Six ways to prepare your child for the first day of school

By Vicki Orlando

As parents, teachers and caregivers, we want our children to be happy and successful.  We want them to see, develop and express their unique sense of self.  We want them to love themselves, others and the world. We want them to build a resiliency that helps them feel safe, and acquire skills strategies that work, whether they are creating positive relationships or forging a career.   In the words of researcher and author, Carol Dweck, we want them to have a “growth mindset”, so they will relish learning, delight in a challenge, and find value in effort.  

Young children live very much in the moment and can infuse both the positive and negative feelings of their experience in a way adults rarely remember. In preparing for the first day for school, it is important for us to acknowledge to children that the beginning of a new year is a time for strong feelings, and it is okay to feel them or to see others feel them. As we name feelings, talk about how they work and how they tell us things about what we can choose and do. They may still cry or shout, it may take a while for calm to return, but with our own awareness of what is happening, our taking the time to gently assure them, we are supporting, moment to moment the growth of their resiliency. Here are six ways that parents can help their children create a smooth transition to school:  

  1. Read and discuss books together. Reading stories about the beginning of school or about being anxious in challenging situations is a good opportunity for to give words to feelings and talk about them in a safe way.  Older preschoolers can recognize that feelings come and go and that they never lose the power to choose even when they are feeling their feelings.
  2. Anticipate and create choices together.  As the saying goes, there is always something you don’t know in what you know, and there is always something you know in what you don’t know. Visiting the school ahead of time helps children to explore both the unknown and known in a very comfortable way. What do you want to see first today? Go on a treasure hunt for school essentials; finding them affirms a sense of safety and belonging.  “I knew there would be blocks.  I didn’t know where the bathroom was, but I knew it was there. Talk about the things you liked. Muse about the choices your child may make for play during the next visit. Anne Rockwell’s classic book My Preschool  is a favorite introduction to school, and a springboard for your child writing his or her own book about the first school day.
  3. Practice Departures with awareness.   Play dates and their spending time away from home with relatives are good ways to practice being apart and to model, practice and build the assurances that comfort the anxiety or stress come with transitions.

    You can notice aloud that yes, a parent leaves for work and comes back.  The other goes shopping but then returns. Affirming out loud your routine going and coming back helps the reliable reality to sink in. On returning to your child, take a few minutes to savor the moment with him or her – this is how we humans install experiences in our brain.  A truly comforting book that helps children visualize the constancy of your  connection to them is The Invisible String by Patricia Karst
  4. Recall happy times together.  Young children need our help to remind them of their happy times and successes because they do not yet rewind and replay events as readily as older children or adults can.  In Hardwiring Happiness,  Dr. Rick Hanson explains that recalling is a way for our brain to install the good and build our resilience for when things become difficult. Whenever we choose to think about positive feelings we grow positive feelings and, as these become wired in the brain, they can lend comfort to apprehension, just like practicing a physical balancing task helps children to keep from falling more easily.  Make the most of your positive experiences with your children  – from simple things like enjoying an ice cream cone, reading a book together or discovering a new friend or enjoyable activity –  and  then  pause, recall them fondly, install.
  5. Create a reliable departure routine.   Model your own trust for their safe-keeping at school and your mutual well-being while they are away by creating a brief good-bye ritual for school that you practice beforehand at home. Over the ages rituals have been created because they assure us of ongoingness, that what has happened before will happen again. It might be a special hug, word or phrase, but keep it brief, and turn toward the door with assurance. Repeat on the next day, whatever happens.  Even very young children can figure out a way to justify or delay your exit. But remember, even though it may be difficult to do, model what you are asking of them – trust that all is well and all will be well.

    Honestly, when children are upset after parting with their parents,  their  initial answer is often “I want to go home” or “I want Mom”  –  not  viable options.  Together, finding another way to be in touch or in charge such as a phone call when the child chooses, or letting the child pick a way to be comforted  like sitting on your lap, holding a picture or favorite toy offers a choice which we can fulfill.  We then want to   acknowledge aloud  the improvement we see, “It looks like you’re feeling a little better” helps young children to take in the good and that they can help us  help them. These small moments build their resiliency.
  6. Practice mindful moments.  Take mindful moments throughout your day and stop to pause and focus with your child on a sound, something you see or hear.  It may be something as simple as looking at their feet, their hands or a flower, and breathing in that moment as a peaceful or strong moment. When you become frustrated or upset, pause, articulate and model the skill, affirming “I needed that moment to feel more like myself!”  

We would love to hear from you: What routines do you practice at home to get your children ready for school?

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