Helping Your Child Adjust to the First Days of School
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
As the first day of kindergarten approaches, your child will be filled with excitement and anticipation. And, most likely, so will you. These positive feelings will be tempered with worries by both parent and child about what might go wrong. There may well be some rocky moments during the first days as your child adjusts to a new setting, a new authority figure, and new rules and routines.
You may see signs of your child’s struggle with these changes in the form of difficult behavior. If so, there is no need to panic. This is a common reaction to the stress of beginning school. Your child may become more clingy and dependent. She may throw some tantrums. Sleeping or toileting problems may even emerge. Some children have a delayed reaction, exhibiting difficulties a few weeks into school as it dawns on them that school is a permanent arrangement. These problems are likely to be short-lived. As your child settles in to the routines of school, makes some friends, and learns to trust the teacher, these behaviors will probably fade.
Parents may find some of the following suggestions useful in making their child’s first days in kindergarten as hassle-free as possible.
- Review the first-day procedure with your child. Go through the first day of school, step by step. Make sure your child is clear how she will get to and from school, what will happen when she arrives, and how long school lasts. Reassure her that her teacher will answer any questions she has as well as guide her in where to go at the end of the day. Let your child know that things will seem strange and confusing for the first few days but with time kindergarten will feel more comfortable.
- Record the moment. Take a picture of your child at the bus stop or at the front door on the first day. Make this a first-day ritual, taking her picture in the same spot every year. You will treasure these pictures and be able to see your child’s growth from year to year.
- Give your child a security item. To help your child cope more easily with the separation, place a favorite toy, book, or doll in her book bag or knapsack. You might also put a picture of the family in the bag (reinforce it by attaching it to an index card). Writing your home and work numbers on the back might help to reassure her of your accessibility.
- Restrain your emotions when your child leaves. Avoid overreacting as your child steps onto the bus (allow her to board by herself). Expressions of emotion may trigger distress or sadness in your child and make departing more difficult. If you are walking your child to school, do not linger outside of class. Give your child a hug, say goodbye, and leave! If your child begins to cry, remember that kindergarten teachers are very experienced with first-day jitters. Let the teacher take the lead. She will likely have the children busy with an enjoyable activity soon after entering class.
- Be available the first few days. If you are working, see if you can arrange some time off for the first day or two to see your child off or welcome her home. If that is not feasible, be available by phone after school. Let your child’s caretaker know how to handle your child if she is upset or acting out.
- Avoid grilling your child about what happened in school. Your child may not wish to elaborate on the school day and is unlikely to give kindergarten rave reviews. After all, it is not easy to give up the familiarity, coziness, and security of home. Be prepared for responses such as “alright” or “okay.” Questions such as “What was the most exciting thing which happened today?” or “What was the best part of the day?” may trigger conversation more successfully than yes or no questions. If you’re still having little luck and are eager for information, talk with the parent of a more verbal child to find out what is happening in school or contact the teacher.
- Avoid overscheduling your child. Kindergarten, especially a full-day program, is quite an adjustment for most five-year olds. You may want to postpone decisions about after-school activities such as ballet or gymnastics until you see how your child is adapting to kindergarten.
- If your child balks at going to school, stay the course. It is not unusual for kindergartners to resist going to school during the first few days. Don’t argue with your child or yell at her. Rather state in a calm, matter-of-fact manner that all children must go to school and she has no choice but to attend. Let her know that you understand that it can be hard to go to a strange place with people you don’t know but emphasize that it will feel a little more comfortable each day. If your child is crying as she gets on the bus or enters the class, rest assured that the tears are likely to cease almost as soon as you leave. Each day should get a little easier as your child begins to settle in to the school routine and becomes more trusting of the teacher.