Today is the big day! It’s the first day of school for your little one. It is a day mixed with excitement and anxiety for both parent and child. How can you make the transition to school smoother and more enjoyable for you and your child? Here are 10 steps to get your child’s first school experience off to a great start.
1. Set the Tone: Children are very perceptive! Little ones will pick up on your anxiety, so relax! Be positive and put a great big smile on that brave face of yours. Remember, this is the beginning of an exciting new journey filled with learning, fun and new friends. It is an emotional time for all…so if you still feel like crying…save it for after your child gets on the school bus or enters the classroom!
2. Prepare Them: One of children’s most common school fears is the “fear of the unknown.” Prepare children ahead of time with concrete examples of what to expect at school. Reading children’s books about going to Preschool or Kindergarten is a great introduction to school procedures and activities. See Children's Books About Going to School, a wide selection of children’s books that help calm school fears. Highly recommended is The Kissing Hand, a New York Times Bestseller which is a touching children’s story dealing with overcoming separation anxiety. As you read these books, casually point out happy children playing with new friends and enjoying many exciting activities. Address any questions or concerns that your child may have while you are reading. This allows your child to express any fears ahead of time while in the comfort of your loving arms. Make sure to discuss pick up procedures since many children are most concerned about reuniting with their parents at the end of the day and/or boarding the correct bus to go home. Assure them that you will be there (just like in the books you’ve read) at the bus stop or at the classroom door. Remember to leave extra time so you can avoid being late for pick ups! This can cause additional stress for anxious children.
3. Arrange For a Pre-Visit: Some schools will allow a brief pre-visit to the classroom before the actual school year begins. This visit gives children the opportunity to see a stimulating classroom filled with books, toys and games, and perhaps even a chance to meet the teacher briefly. Point out the location where you will drop your child off and most importantly, where you will pick your child up. If a pre-visit is not possible, spend some time driving by or walking on the school grounds to increase comfort levels. Hint: The school playground is a great place to start!
4. Shop Together for School Supplies: Children just love picking out their own school supplies! A character backpack or a fancy folder for their papers will be exciting to carry to school on the first day and serves as a good distraction for first day fears. Even a favorite outfit can be uplifting. School supplies and clothing can be costly so try to set a budget before you let your shopper loose!
5. Pack Friendly Lunch Boxes: Some early education programs are full day and include lunch and snack time. Once again, allow children to pick out their own lunch box or reusable snack bag. Pack familiar favorite foods at the beginning that will encourage them to eat. The tendency is to over pack meals so ask children not to throw away extra food so you can gauge how much they are actually eating each day. A nice touch is to include a special note from parents (ie: simple phrases like: I Love You! or Hi!) or drawings of things they might enjoy.
6. Strive For Quick Separation: Long drawn-out goodbyes work well on the Hollywood screen, but not in the early ed classroom. On the first day, make your goodbye happy, upbeat and brief! The biggest mistake parents make is to linger in the classroom or at the door, making it harder for children to adjust to their new surroundings. A quick hug and kiss with a reassurance that you will be back at pick up time works best. Children will think something is wrong if you are upset, watch anxiously from the doorway or don’t appear confident leaving them in the classroom. Early Education teachers are masters at distraction and can usually get a child to calm down and get involved in activities once the parent has left the room. The visual reminder of parents standing at the door can actually increase separation anxiety. The best advice, as hard as it may seem, is to keep a stiff upper lip and not look back. Early Education teachers are accustomed to some tears on the first day and have a warm and wonderful way of making your child feel more comfortable.
7. Provide a Transitional Object: If your child is still having difficulty separating after a period of time, ask the teacher if you may send in a transitional object to assist with the adjustment. This object may be a familiar stuffed animal, a family photo, an inexpensive piece of Mom or Dad’s jewelry for the child to wear, or simply something from home to keep in their backpack. This object may be used at the beginning to comfort anxious children, but will be slowly fazed out once it is no longer necessary.
8. Use Incentive Charts: Encourage children who continue to be anxious with a simple incentive chart at home. Reward children with a smiley face sticker (or any fancy sticker will do!) for each “happy” day they have. Happy days can consist of no tears or simply a calm drop off…you determine the rules according to your child’s behavior. Next, set a sticker goal. Once your child has received a certain number of smiley stickers, he or she is entitled to a small treat. Determine ahead of time what the treat will be (ice cream, trip to the park etc.) Keep in mind that as your child adjusts to school, the treats will become more frequent. As a result, try to keep your rewards simple! If your child is unable to earn a sticker on a given day, encourage him or her to try again tomorrow. Advise the teacher that you are using an incentive chart at home so that he or she may also help your child reach the goal.
9. Talk It Up: Encourage your child to talk about what he or she did at school today. Be positive about any activities and experiences. Display artwork on the frig with pride. Listen carefully to become familiar with the other student’s names. If your child develops a new friendship, perhaps you can arrange a short play date at home so your child will feel more comfortable at school.
10. Hang In There! Separation anxiety is very common especially during first school experiences. It is difficult for any parent to see their little one struggling or upset, but know that, in the end, your child will eventually settle into a school routine. It takes some children longer than others, so don’t give up hope. One day you’ll be able to look back at these first few days and be amazed at how far your child has come!
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