Preparing Preschoolers for Next Year: 4 Ways to Make Change Less Scary

The end of the preschool year provides us with another teaching opportunity.  They say that change is scary and I cannot help but wonder if some of our fears come from the ways in which we were (or weren’t) transitioned in the early childhood years.  The students in our preschools become so comfortable with their environment.  They get used to seeing the same teachers and classmates.  They depend upon us for not only new learning but for the most basic types of help with self-care.  Then, in what must seem like a sudden jolt, their schedules change and their people change. 

I have seen some adults talk about the impending changes so much that they scare children who weren’t initially worried.  I have also seen adults act as if nothing is happening.  There has to be a balance – a way to prepare our students without terrifying them.  Here is some food for thought:                        
  • Consider the words you use.  I avoid the word “end” when I talk about the upcoming changes.  It isn’t an ending in the way they relate to the word.  A story is over and we say, “The End” and then it is completely over.  Book closed.  Done.  When we are speaking of school, however, it is far from over.  It is merely shifting.  I think it is much more accurate and positive to say, “When you go to your new” school or class or teacher.  The notion of going is simply a fact and it gets to be shiny and new.  While “The End” may be associated with the closing of a book, “new” is associated with exciting new toys or cool new sneakers.  It has an entirely different connotation.
  • Remember that the young children do not have a sense of time so talking about “next year” is fairly meaningless.  Over the course of my career, I have had many children ask when they go to their new class or school.  I tell them in terms that are tangible.  If I want to indicate fall, I tell them that first there is summer and beaches/pools and fun in the warm weather.  Then, their new class starts.  If a change will occur during the summer, I will say that they will enjoy the warm summer in their new class. 
  • Talk about change in the superhero terms they love.  During the very last days of our time together, I tell students that they will have so much fun with their new class and teacher.  I also tell them that they are so brave and they will learn so much.  I ask them to show me brave.  They may try to make a muscle with their arms. They pose in superhero poses.  These physical motions make them feel powerful.  They live in a world of magic and pretend.  We can use that mindset to teach them that they are, in fact, the superheroes because they will go forth with courage.
  • Don’t spend endless weeks talking about what will happen.  That is how we create a world full of people with anticipatory anxiety.  Adults tend to think that the more time we use to prepare children, the better.  Actually, the more time we spend talking about it, the more time there is for fear and worry.  The children will know that the school year is coming to an end.  Parents are talking about summer plans and next year.  Preschools may be preparing for end of the year trips or celebrations.  I have found that young children rarely ask, “What’s next?” while surrounded by all of that prep.  They have very little frame of reference and they probably assume that their most important adults will remain the same.  We can let them continue to feel secure until a week or so before they leave.  Remember – they don’t measure the passage of time like an adult.  If you talk about moving onto new things for a couple of days, that’s enough.
Hopefully, during your school year, the students have experienced enough change – minor changes to routine, change in classmates, change in teacher on a sick day, change in focus of activities – that they have learned that change can be safe and good. Slowly but surely with positive guidance, we can teach our students that change is merely that – change – not necessarily good or bad but just different… and different can be okay. 

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