- February 18, 2013
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Doing anything for the first time can be anxiety provoking. Now imagine being a five year-old (or younger) having to do something new, alone, and imagine how much more stressful that can be. This past September my son, who had just turned five, started Kindergarten. The first day was quite an adventure. Looking around I noticed that the reactions of the children in his class varied significantly. To my left there was a child crying and clinging to his father’s pants begging him not leave. The father, who appeared to be holding on just as tight, lifted his son, carried him toward the teacher and said, “I don’t think he’s ready for this (see our Playdate article ‘Setting Children Up to Fail’).” On the other side of me a child didn’t even kiss her mother goodbye and just ran off to join the other children, never looking back, as soon as the teacher said it was time for parents to go. So, what’s the defining factor dictating how children will respond to their first day of school?
Several external factors come into play, including the school, any previous preschool experience, your child’s personality, the teacher, other children in the class, and finally, you! Since we can’t really control most of the external factors we’ll focus on you, the parent. Specifically, what you can do before, during and after to make this transition as easy and positive as possible for your child. The big concern is always separation anxiety— both yours and theirs. Sometimes it’s just hard to let go, but if you follow these steps the transition should be much easier.
Preparation – This will be the bulk of your work. You may want to attend some social group classes to get started, like Mommy & Me, so that your child is comfortable with social interactions while you’re still there to observe. And if you’re lucky maybe one of those children will be in your child’s class when Kindergarten rolls around.
Get excited and talk to your children about how “Big” they are to be able to go to school on their own. Take them to their new school and check out the route prior to the first day, preferably while other kids are attending. This allows them to see how others are doing it successfully all of the time. It also serves as a teaser by sparking interest and desire to attend without allowing them to do so. Can you feel the anticipation? If they have older siblings and see them get dropped off and picked up, this will ease their anxiety, as it reassures them that they can do it as well.
Ideally, they would be able to meet their teacher before they go to school so that they see a familiar face. However, this is not always possible so try to get their class roster ahead of time and set up a playdate with a future classmate.
Bring home and discuss some literature from their new school including their school schedule and calendar of activities so they know what to expect and can get excited about the various events. Read some books to your children about separation from you and going to school in the weeks and months before the event (Ex: The Kissing Hand; Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten; The Invisible String). On the night before school starts have them help you get snack and lunch items ready and make sure they go to bed early to get a good night’s rest.
The Big Day: Taking them to School – Wake them up early so they don’t have to rush and can have a good breakfast (and help you prepare lunch and snacks if you didn’t do it the night before). I hate seeing kids come to class all disheveled, without shoes, etc. because they just woke up and their parents tossed them in the car half asleep thinking they needed their rest more than morning calm. School-day mornings are not the time to sleep late and rush off. A calm organized morning is the best way to start off any school day.
Keep your emotions in check and act like taking them to Kindergarten, though special, is just another part of your daily routine. Allow them to bring a sentimental item from home (nothing too large or cumbersome and nothing too special- just in case it gets misplaced) to give them that extra sense of comfort. When going into the class, try to point out familiar faces or things on the board that may peak their interest.
Then it’s time! Don’t sneak out — that would just exacerbate their separation anxiety and their imagined need to keep an eye on you. Always tell them when you are leaving and say goodbye. Kiss them goodbye and tell them what time they will be picked up and by whom (ideally you can pick them up on their first day). Assure them that they’ll be okay and then leave quickly. Don’t linger around and keep peeking in or try to observe them from a distance. Somehow kids always figure out that you’re there and it can distract them from jumping into their new environment, give them false hopes for leaving if they are anxious, and it can make them insecure if they sense you doubt their ability to be successful. Remember, you have to stay calm and have your emotions in check or it will make it harder for them. If you stay that first time they’re going to expect you to stay all the time. For some families it’s like taking off a Band-Aid. You know it’s going to hurt, so the faster you do it the better.
Picking them Up – Follow through and be there when you say you will. If they want to stay a little longer because they’re having a good time, then let them. If you have the time while there ask them to introduce you to some of the children they met and ask them if they would want a playdate with anyone from their class for a later date. Mingle briefly with some of the parents and then make sure they say goodbye to their new friends.
On the way home, talk about their adventures and prepare them for the next day they are scheduled to attend. Hopefully, it went smoothly so they feel positive about returning. Let them know how proud you are of them and that you enjoy hearing about what they learned. If anything did not go well be sympathetic and optimistic for the next day. And, of course, if it is something preventable then look into it quietly on your own, engaging the teacher as necessary.
Yes, it’s true that each child reacts differently to separation and independence. Yet how you prepare and keep your emotions in balance will greatly impact how your children react. Remember, its normal for a child to have some fears about being on his/her own. But when you add your anxiety and dependency to the mix this can cause a child to become more clingy and anxious. They will be fine at school and will adjust, and the sooner you foster their independence the better their outlook for a successful future. Because as hard as it is for us sometimes, our babies all grow up sooner than we’d like!