Off to nursery school
As a new year shifts into gear, you and your toddler may be preparing for a big step forward: out of the house and into nursery school. Expect some wobbles and take it slowly – you’re both learning scary new stuff
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In an ideal world where mothers do not have to return to work after 4 months’ maternity leave, children would be spending their first 2 years at home. As it is, most middle-class South African mothers who return to work are lucky enough to be able to leave their babies with a loving substitute primary caregiver in the form of a nanny or a granny.

But after 2, the toddler inside the baby begins to reveal itself and you know that major milestone is approaching: when your baby steps out into the world as his own agent.

All signs point to 2½ being a good age for nursery school. Children can use short sentences, understand simple requests and instructions, begin enjoying playing with – rather than just beside – other children and, as Marina Petropulos writes in the Baby and Childcare Handbook, ‘“being with mummy’ is no longer a primary concern”.

But do all these things add up to “ready for nursery school”? It didn’t for Tania Loubscher’s son Storm.

“At 2 I thought we’d give school a try. He was potty-trained, quite sociable around other children and he could speak well and concentrate. I was a bit concerned about how close he and I were. I had never left him with people he didn’t know and even though he’d met the teacher and her assistant and played in the class, he didn’t really know them yet.

“I expected tears the first few days. Day one was fine, but day two and three were horrible. But it wasn’t that which made me realise he wasn’t ready for pre-school. What made me change my mind was that he suddenly would not let me out of this sight and bedtime turned back into a nightmare after a few months of being better.

“I took him out of the school and made the decision to keep Storm home a while longer. I believed he would give me a sign when he was ready for school. For months we drove past the school and he would say, ‘There’s the school I’m going to go to.’ And one day, just after he turned 3, he said: ‘There’s the school I’m going to go to.’ Then he paused and added, ‘I think I’m ready now, Mommy.’

“We got him enrolled and he started a term later without a single hitch.”

Getting into the nursery school groove

“I’m not sure there is such a thing as ‘the right age’ for starting nursery school,” says psychologist Astrid Martalas, “because every child and each family is different. Mothers and fathers must do what feels right for them and their child.”

Part of this process is familiarising yourself with your school of choice, popping in unannounced for visits and getting a gut feel about the place. Another part of this process is including your child in the process, telling them what will be happening and including them in visits to the school. There will also be the gentle preparation for the coming change of routine and environment, all of which must happen in a calm, casual matter-of-fact way.

East London mother Sani Seedat says, “One of the things my daughter and I played a lot when she was little was a game we called People’s Jobs. Uncle so-and-so is a policeman; Mommy’s job is to teach children to become clever, Granny’s job is to make us nice food, and so on. She would ask what her job is and I would say her job is to play and it was such an important job that when she was older, she would even be able to go to nursery school. She loved playing and this idea excited her, so there was never any worry for her before school started.”

Other ways to make the greater life-stage transition include:

  • Take your child to the nursery school a few times and let her run around in the gardens (or hang on to your skirt if necessary) while you chat to the teachers and get a feel for what the school is like. “Make unannounced visits to the school to get a feel for how they operate,” says Astrid. School visits will allow gradual acclimatisation to the pending changes.
  • Begin practising the new routine for going to bed, waking up and getting ready a week before school starts. Tell your toddler the two of you are practising, so they feel like you’re in this together.
  • If your child won’t know any other children at the school, ask the teacher whether she could introduce you to another mother and set up a play date at which your two children can at least see one another. That way there’ll be a familiar face around in the first week, even if the children don’t necessarily hit it off in a big way.
  • Be prepared for and ask the teacher for a gradual transition time. In other words, your child will go only a few days during the first few weeks, or for only a few hours at a time. Some schools allow toddlers’ nannies to stay for a few hours for the first few days. “Nannies are fine,” says Cape Town Montessori head teacher Deepa Kassen. “They are not as emotional about leaving the child as a mother is. They usually simply sit in on the class quietly and the child finds this reassuring. We have no problem with this at all.”

Don’t expect smooth sailing all the way

Starting nursery school is unlikely to go completely smoothly. At the very least, you will all have to get used to a new routine, which could be a little stressful. Other – seemingly worse – obstacles may come in the way too. You can expect:

  • Your child may not cry on day one, but be reluctant to go to school on day two, and even cry and scream. Nursery school teachers say these tears are usually transitory at the point where you must say goodbye but that children mostly settle within minutes. Arrange for the teacher to call you if your child does not settle, but keep your goodbye quick, simple and matter-of-fact. Hanging around doubtfully will not instil confidence in your child.
  • Your child’s napping pattern may be affected. They will probably come home shattered from school in the first few weeks. Sindi August says, “My 3-year old was so grumpy in the afternoons when he got home. He hadn’t had an afternoon nap since he was 2, and he didn’t want to go and lie down after school. So I told him he didn’t have to sleep, but he had to go to his room for some quiet time so he could stop feeling grumpy. It seemed to work, even if he just stayed there for 10 minutes alone playing with his cars or paging through a book.”
  • Your healthy child will suddenly become sick. “Any paediatrician will tell you this is completely normal and has to do with your child’s immature immune system,” says Astrid. You need to sit out the storm on this one but it may be very disruptive if you have returned to work, so be prepared for it.

These things are a normal part of the transition to nursery school, but other, more worrying things may make you wonder whether your child really is ready for school.

“Stay in contact with your child’s teacher daily to find out how things are going. She will tell you if she has any serious concerns. Be on the look-out for regressive behaviour at home as well,” says Astrid.

Not ready?

Regressive behaviour, according to Martie Pieterse, author of Ready for Big School, “is when young children ‘lose’ their acquired skills or return to the behavioural patterns of a much younger age”. She writes: “Parents often think that children do not suffer from stress, but the opposite is true. Children experience peer pressure and stress just as adults do... any situation that stresses them will often cause regressive behaviour.”

This could include thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, using baby language and severe separation anxiety.

Terri Heidman, a Cape Town Montessori directress who works with toddlers says teachers will always discuss with parents if they don’t think their child is emotionally ready for school. These children, she says, are easy to spot. They are not the ones who cry when mommy leaves – many of them do – but the ones who don’t stop crying.

“Their language skills are not yet developed enough for them to verbalise what they feel, so crying is much easier for them. Generally toddlers stop crying a few minutes after their mother has left, but if they don’t, they’re probably not ready for the break.”

Other signs of emotional unreadiness are, according to Heidman, difficulty interacting with the other children, an inability to let go of their ‘security blanket’ (or toy or book from home) and, sometimes, beginning to wee in their pants after they have demonstrated a habit of going to the toilet alone.

Displaying any of these behaviours does not mean your child has failed some important universal toddler test – it simply means that he or she has their own individual readiness gauge. Heidman says: “Most 2½ year olds are ready for nursery school, but every child is different. Sometimes the child may not be ready at all, and sometimes the child just needs to be introduced at a much slower rate than the others.”

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