Starting a new school year is a big adjustment for a child at any age, but it can be particularly disorienting for very young children. Preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids are comforted by routines, and so their first time in even the best of classrooms with the most insightful and empathetic of teachers can be a challenge. Here are some ways you can start now, during summer vacation, to ensure your little one’s year gets off to a great start.
- Start setting your child’s biological clock. Summer sleep schedules with later wake-up times can take a while to undo, and your child may launch her first day at school cranky and sleepy if you don’t plan ahead. At least a week before her first day, get her used to the new schedule by dimming the lights in her play area an hour before her school-year bedtime. Be sure to offer her toys or books instead of electronics in the hour before she goes to bed; the quality of light emitted by screens stimulates the brain and makes it tougher to drift off to sleep later. Get her ready for bed following the same routine you anticipate using during the school year (pajamas, brushing teeth, etc.). Similarly, wake her up at the same time she’ll get up on school days and take her through her anticipated school-day morning routine. Learning these steps in advance means your child has one less new procedure to learn when school begins.
- Visit the school a few days before the first day. Narrate the trip there in an excited tone of voice so that the route will feel familiar to your child when you report to the school on the first day. If you can, pop into your child’s classroom and explore the playground. This will help your child begin to visualize what school will be like and help her to feel more at ease on the first day.
- Familiarize your child with his new teacher by referring to her by name instead of saying “your teacher.” If you can find a picture of his teacher on the school website, print it and hang it in a prominent place so she’ll look familiar to your child on the first day.
- Role play circle time, lining up for lunch, and show and tell with your child so she’ll know what to expect. Play the part of the teacher and recruit stuffed animals or siblings to act as her classmates.
- Model a positive attitude. When you feel anxious or tired, verbalize your feelings and talk through your plan for energizing yourself and realigning your positive thinking. (“Wow, I’m feeling really worried about tomorrow’s big meeting! I guess feeling a little nervous before a big day is normal. I think I’ll listen to some music I like and imagine myself doing really well in the meeting.”) Watching you will help your child realize that these feelings are normal and give him some strategies for coping with them.
- Instead of asking if your child is nervous about beginning school, casually ask how your child is feeling about the new year. Resist asking whether your child feels nervous; this suggests that there is something to be nervous about! If your child is behaving normally and doesn’t give you any reason to worry, it’s best to keep worst-case scenario preparations for the initial separation under your hat. Your child will take cues from you about how to feel about the first day.
- If your child seems anxious or you’ve had difficulty with separation in the past, choose something she can bring to school that reminds her of her family. An article of clothing or piece of inexpensive jewelry is an especially good choice because your child can touch it whenever she needs comfort during the day without having to go to her backpack. Give her a bracelet of yours or let her borrow her brother’s lucky bandana.
One big no-no: Don’t sneak away on the first day. Although this seems like a good idea for the child who tears up every time you take a step toward the door, resist the urge to wait until his back is turned to disappear. Such behavior can do damage to your child’s trust in you, resulting in the fear that you could vanish at any moment. Instead, assure your child that you love him, that you’re leaving him in a very safe place that you have chosen carefully, and that you will see him in four hours, then bite your lip and leave. Chances are good that you’ll have to pry him away from his new friends by pick-up time.