It’s almost that time of the year- the one that causes parents and teachers alike to tremble (some with joy and others with dread)! Back to School season!! Big box and department stores are already stocking their floors with “Back to School” sales. You’ve probably already received an email from your child’s teacher requesting a long list of school supplies; who knew that a kindergartener needed socks to clean up a whiteboard? Some of you might be doing a little jig of excitement about a world of new experiences opening up to your child, while others of you are longing for the time that your young child explored the world from the safety and comfort of your arms.
Typically, times of transition bring both curiosity and anxiety in children. I want you to remember your first day of preschool or kindergarten…what types of body sensations, emotions, or memories do you have of that experience? Some of you might recall wonderful sights (toys galore, play structures, new friends), while others might recall stories of tantrums, bathroom accidents, or attempts to escape. I still remember my first day of kindergarten when my dad directed my attention to the biggest doll house my eyes had seen. I felt a flutter of excitement and when I turned around to share that emotion with him, he was nowhere to be seen. I can still feel my body want to curl up as a wave of abandonment came over my 5-year-old self. As an adult, I can understand how many parents don’t want to prolong departure in order to prevent tears or tantrums; however, we can learn little ways to empower children in preparing for this new stage and give them the tools to find their own roadmap to handling transitions.
Having worked as a school-based mental health clinician, I have witnessed children having a wide array of responses to their first day of school. Change is hard, but it is also necessary for learning and developmental progress. Finally, understand that it may take some time for your child to fully acclimate to their classroom and teacher. If after a few weeks of starting school, you have worries that your child might be having a hard time dealing with separation anxiety, social anxiety, or extreme shyness; play therapy might be a beneficial treatment option.
Here are a few activities that you can introduce to your child to support their experience-
- Let’s go to the library- Most children enjoy being read to or love “reading” to you. What better way to get them prepared for reading in groups then introducing books about the first day of school? Use this opportunity to sit with your child to identify and label feelings of the characters. Help them anticipate possible activities, emotions, and experiences that they might have on their first day. Acknowledge both the “positive” feelings as well as feelings of fear or worry. Help them identify ways that they can problem solve or cope with those situations. You might not be able to find solutions to all their worries, but the one thing that you can do is listen and acknowledge their thoughts and feelings. Don’t we all feel a little better when someone finally “gets” how we are feeling?
Check out San Diego Public Library- they have several children’s books about the first day of school.
- Let’s play “School”-Children enact and practice new experiences through play. Engage your child in using their toys to build a schoolhouse, classroom or playground. Have them be the teacher, and you be the student (they will love this because they rarely get to successfully boss others around). Let them guide you during the play- I know you might want to jump in and correct something that they say, but control that impulse. You might learn more from their perceptions of this new experience if you sit and observe.
- Let’s go on a field trip- Take a tour of the school and/or classroom before school starts. Sometimes we forget that new places can be too sensory stimulating for children- just imagine Chuck E. Cheese. The first day of school will be very loud, visually disorienting (a room full of toys, furniture, and images decorate the classroom). If you know that your child is slow-to-warm to new experiences, speak to the teacher and attempt to set up a quick tour. Many teachers are back to school 2-4 days before the official start date.
- Let’s take a nap- Start your routine several weeks before school starts. This might be one of the hardest things for your child (and maybe you as well). Children deal better with new experiences when they have a routine that has been established and is consistent. Not everything has to be followed to the minute. Start with setting a bedtime where your child can get at least 10 hours of sleep. Yes, you read that correctly, your preschooler and kindergartener should be getting at least 10 hours of sleep. Many children are not sleeping enough which leads to outbursts, inattention, irritability- and that’s just the parents. If you want to reduce the stress those first few day, I would start here.
- Let’s not forget our “lovey”- We all have loveys, which are favorite objects that we use to help soothe anxiety or stress. Some of us use smartphones, articles of clothing or pictures during stressful times to help us feel better. Check with your child’s teacher about what type of loveys are acceptable and where they can be kept during classroom hours. Talk to your child about their lovey in front of their teachers so that they will feel empowered to seek them out when they need reassurance. Examples of loveys that work well are:
> pictures of family, either photographs or drawings
>necklace with key: for children who are afraid that parents won’t come back for them, a key can help them be reassured that they are needed by the parent.
> backpack- for all children, a backpack may help build a bridge between the home environment and school
*Be wary that loveys should be replaceable in case they enter the black holes found in classrooms where even a world renown expedition crew could not retrieve them. *
For your convenience, here are the dates for the first day of the following San Diego Area School Districts: