Submitted By Gail Reuther, executive director of Mt. Olive Child Care & Learning Center
Remember the first time you went to school as a young child and had to separate from your mother and/or father and leave your comfortable, familiar home behind? Now, as an adult, think about how traumatic it can be to move to a new house or apartment, start a new job, or go back to school after being out of school for a long time. Changes such as these can cause most of us to experience at least some degree of stress. It’s normal for us to need some time to adjust to new situations.
Children experience these same feelings of anxiety when they are asked to cope with a major change such as starting school for the first time. How we, as parents, deal with both our child’s feelings and our own feelings during times of change is critical in helping children acclimate smoothly to school.
Over the years, in working with young children and their families, I have seen some children adjust remarkably well when starting school and others who have a much more difficult time coping with the new experience. The keys to helping children ease into school more readily are: Understanding what normal behaviors may occur in children during times of stress; and planning ahead to prepare children
Let’s take a look at some developmental issues. Unlike physical development, which continually progresses forward, children’s emotional development can both progress and regress from one day to the next. A child may be enthusiastic about starting school one day and talk about the new friends he or she will meet and the great fun playing with new toys and games. However, the next day that same
child may proclaim not wanting to go to school thinking that nobody will want to play with him or her, or that mom or dad might not come pick him up on time.
According to child development specialists, certain behaviors can normally occur during times of stress.
A child’s individual temperament can either work for or against a smooth adjustment to school. Some children shy away from or withdraw from a new situation; the slow to warm up child needs extra time to get used to any new experience and setting. This withdrawn behavior should not be interpreted as lack of interest or disobedience. Other children may cry excessively; this can cause parents to feel
tremendous guilt about leaving a child with a teacher or caregiver.
Displaying anger verbally or physically are other normal reactions to stress. This temperament is known as “feisty” or “difficult.” Children who have an “easy” temperament generally transition steadily to a new school experience, with minimal stress for both the child and the parent.
How then can we help our children learn to feel comfortable and enjoy their school experience? The transition to school at any age can be facilitated when parents plan ahead.
It is important to acknowledge your own feelings about separating from your child. Separation anxiety is perfectly understandable and normal. Even if you are apprehensive about leaving your child, try to
outwardly remain calm so that your child does not see or sense your stress. You may want to let your child know how you felt when you first went off to school: How you were a little scared since you didn’t know what would happen, but at the same time excited about meeting other children and having fun. A realistic portrayal of your experience like how you met new children, made friends and played with some great toys may help your child realize that mixed emotions will not last long.
Spend some time playing with your child each day to help deal with feelings about school. Through their play, children can often talk more openly about their feelings. Role-playing with puppets, dolls,
and stuffed animals enables a child to verbalize and act out in a safe setting feelings with which the child may have difficulty coping. Also, reading stories about favorite characters such as Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Bernstein Bears going to school for the first time can reinforce how it’s normal and okay to be anxious about going to school.
It’s important to visit the school a few times prior to your child’s first day so your child can become familiar with the environment. When a child is able to become acquainted with the staff, children, classrooms, games and materials ahead of time, it helps ease the transition. “Practicing” going to school goes a long way in helping a child see school as an important part of his routine.
Be sure to establish a consistent routine for your child when he goes to school. Going to bed at the same time, getting enough sleep and allowing enough time to ready for school in the morning are critical.
Make going to school an important part of your child’s life. Most schools have procedures in place to help ease a child into school. Allowing a child to bring something from home such as a favorite doll, stuffed animal and even a photo of a parent can help. Such security objects enable a child to feel more at ease when the “familiar friend” accompanies the child to school.
Assure that you always love them, even when their behavior may be “out of sorts” due to anxiety or stress. Tell your child the approximate time that you will return later in the day and work with staff to communicate this message helps to build trust. When you come back, be enthusiastic about your child’s school experience and ask your child details about something they really liked at school that day. Above all, be patient: your calm and reassuring voice can enable a child to adjust and enjoy school.