If you’re not in New Zealand, children here begin school when they turn 5. The Summer school holidays are ending and it’s back-to-school this week. Children under 5 can go to an early childhood education (ECE) centre. Kindergarten is one type of ECE centre.
Jake (5 years) goes back to school this week and Thomas (almost 3 years) has just had his first days at Kindergarten (kindy). For some children, these transitions are smooth-sailing. For others, they are very stressful. Jake amazed me with his effortless start to school last year. Thomas has been sticking close to me while we’ve been at kindy and has been upset while I’ve been gone. Having been a teacher myself, I have the benefit of understanding these transition stages from both sides so wanted to make a list of my best tips to help parents. Most of them are common sense, really, but it’s helpful to be reminded of them.
Be sure of your decision. As a parent, check that you are feeling good about your choice of school or ECE centre. When choosing a school or centre, remember that none will be perfect but, if it generally feels right, trust that feeling. When deciding on the right time for your under-5 to begin ECE, remember that there also may be no ideal time – you’re weighing up so many factors which may not coincide perfectly. So, again, trust your feeling about the timing. This is my first tip because settling in can be a difficult process for some families and it is much easier for you to be strong for your child when you are confident in your decisions.
Build familiarity before school/kindy starts. Most schools and ECE centres offer the opportunity for you to visit with your child before they officially begin. During his kindy visits, Thomas had a chance to connect with the teachers and discover some of the activities that he would be able to do when started kindy. While Jake is returning to the same school, over the last few weeks of holiday, I have organised a few playdates for him to reconnect with school friends. There are also little ways to add familiarity to your child’s day once school/kindy starts. For example, pack lunches with food your child has had before and likes.
Address the practicalities. Depending on your child’s age, this means different things. It includes giving them clothing and equipment they can manage independently. For example, a school-aged child needs to be able to take their shoes, coats and hats on and off themselves. Make sure your child knows what happens for toileting. At school, do they know where their classroom’s closest toilet is and what they have to do to let the teacher know they need to go (teachers have a variety of systems around this)? At kindy, I showed Thomas where the change table was and explained that a teacher would change his nappy when he was at kindy. By addressing these kinds of practicalities, we can eliminate them as stressors, which is particularly helpful for a child who is anxious about their new beginning.
Acknowledge and allow any anxious feelings your child has. If they are old-enough, give them an opportunity to tell you how they are feeling about starting or returning to school/kindy. One question to ask is, “Is there anything you’re worried about?” This question is better not asked just before going to bed, incase they lie awake worrying. Choose a time when they are relaxed and calm. Without dishing out a list of instructions, it may be appropriate to discuss simple strategies for dealing with some of their concerns. But, most importantly, show your understanding. Life is full of new beginnings which can create anxiety in all of us. Your child’s anxious feelings are normal and they need assurance of this. Also, allow your child their tears when it comes time to leave them at school or kindy. Telling them off for crying or offering rewards for not crying when you leave adds the pressure of holding themselves together in an already stressful situation. As a parent, their tears and hysterics can feel embarrassing and over-the-top but we need to tuck our egos away and be their support.
Talk positively about school or kindy. If your child sees that you feel positively about school or kindy, they will feel assured that it’s a good place to go. Talk with them about what they are looking forward to. It may be learning to read, playing on the playground or seeing a friend. Talk about teachers and children you met while on your visit – their friendliness, kindness, sense of humour.
Pray with and for your children. If you’re a praying family, this is a great tool for both parents and children. As Thomas has been settling into Kindy, I have prayed each morning that he feels safe and enjoys himself. I ask that the teachers are tuned in to his needs. On Jake’s first day back to school, we will say a prayer together. We have a 12-minute drive to school and often pray together on the way. I have a motto which I apply to many things, including prayer – “begin with thank you”. In this case, Jake may be grateful to see his friends or to play on the playground at lunchtimes. We will pray for support over anything that’s worrying him about returning to school and just for a great school year generally. Praying with our children, shows that we have faith that The Universe is with them, supporting them. I hope my boys will develop a sense of God being everywhere they go, including the classrooms and playgrounds of school.
Remind your children of techniques they can use to manage their feelings while at school. This tip may be more for older children. Which techniques they use don’t matter and will depend on what you have taught them. For example, you can suggest that, when they are feeling anxious or lonely, they could take a few mindful breaths to calm down or say a prayer to remember that God is with them. These little things can help prevent them from descending into overwhelm or panic.
Create predictability around drop-off and pick-up times. As I write this, Thomas is into his third day at kindy. I have ducked out to give him an hour without me as part of the transition process. Before kindy this morning, I told him exactly when I would be leaving and when I’d be returning. I left exactly when I said I would and will be back at kindy in exactly 29 minutes. This builds his trust in me so that he knows I will always return when I say I will, making him happier to be left at kindy. Another way to create predictability for your child is to develop a drop-off routine over the first days/weeks. It may be that you stay with them while they put their things away, read a story together in the classroom/centre, hug and kiss, then go. If your child has trouble at drop-off time, enlist their teacher’s help. When I was teaching, I gave anxious children a job to do once they had said their goodbyes to keep them busy and give them a sense of belonging.
No long goodbyes. If you say you’re going to go after reading one story – go! It is heart-wrenching when we see our child worried and upset but it is more confusing for them and prolongs their anxiety if we don’t leave after saying “goodbye”. They may also learn that, if they’re dramatic enough, you’ll stay longer – using your empathy against you! Remember, your child is in good hands – teachers are used to managing separation and want your child to be settled and happy at school just like you do. If you’re anticipating “a scene” when it comes time to go, let the teacher know so they can be on-hand to comfort your child while you leave and settle them in.
Make and take time to settle your child in. I can see that Thomas needs a gradual easing into kindy. He hasn’t been left with people other than close family before and is finding the separation from me difficult. Currently, I’m leaving only for an hour each time and staying with him for the rest of the session because he has been upset without me. I have cleared my calendar so I can do this. Once Thomas is more settled during his hour without me, I will gradually lengthen the time I stay away until he can be dropped-off at the start of session and picked-up at the end like usual. While he needs to learn how to be at kindy without me, I also want to avoid him associating kindy with feeling distraught because I’m not there. He’s very happy when I am there, playing and building positive associations with kindy. We’re aiming for more happy, settled moments than, upset, anxious ones. For most school-aged children, this slower settling-in process won’t be necessary because they’ll be older and likely to have attended an ECE centre where they’ve adjusted to staying without their parents.
I hope there’s something useful here for you and that your children’s transition into school or kindy is a happy one.