Ask most parents about their child’s first day of school and watch as their eyes mist over and their voices change. Even the most laid-back among us seems to recall details of the day — and all its mixed emotions — with astonishing clarity.
But say you’re interested in their child’s experience and there’s usually a self-deprecating chuckle with an answer like: “Oh…he was fine!” The odd parent will tell you about a child that had to be dragged into his school-age years. But by the time the big day arrives, most kids are curious enough about the whole enterprise to make it inside the door.
Either way, the first day of kindergarten is a major milestone for kids and parents. The launch of your child’s formal learning career, it’s also the beginning of new independence and of family life organized around school hours.
Preparing for the first day of school
Even if your preschooler can’t wait for the kindergarten doors to open, smoothing the pages of this new chapter with a little preparation is a good idea. High on educators’ list is a school visit. “Really, the key is understanding what it might be like,” reports Janette Pelletier, assistant professor of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), who is studying this transition into the school system. She encourages parents to take their children on a stroll through the school, peeking into the new classroom along the way. “Research shows that children are most often upset because they’re unsure of what’s going to happen next, where they put their things, who their teacher is, what they’re supposed to do,” she explains. “That kind of talk ahead of time and any possible experience to familiarize them are really the best things.”
While you can generally catch these tours during spring registration week, you might be able to arrange a visit in the week before school begins. Many kindergarten teachers are sympathetic to this need (check with your school about timing and staff availability). If you can’t get inside the building, rehearsing the walk to school, playing in the school playground and talking about the first day are good alternatives.
If a bus ride will feature in the school day, getting ready for that trip is an important step; some kids worry about it, and there’s the fatigue to consider if the trip’s a long one. Some school boards offer a “first rider” program that gives children (and parents) the chance to rehearse the journey, from boarding to disembarking. Where that program isn’t offered, parents get creative.
“One day when I was trying to be positive about the upcoming bus ride, saying he was such a big boy to be riding the bus to school, he said ‘Mom, look at me, I’m little! How can you just leave me to get on a bus?’” remembers Renée Lopez. “I wanted to cry and laugh!” A little role playing (with mom playing bus driver), along with some discussion about where, when and who would pick him up, assuaged her son Steven’s anxiety. “He did well and felt a lot of pride in his accomplishment,” says the Windsor, Ontario, mom. Another good way to allay fears is to greet children at each end of the bus trip (follow the bus home in your car) for the first week of school.
Kindergarten schedules across the country are as varied as the landscape; some children attend full days, some alternating full days, and others half days. Depending on the board, you may be able to choose morning or afternoon; some parents even seek out different schools for a schedule that suits their child.
Once the year is underway, though, making a schedule change can require more than a little persistence and energy. If your child is having difficulty, a solution doesn’t always have to involve a dramatic change; sometimes the answer lies in a meeting with the teacher.
“When children feel tired and overwrought and there isn’t a rest time, or nobody’s talked to them about it, that’s when they get into the emotional issues and acting out,” explains Pelletier, adding that many full-day kindergartens offer a napping area. “If they’re feeling safe, and they know that people are going to take care of them, they feel so much better.” Even kids who adapt well to the new schedule might doze on the couch before supper (kindergarten is a big deal for a little kid); some parents find that an earlier bedtime boosts their kids’ energy.
The new social scene can also be a big worry for kids heading off to kindergarten. “They’re concerned about the same things we are,” says Margaret Weiner, a veteran kindergarten teacher from Montreal. “Are they going to make friends and have friends?” Parents can help by asking around to uncover classmates in the neighbourhood. “If they have a couple of friends that they’re going to be with when they come in, that’s really ideal.” If that’s not possible, educators recommend giving kids an idea of what to expect — the fun they’ll have meeting new friends and doing exciting new activities — and allowing them to express their concerns; role playing and picture books can also do the trick.
Some parents like to sweeten the school deal with a back-to-school shopping trip (there’s nothing like a new pair of sneakers or a dress to build anticipation). You could also let kids plan a celebratory meal for the first day of school.
When the big day finally arrives, do yourself a favour with a little forethought: clothes set out the night before, kids in bed at a reasonable hour, the breakfast menu decided, lunches packed and alarms set to allow plenty of extra time for a calm, unhurried breakfast. If that sounds like the impossible dream, remember: It’s worth striving for, especially because the first week of school is an excellent opportunity to set a standard for the year. “The morning preparations should not be one big frantic hassle,” says Dale Shipley, who directs the School of Early Childhood Education at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “Children need time in the morning to get going. I think that makes a lot of difference in terms of how their whole day goes.”
Once you get to school, keep it positive — even if you have a lump in your throat. “When you’re saying goodbye, make it a quick, light, reassuring, ‘See you later!’” suggests Carol Johns, a Cranbrook, BC, kindergarten teacher who’s president of the BC Primary Teachers’ Association. “For some of them, it’s a first time to show independence.”
Pelletier agrees, adding that kids are sensitive to their parents’ feelings. She encourages mom and dad to save misgivings for chats with friends. “Sometimes parents are the ones who have the difficulty making these transitions, especially if their child has been home with them right up until the time they go to school.” For children who show signs of separation anxiety, she suggests following the teacher’s lead; some will want you to stay in the classroom for a short time, while others have their own tried-and-true strategies.
Of course, even thorough preparation can’t guarantee a fret-free transition. “The first couple of days, Luke cried hysterically and the teacher had to carry him in the school when the bell rang,” remembers Charlene Robinet of Corunna, Ontario. Teacher and mom settled on a plan: Luke would attend mornings only for a while. It worked. By Christmas, he was staying the full day. Whether or not the separation is difficult, most children appreciate a parent’s smiling face at the end of the day for the first week or so (even if that won’t usually be the case). That’s also a great time to ask about your child’s day. “If parents value school, then so do the kids,” explains Johns.
Shipley reminds parents to expect kindergarten-level responses. “Parents need to adjust to the fact that the child will come home and say, ‘I played today,’ rather than ‘I did some arithmetic today.’” Though the new curriculum (itself a point of contention among educators) has shifted the ground somewhat, kindergarten remains a stage-setter for later academics with learning how to learn as its main purpose.
Regardless of the curriculum’s demands, becoming familiar with your child’s school life is the best way to nurture her learning experience. Parents report feeling more secure when they’re an active part of the equation, whether in the classroom or in the school community in general. Besides, getting busy will do wonders for that lump in your throat.
Saying goodbye at the beginning of the day can be tough, but educators say most children settle quickly once mom or dad leaves. Here are some ways to ease the transition:
• Say when you’ll be back and that you’ll be looking forward to hearing about her first day.
• Ease someone else in. Suggest that he sit beside a special friend or near the teacher.
• Stay for a few minutes (if necessary and with the teacher’s agreement). Begin a dialogue about the transition (“Soon you’ll be staying all by yourself”).
Best getting-ready books
In the weeks before school begins, try these getting-ready-for-school tales:
Spot Goes to School by Eric Hill
Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus
Franklin Goes to School by Paulette Bourgeois