid, sure, do what is right for your family. But keeping them home because you don't want them to be in a slightly weird situation (which may or may not be the new norm for years and also life is just weird) is only telling me that you don't have confidence in your kids. Kids are amazing and resiliant. My toddler is constantly surprising me. And he has so much confidence because he knows I believe in him. Give your kids a little credit. Question what you're afraid of and where that fear is coming from. If next year looks like this too, what will you do? Keep waiting? Your kids are growing and learning now, give them the chance if all you are afraid of is a little weirdness. We sent our 2.5 year old back a few weeks ago and he's SO happy to be with kids again. And the reduced stress of not having full time work and child care has been so great for my husband and me. Best of luck to everyone! 

    We had this exact same worry and unenrolled our daughter for fall. Not sure if it was the right choice, but we are doing small socially distant pods with local families instead for socialization purposes. I think it would have felt different if she had gone there pre-COVID and was returning, had friends there, etc. Could you set up play dates with some kids from the preschool in advance that are in the same situation so that they’re starting school with friends? Feels like there’s no good solution, we’re just making the best choices we can. 

    I was worried about the transition because as a single mom my daughter had spent 4 months basically with only me in the house.  She also had some stranger anxiety and had a hard time leaving me at some points - even to go to the grandparents while outside (and I was still present!).  I spoke to my pediatrician who was great and basically told me my daughter might have a hard time adjusting, but she would ultimately get past it.

    The preschool we are going to has some of the policies you mention:  more focus on individual projects, masks for teachers and staff at all times (some also wear gloves at all times), parents cannot go past the opening doorway, temp checks, cleaning times/zones, and limitation to only the pod of kids you're in, and 1 teacher.  I did get to hang out with my daughter (gloves on, masked and in a corner) for 1 hour upon her first day.  We went for an hour together and stayed far away from teacher and other students.  After that it was 2 hours by herself, 3.5 hours by herself, and then a full day.  The teacher has been GREAT.  They still comfort the kids, she carefully removed her mask for a hot second so my daughter could see her smile, and they still interact.

    My daughter surprised all of us by taking a grand total of 3 days to get used to things.  She ate lunch and slept on her 2nd day of school.  SECOND!!!  She is excited to go, and she talks about school all the time when home.  She talks about her teacher and the other students and calls them all her friends.  She loves her projects, and she is a happy, dirty camper by the end of the day.  She goes three days out of the week (Tu/W/Th).  This has been a GODSEND.  I'm a better mother, she's a more socialized kid.  She's been going almost a month now and we haven't looked back.

    Kids are resilient.  She knows I wear a mask, and she didn't think anything of it for others.

    It's been great for us, hope great for you.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

related page: Adjusting to Preschool

April 2004

For many, many months now, I've been excited about my one and only starting preschool. She'll be 2 years + 5 months old when she starts in June (3 full days a week). I have no doubts about the school we've chosen for her and the care she will receive there.

But now that I've actually submitted the application and deposit, I'm having all sorts of anxiety and fears!! Any advice from you parents out there about how to deal with this? I'm fretting over things like will the teacher comfort her when she cries? What if she doesn't eat her lunch? Will she go hungry all day? Who's going to watch her on the playground?

Please, no suggestions about delaying preschool (currently she watches a lot of videos all day with her grandparents). I just need advice about how to deal with my neurosis and what would help *ME* adjust!

Nervous Mama

From my experience with my now 3 1/2 year daughter, you couldn't have picked a better age to start your child in preschool. Right at 2 1/2 my daughter went through a huge developmental leap that required her to interact independantly with other kids and adults. I am a stay at home Mom and I never would have guessed how much being away with others would be critical at that age. As for your concerns about her eating or playground supervision, I found that my daughter is much more self sufficient in a preschool situation than she ever is/was at home. She eats, naps, plays safely, plays nicely etc. far more than when I am there to watch her. Your best reassurance will come when your daughter LOVES her new school - There may be an ajustment period when she cries when she is left, etc. but I don't know any kids that ultimately didn't love playing with other kids in a structured environment. It will be a wonderful alternative to grandma's for her. Congratulations for finding a school that you have so much confidence in and giving your daughter this opportunity. jac

I could have written your post! Our son, 2 yrs and 5 mos, is starting preschool next week for 2 half-days a week. I am feeling very anxious as well. Is it possible for your daughter to start with half-days (you mentioned that she's with her grandparents during the day now-- could they continue to babysit in the afternoons?)? I guess I am preparing myself by accepting the fact that there will be an adjustment period (up to 2 months, maybe?) and that I will probably leave him there in tears every morning for awhile. Ugh, it sounds horrible. And then also, I think of the babies and 1-year-olds and 2-year-olds that spend hours away from their parents and actually love their daycares, preschools and teachers. That's what I'm hoping for. I can't wait the read the other responses to your post! anon

After lots of work to attend open houses, think about what would be best for my child, what to apply to, applications, hoping that we would have at least some options, I ended up feeling quite ambivalent, not necessarily anxious about my daughter going to preschool. For me, I decided, it was 2 things. First, a feeling of being a little bit sad that my child is growing up, into this next phase... some sadness for her babyhood. She is currently in childcare 4 days a week so it wasn't separation from me, just an end of a phase of life.... Secondly, a bit of a let down, that after all that work, I wasn't totally thrilled with the options. Maybe these same things are leading to your concern? Margaret