starting school

A Great Start to the School Year

Group of Elementary Pupils In Classroom

After a relaxing summer, getting into the school routine can be a tough transition.  There are lots of small things to do to help the school year get off to a great start.

  • Good night, good breakfast and calm morning – Do what you can the night before including pack lunches, pick outfits and review the schedule. Have a morning routine that ends with a few minutes for something your child enjoy, like legos or playing with the dog. It gives them something to work towards and gives you a time buffer. It may be helpful to be as routine about the mornings as you are about bedtimes.
  • Take advantage of preview experiences – This might include visiting the schools website with your child, playing on the school’s playground, and participating in home or early school visits. Anything to help your child feel familiar with their school.
  • Expect your child to be tired for at least the first several weeks. – This may mean you’ll see more acting out or difficult afternoons. It’s good to lay as low on outside activities as you can. It may be helpful to reinstitute an afternoon quiet time for a while.
  • Be on time – Schools usually do something predictable during the drop off window so children feel more comfortable. It helps your child to know what to expect as they enter. If you are late, the child has no idea what they are walking into. Being on time also ensures they are there for the morning planning time which can help a child feel settled.
  • Participate in school as you can – Be a room parent, volunteer to read, make play-doh or send in party supplies. Your child sees that you value school which goes a long way towards their motivation.
  • Plan playdates – It’s important to have time with a wide variety of kids in the class, not just their favorite one or two. It broadens your child’s social network and at some point during the year they will likely have to work in class with everybody.
  • Ask more interesting questions – Many parents note children aren’t great at answering, “what did you do at school today?” It’s helpful to ask different and more interesting questions each day like, “who did you sit with at lunch?” or, “did anything funny happen today?” It might also be helpful to wait and ask after they’ve had a bit of time away from school.
  • Read the Family Handbook – Schools work hard to write and update their manuals. Many of the questions you have throughout the year about school policies and calendars are answered in the handbook. Read it.
  • Remind them of previous positive transitions – Remind your child of how much fun it was to start at a new camp last summer or to join join a new soccer team. Tell upbeat stories about when you started school.
  • Read upbeat children’s story books about the start of school – Upbeat books include DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown, What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff, If You Take a Mouse to School by Numeroff, Kindergarten Here I Come by Steinberg and Welcome to Kindergarten by Rockwell.
  • Know the drop off and pick up policies – Share the plan for drop off and pick up with your child. As best you can, be sure they know where to go and what to do.
  • If there is separation anxiety – It can be helpful to learn about and have a real plan for separation. This may vary by age and by school logistics. Here is a link to a free 20 minute interview I gave about managing separation anxiety: http://www.parentsperspective.org/index.php?s=separation

Starting at a New School this Fall?

Back to school

Whether your child is starting at a new preschool or elementary school, the first day can be daunting. There are several things you can do over the summer months to help prepare for the first day.

  • Visit the school’s website – Explore the website with your child. Point out pictures of happy children and read about fun yearly activities. Look for pictures of your child’s teacher or classroom.
  • Play on the school’s playground – If it’s available, playing on the school’s playground can build happy memories during the summer that might carry over to the fall.
  • Plan playdates with future classmates – If you have a class list, start contacting families over the summer to play or meet at the pool. If there’s no class list, you might ask neighborhood families if they have or know other children starting at the school. It can be so helpful to see a familiar face on the first day.
  • Attend all back-to-school nights and visit-the-classroom opportunities – This is partly to support your child’s gradual entrance to the new school, and partly to be sure you are an informed parent. Often teachers review school policies and give important information at these events. The more you know about the school the better.
  • Review the drop-off and pick up policies and have a plan for separation as needed – Share the plan for drop-off and pick-up with your child. As best you can, be sure they know where to go and what to do. If your child tends to have separation anxiety, it’s good to know the school’s policy for this as well. Here is a link to a blog post about separation: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/07/23/tips-for-separation-at-the-start-of-the-school-year/. Here is a link to a 20 minute podcast (#341) I gave on managing separation anxiety: http://www.parentsperspective.org/index.php?s=separation.
  • Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines – If you’ve lost a sense of routine, it’s good to rebuild this at least several days before school starts. If children are allowed to stay up late and sleep in the day before school, getting up and getting ready on time can be that much harder. If your kids are grazers over the summer months, it can be helpful to get back to regular meal and snack times as well.
  • Remind them of other positive transitions they’ve made or you’ve made – Remind them how much fun they had when they started at a new camp last summer or when they joined a new soccer team. Tell upbeat stories about when you started school.
  • Read upbeat children’s storybooks about the start of school –   Upbeat books include DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown, What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff,  If You Take a Mouse to School by Numeroff, Kindergarten, Here I Come by Steinberg and Welcome to Kindergarten by Rockwell.

