Off to a good start: nursery settling in tips

Leaving your child at nursery for the first time can be unnerving for parent and child alike, as Annie Ridout found out. So she asked two experts – the head of early years and a Montessori-trained teacher – for their advice…

When my daughter Joni started nursery, aged 17 months, I had no idea about settling in. Should I stay with her if she cries? Is it better to rush off? Was there any way I could make the transition from every single day with me to an entire day with strangers any easier?

Her nursery is great, the owner is calm and sensitive, and her key worker is a dream – so between the three of us, we decided that leaving her (screaming, crying and clinging to me so tightly she had to be prised away) quite quickly would be best. It was hard. But she stopped crying within minutes and ended up having an “ok” day.

The following week, it was the same. She only goes in on Fridays, which means it’s hard for her to settle (in toddler’s eyes there’s such a long gap from one week to the next). Then more tears the following week. But eventually, with the wonderful advice imparted from two early years experts, we managed to part ways last week with smiles and no tears. Hurrah!

So, for all other parents who are struggling to settle their little ones, or dreading the day when they’ll have to wave goodbye and leave them at the nursery door – here are some excellent suggestions from two women who work with young kids…

Danni Bikhazi, head of early years at a London primary school, says:

1. First create something called a social story – a little book of photographs of the nursery/childminders house etc, the adults that work there and some of the toys, toilets and garden area. Write a short script to go with each picture, eg. ‘once upon a time there was a little girl called [insert child’s name], she began going to visit a special place called nursery. Everyday her mummy or daddy would drop her off to play with some friends and come back later to collect her.’ This sort of story helps the child to visualise themselves in the new space but also link their parents to that space and the people in it, ensuring they feel safe.

2. Allow your child to take a toy or something they enjoy playing with into the space (do let the nursery officers know that you are doing this to support the settling in period). They can feel more grounded if they recognise a toy or game. It is normal for children to need comfort from home at the start of nursery.

3. This sounds obvious – but talk to your child about going to nursery. Tell them positive stories about your own experiences at similar places. Use the names of their teachers/key-workers regularly so that they recognise their names and show enthusiasm, positivity and excitement about going to the new nursery. As I am sure you all know, children feed off adults’ emotions. If you are anxious they will be anxious too, if you are excited they will be excited too!

4. Finally, it is very normal for some children to find separating hard. Trust that the adults in the space know how to calm children and try to leave swiftly. If you linger they can become more distressed. However, if you feel that your child isn’t settling well (after a week or two) feel confident you are well within your rights to ask the adults working with them what strategies they use to distract and calm, a good nursery will ask you for ideas from home about this. If you don’t agree or think they may not be taking the time to get to know your child use your instinct. You know your child best.

Zainab Shamis-Saleem, Montessori Directress and Homeschooling teacher at The Montessori Studio, says:

1. Become as familiar as possible with the teachers. Get to know their names and share info about your child’s homelife with them. This will give them good insight, and help them to better understand your child’s needs during the settling in process.

2. Make the goodbyes short and sweet. Prepare your child before you get to school, explaining where you will be when they are in the classroom. It helps greatly for them to have some awareness of your movements whether it’s at work, at home, or with a sibling.
Once inside, help or supervise your child getting ready (coat off, slippers on for example), and/or personally hand your child over to a member of staff that you know. Say a loving and focused goodbye, but avoid repeating yourself as this is the transition when children are most likely to become tearful, if prolonged.
You may be able to watch your child go into the class but try not to let the child see you or know you are there. It will make it harder for him/her to engage with others.
3. If you have any queries at all, make an appointment to speak with the manager or class leader. You have every right to ask questions, and this will settle you – in turn, settling your child. An unsettled parent is highly likely to have an unsettled child.
4. Make sure your child has a good, wholesome breakfast, at home. This often gets overlooked, especially in settings where they have a breakfast club. A full stomach has unendingly positive effects on mood, attitude and ability to focus and concentrate. If your child ends up having two breakfasts, then all the better!
5. Try not to worry too much about your child making friends or telling you about their day. It is hard for a two/three/four-year-old to explain events from the day, and just because they may not have a ‘best friend’ straight away does not mean they are not gaining important social skills and benefits from friends in their class. Their teachers and carers will be able to point you in the right direction if you want to get to know some other families.
6. You are the best judge of your child. If you sense or notice a change of attitude, dampening of mood or uneasiness, address it with your child’s key teacher and observe it. Settling in can be hard for some children and easy for others. Many children who have a hard time settling, especially those who cannot communicate their emotions verbally yet, end up being very happy within a matter of days or weeks, so be prepared to observe, make notes and communicate with teachers about your child’s progress and path to a happy day.
You can contact Zainab on: tmontessoristudio@gmail.com
Has your child started nursery yet? How did you deal with the settling period? We’d love to hear your thoughts/experience/tips in the comment section below…