10 Tips for Transition to Child Care (From a mom who got it all wrong)
I’m excited to host a guest post by blogger Jessica Smock, an educator, mom, and almost-finished PhD student. Jessica has only been blogging at School of Smock since the new year, and she’s already turned out a ton of thought-provoking and informative posts about education and parenting. Today, she writes about her son’s transition to child care. It’s a sort of confession, because as you’ll learn, it didn’t go so well. The upshot is that she turned her experience into a useful guide for parents approaching this transition. Enjoy her post, and please feel free to add your own experiences and advice in the comments below.
10 Tips for Transition to Child Care (From a mom who got it all wrong)
By Jessica Smock
I thought I had done my all of my homework, as a diligent parent, researcher and educator.
As a new parent, it can be a tough, long process finding the right child care for your child. You have to think about what your needs are: a small, intimate, home-like environment or a fully-accredited, educationally focused child care center; location (at home, close to home or work); your budget; your schedule… Next, you have to do your research, using friends, family, or a local or national referral agency, to identify providers that meet your needs and have openings. And then you should visit facilities and talk with the providers, asking them questions about their curriculum, sick child policy, discipline philosophy, caregiver experience and training, feeding and nap schedules. Finally, you sometimes just have to use your parental instincts, going with your gut about whether a provider will match your family’s parenting style and your kid’s temperament.
My son had started off when he was six months old with a few different babysitters that came to my home a few times a week while I wrote and worked on my dissertation. He did well with this and loved playing with his young, energetic babysitters, but it wasn’t meeting my needs. I couldn’t concentrate in our small house with the constant chaos and noise that surrounds a baby. So I started looking into child care centers in my new city. I thought I was more than capable of doing this. I was a teacher and curriculum coordinator for more than a decade, with a Master’s and nearly a doctorate in the education field. I had worked as a research fellow for a social research nonprofit in Cambridge, where my major responsibility was helping to write a research report of high-performing child care facilities in Massachusetts. I had interviewed dozens of providers across the state and country, as well as state education heads and early childhood researchers from Harvard and other local universities, and helped to create a framework for evaluating child care providers.
I didn’t think at all about what happened after I chose the program.
Yes, I literally did exactly the opposite of what I later learned that you should do when transitioning your child to day care. Although I had visited the center, spent time with the teachers and director and loved everything about it, I had thought my job was finished. So, on the day that he was scheduled to begin his “first day of school,” we dropped him off with his new teacher, and I left for home. I was so happy I was nearly bursting. I would be able to finish my dissertation draft in weeks. My son would have wonderful teachers, meet new friends, and participate in all sorts of new classes, everything from dance to music and gym.
I got a call 90 minutes later to come and get him. He was shrieking hysterically, hadn’t stopped the whole time, and was nearly vomiting. I tried bringing him back for a few more days, but he was completely inconsolable. Then I started going with him to school for short periods of time, as the director suggested, and then longer. Over the course of the next weeks, his entire personality changed. At home he refused to leave my sight, even when I went to the bathroom, crying all the time, not sleeping and eating. He was an absolute mess for a very long time. And we and his teachers nearly decided that this was not a good fit or that even he may not be ready for child care outside the home.
I’ve learned a few important lessons after these difficult months, one of the most emotionally stressful times that we experienced as parents:
1. Visit the facility with your child. Introduce him a few times to his teacher. Show him the toys there and do at least a couple “trial runs.”
2. Think about the timing and developmental stage of your child. Kids go through predictable stages of development throughout infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool. Although of course there are wide variations, there are also certain periods of developmental “calm” and others of “turmoil,” when new milestones are being reached. Later, after speaking with my child’s pediatrician, I learned that 18 months old, the age of my son, can often be a tough age to start day care. These toddlers are going through a sort of mini-adolescent crisis of new communication skills, separation anxiety, and new understandings of the role of caretakers.
3. Talk about school at home before the transition, no matter what the age of your child. Read books about children who are starting preschool or begin day care. Some of my favorites are: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas, Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney. Talk about how much fun school is, and even play “pretend school.”
4. Discuss your day care’s routines for transitioning children with the child’s new teachers and director. Child care centers may have very different philosophies about how to handle the first weeks. Some may prefer that parents spend the first days with their child, others may ask that parents give a quick kiss and leave immediately, letting the teachers handle settling in for the day.
5. Give your child experience with caretakers outside the family and outside your home well before thinking about day care. My son loved being with babysitters or his grandparents, but only at home. I thought that his enthusiasm for new people would translate to a day care setting, but he was overwhelmed by a new environment.
6. Expect some changes in your baby or toddler. While he’s getting used to his new routine and schedule, he may be clingy, sad, or out of sorts. This is normal for many kids, according to research, because kids’ stress hormones actually elevate during this transition period but it has no lasting damage.
7. Confront your own ambivalent feelings about your child’s starting day care. It’s normal to feel guilty and anxious, but it’s important not to communicate this to your child. Talk about how you’re feeling with your partner or a friend, and expect that you’ll even have an emotional reaction when your child starts to like day care and form attachments to his caregivers.
8. Be very patient and start the process as early as possible before you need to start work or have other commitments. The transition process can take months before a kid feels comfortable and like his normal self in a day care setting.
9. If possible, start day care or preschool before the cold and flu season of late fall or winter. Since he started preschool, my son has been completely healthy for about maybe three days. He’s had several colds, conjunctivitis, a stomach virus, ear infection, and a sinus infection. If your child hasn’t been in a group day care situation before, he may have a tough few months while his immune system adjusts to being exposed to many new viruses.
10. Rethink your situation if it becomes unworkable, if your child is still miserable after several weeks, or if you think your child’s temperament is a bad match for the setting. Don’t be afraid to have an honest discussion with your child’s teacher about their opinions about what might be a good fit for your child.
This process is not nearly so difficult for most kids, and it’s a good lesson that life is full of new people, new experiences, and transitions. For my son, this story does have a happy ending. Thanks to his amazing teachers and their infinite patience, my son LOVES preschool and has never been happier!
About the author:
Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate and Glenn Fellow in Development and Educational Leadership at Boston University. Her dissertation is about the resilience and coping strategies of high-achieving, urban students of color at elite boarding schools throughout New England. After moving from Boston last year, she now lives in Buffalo, NY with her husband and toddler son. You can follow her at her blog School of Smock and on Twitter @schoolofsmock.