Starting a new school year is a time of great expectations — and great anxiety. Even the most eager learner can be nervous about entering an unfamiliar preschool class. And older children who are already familiar with their preschool can still worry about meeting new kids, getting along with a new teacher, and mastering all there is to learn. For children beginning kindergarten, going to the Big School can seem a huge and imposing challenge.
Preparing for School Starts at Home
Your own attitude toward school can greatly influence your child's perception of and adjustment to school. The goal is to be positive and reassuring without overwhelming him. You can start by reading books about going to school or by making up a simple tale about a child who is the same age as yours. Include a variety of feelings and a happy ending.
Keep Your Own Emotions in Check
In conversations with your child about school, it's important to separate out your own feelings. You might be anxious about sending your child to preschool or the fact that your kindergartner is suddenly a "big boy." You might also be uncertain about whether you've selected the right program. While these are legitimate concerns, it's best to talk about them with other adults who can empathize so you don't transfer your anxiety to your child.
On the flip side, try not to be overly enthusiastic; your gushing could cause your child to pull back suspiciously. If you focus too much on what's ahead, your child will conclude that school is terribly hard. Try to find a good middle ground to prepare him. Your confidence will rub off on him.
Start Preparations Early
The best way to de-stress the start of school is to create a schedule and to prepare as much as you can two to three weeks before the first day. You might want to start a leisurely bedtime routine. Schedule the evening to include quiet time together, storybook reading, a bath, and some bedtime snuggling. And be sure that your little one is getting at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night so he'll be in a receptive frame of mind during the school day.
Give your youngster "brain food" for the energy he needs to learn. Try to serve lots of healthy fare, including fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, chicken, meat, and dairy products.
Remember, too, that children hate to be rushed — it makes them feel as if they're unimportant — so get your child's things ready before the morning and keep all supplies on hand.
It's also a good idea to adjust your schedule ahead of time so that, if necessary, you can spend extra time in your child's classroom during the "phase-in" period of school adjustment. This may involve staying late after drop-off and returning early for a week or two.
Finally, squeeze a little more time out of each day to enjoy one another. Taking a leisurely walk together in the morning or spending a half-hour at the end of the day to play a simple game can make a big difference to your child.
Ease Separation Anxiety
Separation issues can last well into the first weeks of school, but you can work with the teacher to help your child adjust.
Quieter children may need drawing out, so teachers will often remark on something they notice or already know about a child, or even ask a funny question to break the ice. Just chatting with the teacher about the day ahead and looking around the room with your child can ease the transition.
Next, the teacher may suggest that your child investigate the learning centers. Some children will eagerly embrace the suggestion; if yours does, say a quick good-bye and leave.
How quickly children adjust to novel situations has to do with many factors, including their temperament and what's been happening at home. If your child doesn't want you to leave after a few minutes, try to remain calm and positive. Give your child the time he needs before you leave, but don't let his fear overwhelm you. Also, look to the teacher for guidance: Perhaps she can encourage your child to get involved in an activity or ask him to be a special helper. Follow the teacher's lead in plotting your leave or try some of these strategies:
- Spend time at his cubby, where you can leave something from home, such as a photo or a favorite stuffed animal, or something of yours, like a scarf or a key chain.
- Find another student who is playing with something your child enjoys and suggest that your child get involved in the activity.
- Begin an activity with your child, like building a block tower, and hope that other children join in.
- Most of all, be flexible and understanding. Your child should have the luxury of adjusting at his own pace. If you anticipate that your child may be upset when you leave, try talking about the upcoming separation on your way to school — discuss what he'll do during the first five minutes and in what part of the room you'll say good-bye.
Be sure, though, to actually say good-bye. Don't slip out while your child is busy playing. To build a trusting relationship, it's important to let him know that you are leaving and that you will return later.
It's also helpful to create a good-bye routine—kiss each other three times, slap high fives, or rub noses. Remind your child that you'll be back at a set time (such as after snack) to pick him up or that you'll see him when you get home from work.
The Importance of After-School Hours
Picking up your child at the end of the school day requires as much thoughtfulness as dropping him off. The abrupt change between the two worlds of school and home can be disorienting. Even if your child cried when you left him at school in the morning, he may be resistant to leaving his new friends at the end of the day: For many children, any transition can stimulate stress.
Every child, even those who grab their backpacks as soon as you show up at the door, benefits from a leaving-school ritual. Likewise, welcome-home rituals are important, especially for children who carpool or arrive home on a bus or a van. Greet them with a big kiss, lots of hugs, and a healthy snack. And if you arrive home after your child, sit on the couch for a few minutes, read a favorite book, go through his backpack, or share a pre-dinner snack in the kitchen.
While some ebullient children are bubbling with news about their day, others are reluctant to report on anything. Specific inquiries — "Tell me what you did on the playground" or "Did you get to finger paint?" — will stimulate conversation. This is why it's so important to familiarize yourself with your child's classroom experience — it gives you a base of information. Learning the names of the other children and a few important things about them (Jason loves dinosaurs, for instance) also helps. Your child will feel more encouraged to share his life at school when he sees that you really know what's going on. To find out more about what happens in your child's classroom, take a virtual tour!
For the first few weeks of school, observe your child to see how he's adjusting. Many children handle the first day with apparent ease; sometimes adjustment difficulties don't surface for a month or two. To pick up on possible stress, listen to his tantrums and whining as well as to his words. Eavesdrop on his dramatic play — and join in when welcome. If, for example, he keeps talking about a child who is causing him grief, you can ask him directly about the problem. Or you can try role-playing a solution in shared dramatic play. If your child seems distressed by being away from you, incorporate a leave/return, separating/uniting element to the story line.
Helping your child feel comfortable about attending school takes effort, patience, flexibility, and cooperation. But if it's done well, your child will reap the benefits for years to come. There are many more "firsts" ahead of him, and with a good start, he can look forward to each one.