It’s Going to Be Okay: Kindergarten and the First Days of School
Every name tag is in place, every learning center in order, every pencil sharpened. The date and first lessons are written on the board. The activities for the month are planned in minute detail. The energy out in the hallway is unmistakable. It’s the first day of school. It’s a mixture of excitement, anxiety, sadness, and fear for both students and parents. It’s not easy to say goodbye.
As a former kindergarten teacher of eight years, I witnessed my share of first-day jitters. Sometimes it was manifested in the form of a long and tearful goodbye, or even a violent display of emotion. The occasional sprinting escape artist was one of my favorites… said no teacher ever. Then there was the most heartbreaking: the tame and timid child who follows every direction without complaint, only with silent tears running down her cheeks to reveal the deep sadness in her heart. Having had the chance to experience time and again this exciting and often challenging transition, I have a few suggestions that might help everyone ease into the school year with a few less tears.
Recognize the Emotion
When emotions run high the first year of school, there are always a few parents that react negatively to the point of anger or humiliation. Some may threaten punishment (“I’m going to spank you”), belittle (“You’re being ridiculous”), or lie (“Teacher is going to lock you in the closet if you don’t stop’). Yes, someone actually said that. When a child is not coping well with the thought of you leaving them behind, the frustration you may feel is understandable. But remember that from a child’s eyes, transitioning from home to school is the biggest adjustment they’ve ever had to make and some confusion or sadness is expected. Try to meet that with compassion. Simply vocalizing that you comprehend the enormity of it may help volumes.
Prepare in Advance
Begin talking about school, at the very least, weeks before hand. Make it real for them. Go supply shopping together, practice “school” with them, take them to some community story-times, even arrange to leave them with a sitter, daycare, or camp for short periods of time to get used to being dropped off and picked up. Make sure your child is confident with their basic care such as using the bathroom, dressing and feeding themselves, carrying their own belongings, and putting them away. Practice basic classroom rules such as taking turns, raising their hand, walking (not running), using a “quiet voice”, and asking for permission. Anticipating and addressing potential challenges will help tremendously when the time for school comes. Don’t skip Meet the Teacher Night; it can help make the transition go more smoothly.
Have a Plan
First, make a routine and stick to it. Just like any other move towards independence, such as learning to sleep on their own, you get the best results when there is a predictable routine. Prepare belongings the night before, have an early bedtime, and give adequate time to get ready in the morning before school. Secondly, prepare emotionally. Some pray together, others read books or sing songs that are familiar or comforting. Laced within all of this activity should be communicate with the child as to exactly why their routine has changed. Don’t hide anything from them. Thirdly, have a clear and simple plan for dismissal from school and communicate that to the teacher in your child’s presence, as “Who will pick me up?” is often the student’s biggest anxiety. Finally, have an after-school plan. This can be a special outing or just an ordinary activity. However, reminding them that they have something to look forward to doing with you after school will help them get through the day.
You may do all of the above and still have difficulties that last for days, even weeks. The best thing to do for all in this situation is to leave. Long, lingering goodbyes can increase your child’s anxiety and/or give them hope that somehow you’ll change your mind if they continue the behavior. Your child’s teacher may invite you to stay a period of time, but if she does not, she is signaling you to move on. Believe me, the teacher wants nothing more than for your child than to be happy and successful at school. Allowing her to handle the situation the way she is experienced in doing will speed up the process. Many teachers keep close communication with parents throughout the day via email, phone, or text in situations like these, allowing the parent to check in. If your anxiety is high, ask the teacher to send you a photo once or twice a day until things improve.
Sometimes, even when the child is ecstatic to go to school, the parent suffers from anxiety and sadness. Take steps to care for yourself and work through the emotion. One way of coping with the change is to celebrate the milestone. Create first day of school traditions to make the occasion joyful and exciting. This might take form of First Day Photos, First Day Breakfast, First Day Eve Dinner, creating a first day of school craft, or giving a first day of school gift.
Parents, students, teachers: it is our wish for you all to have a smooth and productive school year. Hopefully you will find some of these tips helpful the first weeks of class. Remember to take heart. It’s all gonna be okay!
Christy Ortiz is a Fort Worth native, and is proud to say so. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UT Arlington in Interdisciplinary Studies. She taught for FWISD for eight busy years before switching gears to stay home with her two small children. Her hobbies are interior decorating for friends, photography, and flying kites with her kids. Her South American roots and love for the Spanish language and Latin cultures add to the diverse voices of our group.