Parents play a very important part in introducing their children to the big world of school and normalizing the back-to-school transition to young children. Priming (mentally preparing) a child’s behavior, practicing school-time routines, and setting the experience as a positive one (talking about it, allaying fears) are a few things parents can do to help make going to school a positive experience for their children. Here are some practical dos and don’ts on how to successfully prepare young children for school.
One of the biggest hurdles with school is that it necessitates children being separated from their parents. While this may not be as significant for children who have been to day care facilities or children who are temperamentally independent in their behavior, it can be a huge undertaking for children who are not used to being separated from their parents or caretakers for long periods of time
- Talk about the separation with your child as early as you can. Present it as your child being “big” and “ready” for this fun job that’s called going to school. Show confidence in your child’s ability to handle the situation so your child starts feeling ready for it too
- Tell them about all the other children going to school and how all those little children will not be with their mommies or daddies while at school. Normalize the experience of going to school as much as possible with examples of kids he knows who are already going to school.
- Don’t wait till the last minute to spring a whole day of separation on your child. Do ease into it by setting up short separation trials where your child is left with the care of a familiar person.
- If possible, opt for a half-day schedule at school for the first couple of weeks until your child has acclimated to the separation.
- Do visit the school, if you can, ahead of time, to familiarize your child to this new environment. At the very least, drive your child past it and point at the parts of the building that house the preschool or kindergarten classes and where you will wait for the pick-up.
- Keep talking about how the time will fly and you’ll be there to bring your child home. If your child knows how to tell time, have him or her time activities and compare them to school duration.
- Don’t go to school with your child and sit in the classroom; this doesn’t ease the transition, it only prolongs the process. Your child will need to eventually get used to being without you in that classroom and sending any message that says otherwise is counterproductive.
- If your child has already been to school, talk about last year, how you dropped off in the morning and picked up your child after school and how well that worked out.
Apprehension about the unknown
There is more than just a new building or classroom in the unknown that is “school”. There are a lot of new behaviors to which your child will have to get accustomed and be expected to do, when going to school. Preparing for those behaviors ahead of time will certainly help in easing your child’s fear of the unknown.
- Start with a consistent bedtime routine: As much ahead of time as you can, have your child go to sleep and wake up at around the same time so school days start off as smoothly as possible.
- Throughout the day, talk about the daily school routine and how things are done differently than at home. Point to the parts that are similar with the two environments and explain to your child what will be different and why.
- Create a visual schedule mirroring the daily activities of school (story time, play time, nap time, recess, etc.) and have your child follow along at home.
- Have your child draw or talk about what he or she thinks others will be doing at school and whenever possible, reinforce the idea that everyone at school will be happy to be there because of all the fun activities. Don’t raise your child’s expectations to the point of possible disappointment later, just put a positive twist to things, in general terms, so that your child pairs the activity with positive feelings.
- Shop for school: buying new goodies for the backpack or lunchpack will bring the right amount of novelty and familiar objects for your child to feel secure.
- Your child will automatically receive less attention at school than at home, because the teachers will have to be attentive to everyone, not just your child. Practice delayed gratification with your child at home; make him or her wait to get your attention a little bit, then a little bit more. This will habituate your child to having to wait to get an adult’s attention as well as helping your child become a little more independent.
- If your child has already been to school, talk about last year and the activities, children, and adults that your child seemed to like, reminding and reinforcing the familiarity of the situation to your child.
Socialization with others
Not knowing how to act, not being able to rely on others for needs and wants, not knowing how other will act, can all play a pivotal part in your child’s anxiety about school. Though your child may not be able to verbalize it yet, uncertainty about possible interaction with these strangers may be causing undue negative feelings about school in your child. Assuage those fears by teaching your child how to act, how to ask for what he or she wants, and what to do when things don’t go right.
- With other children: talk to your child about sharing toys, books, and time with adults. If possible, send your child to school with a teddy bear or a familiar object so your child will feel less lonely. Explain what is considered appropriate versus inappropriate behavior with other children (say hello, smile, don’t pull hair or push others, etc.). Present meeting new people and making new friends in a positive way by pointing out how your child befriended someone new and how well that turned out.
- With adults: talk to your child about how to ask to use the restroom, ask for water, or help with cutting up foods, or wearing a jacket. Assure your child that the adults are there to help as well as teach and not to be afraid to ask for help. Tell your child to go to an adult if something or someone bothers him or her.
- Have a dialogue with your child about school: By asking open ended questions about school, schoolmates and teachers, gauge your child’s grasp on the concept of school and guide your child into having realistic expectations about the experience.
When school starts, make sure to check in with your child about his or her day. An easy way to get your child to tell you about the day is to have your child answer the questions:
- The best thing that happened at school
- The worst thing that happened at school.
This should be a good opener to start a conversation about school and your keeping your pulse on how your child is habituating to the new environment.
First impressions of school tend to leave an indelible mark on future school-going-behavior. Hope the practical advice above helps you in making that first impression a pleasant and memorable one for your child.
This post is written by the lovely Megan, whom I have been chatting to on Twitter and social media ever since I started this blog. Megan Broutian is a behavior analyst turned blogger. She writes about parenting using the principles of behavioral psychology at Behavioral Child and about life in general, and hers in particular, at Megan Blogs. She blogs at: http://behavioralchild.com and http://meganblogs.com.