Adaptation. How to help a child adjust to early education school?

When we come to an unfamiliar place, we all need to get to know and adapt to that environment. Children who start attending early education school or kindergarten are no exception.

“This start is difficult not only for the child, but also for his or her parents,” notes Justė Petkuvienė, a teacher at Eureka Early Education School for 2–5-year-olds, and together with psychologist Agnė Gurkšnė share tips and insights from USA psychologist Joan Brown that will facilitate the adaptation period both for parents and children.

What is adaptation and what are its stages?

“When exposed to an unknown environment, a child experiences great stress. For a child to get used to it, he or she must go through an adaptation process. This term describes the ability to adapt to the external environment and conditions and get used to them”, says psychologist Agnė Gurkšnė.

USA psychologist J. Brown identifies the following processes that change when a child begins to attend school:

  • Skills regression occurs.
  • Deterioration in sleep quality and loss of appetite.
  • The child looks depressed, has no strength.
  • There is an increase in anger attacks.

“Don’t be afraid of a child’s change, this way the child fights stress and adapts to new conditions. Like all of us, children are different too. Some children adapt to the new environment without difficulty, for others the adaptation takes longer “, – teacher J. Petkuvienė shares her insights.

According to psychologist J. Brown, for an easily adaptable child, adaptation occurs within 2-4 weeks. Such children sleep peacefully, have a good appetite, the child’s emotional state is calm and without major mood swings. Without tears and anger, he releases his parents and plays with his classmates. The child contacts peers and teachers and can ask the teacher for help. Even with easy adjustment, a child may initially experience sleep and appetite problems.

“More difficult adaptation to the environment takes more than a month”, notes teacher J. Petkuvienė and gives psychologist J. Brown’s insights what elements of behavior are characteristic of a child experiencing more difficult adaptation: the child is often ill, and adaptation becomes more difficult due to long pauses. The child sleeps restlessly, has a decreased appetite, often cries and is sad. Such children get distracted by playing, but not for long. It’s also hard to break up with parents. The child does not show interest in communication and asks when the parents will come to pick him up.

“You can understand that the adaptation period is over when all these aspects have stabilized. The child sleeps and eats well, mood swings decrease”, – Agnė Gurkšnė agrees with the USA psychologist.

Psychologist J. Brown points out that the process of a child’s adaptation in a preschool educational institution takes place in several stages.

  1. The first stage “Period of maladaptation”. No matter how the parents prepare the child for kindergarten, at first, they will still experience stress and constant tension. The child finds it difficult to separate from his / her parents, he / she often cries.
  2. The second stage “Adaptation period”. Protective mental mechanisms are on standby, the child begins to interact with the teacher and other children while participating in games, but still longs for parents and often asks them. At this stage, the child is just beginning to get used to the new rules, so they may break them and refuse to comply with some of the teacher’s requests.
  3. The third stage “Compensation stage”. According to USA psychologist J. Brown, the adjustment process ends, the child gets used to his class and teachers, to his new schedule, and quietly goes to school or kindergarten all day. Their emotional state becomes more stable, and their physiological indicators become normal.

Rules for successful adaptation

Based on her experience and insights of psychologists J. Brown and A. Gurkšnė, teacher J. Petkuvienė prepared twenty tips for successful adaptation for parents:

  1. Before attending an educational institution, it is important for the child to develop independence and communication skills, children who have developed such abilities are much quicker to get used to the educational institution, e.g., assign certain responsibilities to the child at home, communicate with relatives, friends so that the child has social skills;
  2. Start preparing your child for school in advance: come to the school and show the building, show pictures of teachers, introduce their names and hobbies (you can often find staff profiles on school pages), emphasize that all children are picked up in the evening, no one is left alone;
  3. Prepare your child in advance that he or she will need to go to school every day while mom and dad are at work.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the class teachers and the school or school schedule and class arrangements in advance, introduce your child to the information heard.
  5. During the acquaintance, tell the teachers about your child and some of his or her characteristics and features.
  6. Adaptation should start at an hour or two a day with the child.
  7. Gradually increase time at school / kindergarten, considering teachers’ recommendations.
  8. Try to ensure the quietest possible environment at home, e.g., relocation, parental divorce, birth of a second child – should not take place in the same period.
  9. Do not forget to give the child individual quality attention at home. Both parents should be involved in this process.
  10. The calmer the parents, the more the child will trust the unknown environment. Take control of your emotional state. All your worries and fears will surely be passed on to the child.
  11. During the adaptation period, the child’s sensitivity to all external influences becomes stronger. Also, their body may not always be able to cope with mental stress. The disease is a protective mechanism of the body in both children and adults. The sick child stays at home in a familiar environment. This will continue until they feel safe not only at home but also in kindergarten.
  12. Remember that after a child’s illness, the adaptation process begins again. Do not leave the child for the whole day after a long brake.
  13. If you see that the child tends to play with peers and gets involved into the games, decision has to be made to leave the child.
  14. To lead to an educational institution from a parent with whom it is easier for the child to separate. And until the adaptation period ends, it should remain stable.
  15. Always say goodbye to the child, you can come up with a farewell ritual that you will always follow, e.g., kiss on the cheek and you go out, it is important to say goodbye briefly and not to return, even if the child cries a lot.
  16. Do not punish a child for reluctance to go to school / kindergarten.
  17. Be honest with the children, say exactly when you will arrive, do not promise what you will not be able to keep. The child’s trust in you is very important during the adaptation period. Make it clear to the child when you return: in the afternoon, after bedtime, or in the evening so that he or she does not have false expectations.
  18. When going to kindergarten, tell the child what a good day it will be, what interesting games he will play there, what delicious food will be served, etc.
  19. Let the child pick up their favorite toy. They will be much calmer if there is something precious and familiar nearby.
  20. “The most important thing is to start preparing for the adaptation process in advance for both you and your child. Do not forget that a child’s successful adaptation depends on preparation and psychological and emotional stability in the family”, points out the teacher J. Petkuvienė.

Brown J. (2020). Kindergarten without tears – what should parents know about the adaptation period?. Portal findmykids.org https://findmykids.org/blog/en/kindergarten-adaptation-period [quoted on 27/06/2021]