Imagine this scenario: Your partner tells you that you are going to a new place where you will have fun and meet new friends. Sounds good, right? The day comes and you are taken to a building you’ve never seen before and escorted to a room bustling with activity. You are introduced to the person in charge and told you can go be with the others. Then your partner disappears.
You don’t know anyone there. You don’t know what is expected of you, and you don’t understand the activities and routines. You don’t know where your trusted partner went and when, or even if, he or she will be back.
Daunting, huh. Yet this is what happens to many 5 year olds on their first day of kindergarten. Overwhelmed by all the newness and maybe feeling abandoned by a parent, they cry or tantrum or withdraw to the corner. Their parent is told that the child will adjust. Maybe. But is the distress really necessary?
Fortunately, the transition to kindergarten doesn’t have to be so stressful for either child or parent. If you have a child headed for kindergarten this fall, and especially if your child has had limited experience being left with a sitter or at daycare, you can take steps now to make the transition a happy (or at least not traumatic) one.
I met with Dr. Elizabeth Perkins, retired Education Director of the University of Massachusetts. Amherst Childcare Centers. For 23 years, she supported hundreds of families in making this important transition from home and neighborhood to the world of elementary school, Dr. Perkins offers this advice for preparing you and your child:
Consider your child’s temperament and age. Is he shy? Is she rambunctious? In preschool or daycare, it’s often possible for staff to accommodate different children’s personalities and energy levels. The larger class sizes of kindergarten and the pressure to complete a curriculum make it difficult for elementary school teachers to do the same. Dr. Perkins reminds us that there are lots of excellent children’s books available that can help you talk to your child about how to deal with shyness or the wiggles. Keep it positive. Don’t shame the child. Focus on what the child can do when feeling overwhelmed or like she just can’t sit still another minute.
In the case of a child whose birthday is close to the cut-off date for entry, do consider whether waiting a year is wise. “For some children”, Dr. Perkins notes, “academics and social interactions may be more successful if they are the oldest in the class, not the youngest.”
Visit the school and classroom if possible. The goal is to help your child become familiar with an unfamiliar place. At least walk around the building. Show your child what door she’ll be going in. Play on the playground. Children who are oriented in this way are often less anxious on the first day.
Arrange for your child to meet the teacher before the first day of school if you can. Many schools have teacher preparation days the week or so before opening day. See if you can arrange for at least a hello and a handshake. Don’t overstay. This isn’t the time for a parent teacher conference. The teacher has a great deal to do and will appreciate it if you keep the visit brief.
Get together with other kindergarteners: If you know other families with a kindergartener, arrange a play date. Meet at a park or the school playground. When a child sees at least one other child she or he knows that first day, it may take the anxiety level down quite a bit.
Practice school activities: You know there will probably be a circle time, a rest time, a reading time, a lunch time, etc. Set up the stuffed animals for circle time. Give your child practice with sitting still while you read a story aloud. Make lunch time predictable at home so your child gets into the rhythm of a more routine day.
Set up morning routines now. “The morning routine at home,” says Dr. Perkins, “often sets the tone for the whole day.” You’ll have less stress and a happier send off if you start practicing a few weeks before school starts. Set an alarm for when you will all need to get up. Practice getting kids dressed and having breakfast before letting them turn on a TV or use a device. Better yet, to avoid a struggle about getting through the morning routine and out the door, don’t permit screen use before school at all. Help everyone understand what needs to happen for everyone to leave home on time and happy.
Before the school year begins: If you know that a first day meltdown is probable, alert the teacher ahead of time and confer about the best way to handle it. Most teachers appreciate it when parents are pro-active. If you know your child will have problems with settling into school routines, make an appointment to meet early in the year to discuss ways to manage it.
On the first day: Do understand that your child is one of maybe 2 dozen the teacher is responsible for. The teacher doesn’t have the time to immediately respond to your concerns in the hubbub of the beginning and end of the school day. Just introduce yourself to staff and focus on helping your child get comfortable.
In the event of a first day meltdown: Stay for a while to help your child adjust. Usually if you are appropriate, teachers are only grateful. Connect the child with an activity and with other children. Tell your child when you’ll be back. Dr. Perkins explained that kindergarteners are often just developing a sense of time. She advises that you give your child something on which to anchor your return time like: “After lunch, there will be playground time and a rest time and then I’ll be back“.
Do provide contact information: On the first, day, hand the teacher a card with all your contact information on it in case the teacher has a concern or question about your child. Yes, the office probably has the information but it makes it easier for a teacher to give you a call if she doesn’t have to first go find your information.
Be open-minded. Teachers do have a reputation in the community. Sometimes a negative rep isn’t deserved or reflects an unusual situation with one child. Be attentive but give the teacher a chance.
Problems: If something happens at school that concerns you, talk to the teacher when children aren’t there. Dr. Perkins reminds us that it is best to frame those concerns as a question, not a statement or, worse, an accusation. Don’t lead with “Why on earth did you say that?” Or “Why didn’t you do. . .?” Instead, say, “Can you help me understand why you did this or that?”
The most important take-away
Dr. Perkins and I talked about the reality that not every parent can do all of this. Time and circumstances are different for every parent. “But”, says Dr. Perkins, “every child is likely to manage the transition to kindergarten better if a parent does everything she or he can to partner with the teacher to make it a happy one”.
From the time your child enters kindergarten, he or she will likely be spending more time each school day with the teacher and peers than with the family. A collaborative and friendly relationship with your child’s teachers will do much to ensure that your child will feel secure and will be successful”.