Perhaps your little one has just started preschool, or maybe this is an event you are planning for next year or the following, or perhaps your child is already settled in preschool. Whatever your circumstances, starting preschool for any child, whether for a few hours each week or for most of each day, is a major step in a life long process of separation and individuation. ..........
The young infant is vulnerable and tentative, but over time becomes stronger and gradually develops a mastery of infancy. And then he is once again ready for change and transformation. The next major milestone comes with self-mobility. With the ability to move on his own the child enters a new world of independence and autonomy, and again will need to readjust his sense of self and his relationship to the world around him. As in each juncture point the level of stress is high, not only for the child but for the caregivers as well. If you've ever had primary responsibility for the safety of an actively exploring young toddler then no explanation is necessary! Following her around from room to room and place to place as she tirelessly explores her suddenly expanded environment is exhausting.
The next major juncture point begins when the toddler stage ends and early childhood begins, typically from about two years and nine months to three years. This is often the time that a structured and organized preschool is introduced (as distinguished from child care or play groups). The transition from toddler to young childhood is evidenced in many ways. There are the physiological changes: the child literally stretches out, and the proportion of the upper and lower body gives him the appearance of adult maturity -- all the parts seem to be for the first time working in harmony. By this time most children have mastered self toileting. The normally developing child has also accessed a new level of language mastery, and is able to fairly reliably not just make his needs known, but actually carry on a fairly sophisticated conversation. He is now ready to reach out to his peers with a new maturity, and will begin to establish truly interactive friendships. He is less self-focussed and begins to develop genuine curiosity and interest in the "other." He is at an early point of moving beyond his own egocentric needs and interests, and is consequently now ready to share and cooperate in a group setting.
As exciting as this can be the child also responds to these new challenges with an understandable ambivalence. Some mornings she'll seem nothing but eager to go to preschool, only to have a major meltdown when it's time for you to leave. Often regression will occur: toileting takes a step backwards, or she'll engage in baby talk or other behaviors left behind long ago. It's important not to panic but instead to see the ambivalence as natural and to be expected. Ambivalence typifies every transition point in the separation and individuation process.
This is yet another time when you are called upon as a parent to access your best intuitive and sensitive self. Partly what she is expressing with her ambivalence is her own uncertainty that she can handle these new challenges. It is possible, if not always easy, to both empathize with her understandable feelings of ambivalence, while at the same time holding the confidence she lacks. In this way she will gradually internalize that same sense of confidence, and eventually achieve a new level of homeostasis and mastery. Until of course it is time for the next step in the lifelong process separation and independence, the incremental movement from dependence to autonomy.
THE WAY I SEE IT...
In other words, your child is going through normal 'growing -pains'. She gets alot of her self confidence by seeing how confident you are in your decision to send her to preschool. When talking about school, be positive. Don't let her hear you telling your friends that you can't bear to let her go, you will cry on the first day, etc. She will pick up on all of that, and feel that she should be upset too.
Gently but firmly tell her she is going to school, and you will be back to pick her up in a few hours. You can show her on an analog clock or watch that when the big hand and the little hand are pointing straight up, it will be time to go home. In the case of our preschool, it is best if you do not walk her in. This just extends the anxiety longer. Tell her goodbye in the car, even if she cries. In our experience, the child stops crying when you are out of sight. When you pick her up, greet her happily and ask about her day. Ask specific questions, like what did you have for snack, what job did you have today, what did you do for art, etc. Show her you are interested in her fun day at school.
If the tears go on for more than a couple of weeks, it's possible your child is not ready for preschool.
Just remember, this is all normal, and it is so worth a few tears!