Tips for Separation at the Start of the School Year

It is normal for young children to experience some level of separation anxiety at the start of a new school year. It often represents a change in caregiver, schedule, setting and classmates. As a parent, it makes sense to prepare yourself for some upset, and be pleasantly surprised if it is an easy transition.

  • Take Advantage of Previews – If your school offers a summertime classroom visit or an opportunity to meet their teacher, attend. Attend the back to school night with your child if that’s available. Play on their playground, and make playdates with their classmates as soon as you can. Any preview experience can be helpful.
  • Don’t Sneak Out, Say Goodbye –  As hard as it can be, sneaking out builds mistrust in the system. Children are more likely to cling harder the next day.
  • Goodbye Rituals Can Be Helpful – Children may be comforted by a sense of routine. In our house, this meant I would give two high-fives and a hug before I left them anywhere. This helped them to relax in new situations because they knew I wouldn’t leave unexpectedly.
  • Avoid Pushing Them Out – It can be helpful to give them time to hang back, to observe a bit before they dive into a new setting. In these moments, often the more you push them out, the more they resist. Avoid saying, “you should play legos,” while directing them there. It’s better to hang out with them and comment on the fun, or go with them to see the legos together.
  • Wait Until You Mean It, Then Say It and Go – Avoid saying goodbye several times only to stay longer. This builds more tension in the system as the children try new ways to keep you there, and they learn you don’t really mean it when you say it.
  • Ask for Regular Feedback from Teachers – The teachers want a smooth transition for your child as much as you do. It helps everyone to stay in regular communication. It is fine to ask them to call you at a given time, or ask them to track how it is going over the first few weeks.

>starting school

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I need your help!!! My six year old daughter Amy is having some anxiety related to starting school soon. She has been having difficulty going to bed at night; this seems to be the only time it manifests itself. As soon as I move to leave the room, she starts fidgeting and says she needs to go to the bathroom. When we return to her room, she says she has to go again. Last night, we stopped the whole process and talked to her about what will happen the first day of school and also explained we are meeting her teacher next week. Is it too much to expect to have her get on the bus the first day? I worry that if she doesn’t do it the first day I’m setting her up to depend on me everyday. She has a very good friend who will be riding the bus with her, but I’m not sure that will be enough to motivate her. We are thinking we may look into therapy to help her deal with anxieties.

Thanks, Samantha
Mother of two, ages 3 and 6 years

Dear Samantha,

I am sorry to hear this has been hard already. My older daughter had very similar nights (and mornings) when she was a bit younger. I’m going to write about the global things first, then more practical.

Between now and the time school starts, think lots of downtime and empathy. Downtime is unscheduled, low key playtime. It is fine to have friends over and to go out, but I wouldn’t run everyone ragged in the last few days. When children are tired, their worries seem overwhelming. Downtime also lends itself to more open conversation. I would talk about school with her when she brings it up or when she seems particularly anxious – just like you did the other night – stopping everything and talking about her first day.

The empathy component is to remember that her worries are hers and they are real, and the reasoning, reassuring and logic do little to actually help. Empathy (labeling emotions, talking her through and suggesting ways to cope) allows her to own those feeling and validate them so you and she are on the same page. Empathy helps children to calm because they feel understood. So, first approach with empathy before the fix.

Prepare her as best you can, which you are already doing. Talk her through the daily schedule, and answer questions whenever needed. You might go play on the school playground or have playdates with other kids going to the same school. When you meet the teacher, you might ask if you can take a picture of her and the teacher together, and then get it printed that day, so she can have it to hold onto until school starts. You might also use the picture to make a craft project – a poster for her room or a card to give the teacher on the first day, etc. or do both with copies.

Before you meet the teacher next week, you might sit with Amy to find out if she has anything she wants the teacher to know or wants you to ask the teacher. If it were me, I’d tell her tomorrow to think about those things and then talk about it over the few days before meeting the teacher. This gives Amy a sense of control of the meeting. She has her questions answered.

Talk to her about the bus idea and how fun you remember the bus to be and games/songs you remember while riding with your friends. If another good friend rides the bus with her, maybe you all could meet 10 minutes before and board together. Maybe you could assure her that you will step on to be sure she sits with someone she knows. It is best if she can face it and get on the bus the first day but don’t be defeated if not. It may be that she takes and few days to feel confident about school and then can better face the bus. If the bus doesn’t happen the first day, I would plan a goal date that it will, such as the second day or Monday of the second week. Something realistic so it doesn’t turn into a year. Getting on with a friend might be the thing – especially if you make a date out of it.

Remember too that your attitude goes a long way, and she is reading you more than you know. If you are apprehensive and worried, the morning won’t go well; she gets that, at least to some extent. So, put on your brave face and smile through her upset. You want to send the message that the bus and school are safe and fun places, it is where she should be, and that you have no doubt she will enjoy herself and want to ride the bus everyday. If you can start to anticipate that it will all go WELL, it will go all the better.

You might check out Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Wignall, Spence, Cobham and Rapee.

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

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