Bigger Kids

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier

Both you and your preschooler are probably feeling anxious about the first day of kindergarten. These tips can help make the transition to school less scary.

By Christine Fischer Guy
How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier

Photo: Stocksy

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.

Visit the 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.

Practice getting to school

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.

Pick a schedule that suits your kid

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.

Help them make friends

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.

Make the big day special

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.”

Be positive at drop-off

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. Here are a few to try:

-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”).

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.

Best getting-ready books

In the weeks before school begins, try these getting-ready-for-school tales:

Mouse’s Big Day

Written and illustrated by Lydia Monks, published by Publishers Group Canada It’s Mouse’s first day of school and she doesn’t want to go at all! Your child may share the same feelings, but once she sees the fun Mouse has after meeting her new friends, those worries will melt away. $14,

Read more: How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier

A picture of the book cover Mouse's big day Photo: BNC CataList

Buddy and Earl Go Back to School

Written by Maureen Fergus and illustrated by Carey Sookocheff, Groundwood Books In this fourth installment of the beloved Buddy and Earl series, the hedgehog and dog duo take their antics to the classroom. Kids will be entertained when Professor Earl takes over teaching duties for the day and will learn that the limits of classroom fun are boundless! $17,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Groundwood Books


Here Comes Teacher Cat

Written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda, Dial Books for Young Readers When the mischievous Cat is called in to be a substitute teacher for six little kittens, he is less than enthused. However, through forming a rock band, covering the classroom in paint and personalizing other lesson plans, both Cat and the kittens learn more than just their ABCs from one another. $23,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Dial Books for Young Readers

A New School Year

Written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Mika Song, published by Charlesbridge This book of poems follows six different children as they share their worries about their first day of school. Follow along with your anxious kid, whose nerves will surely be eased as the children all come to find that the first day isn’t nearly as scary as they thought it would be. $20,

Cover of the book titled A New School Year

Photo: BNC CataList

What the Dinosaurs Did at School

Written by Refe and Susan Tuma, published by Little Brown Books Your child will love all the colourful photographs of the mischievous dinosaurs getting into all sorts of antics around the school. Read along as these dinos play fight in the library, create masterpieces in the art room and party it up in the Drawer of No Return. $24,

Read more: How to make a calming jar

Cover of the book What the Dinosaurs Did at School Photo: BNC CataList


Sela Blue and the First Day of School

Written by Alisia Dale and illustrated by Sheree Evelina, published by Huckleberry Sweet Pie Publishing Ltd. If your kids loved Madeline and Anne of Green Gables they’ll enjoy this rhyming and whimsical book about an inquisitive and relatable little girl who lives in a musical villiage. In the third book in the series, Sela Blue prepares for her first day of school. She’s got lots of questions: what do you do when the bell rings? What if the desk is too wobbly? But she’s very excited too. $27,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Huckleberry Sweet Pie Publishing Ltd.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade

Written by Justin Roberts and illustrated by Christian Robinson, published by Penguin Young Readers Group When you’re the smallest girl in the smallest grade no one really notices you, but you notice everything. Just ask Sally McCabe—she sees everything, from the keys the janitor carries around to the bullying that happens on the playground. Can one little girl’s loud voice make a difference? $20,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Penguin Young Readers Group

Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten

Written by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff, published by Puffin Books Rhyme along with the alphabet in this book about getting ready for school. Readers follow Ms. Bindergarten as her class gets ready for the first day. Help teach the alphabet while making going to school seem fun to anxious kids. $11,

Read more: 7 things kindergarten teachers want you to know

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Puffin Books


Chu’s First Day of School

Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Adam Rex, Harper Collins Publishers Chu is very nervous about his first day of school. What happens there? Will the other boys and girls be nice? Will they like Chu? And, his biggest fear, will he do what he does best – sneeze!? $17,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Harper Collins Publishers

The Day My Mom Came to Kindergarten

Written by Maureen Fergus and illustrated by Mike Lowery, published by Kids Can Press It’s not always the kid that’s scared of kindergarten – sometimes it’s the parent. This story follows a mom who was sad to see her daughter head off to kindergarten, so one day her kid invites her to school. But moms aren’t really meant for kindergarten, and we soon find out why! $19,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Kids Can Press

First Day Jitters

Written by Julie Danneberg and illustrated by Judy Love, published by Charlesbridge Sarah Jane is hiding in her bed and refusing to go to the first day of school. She’s scared. She doesn’t want to meet new kids. She wants to hide in her bed forever! $9,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Charlesbridge


The Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School

Written by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna, published by Raincoast Books Go on an adventure with Mr. Fish as he goes to school for the first time. He’s worried about not knowing math, or spelling, or even how to write his own name – until he realizes school is where you go to LEARN. $19,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Raincoast Books

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School

Written by Davide Cali and Benjamin Chaud, published by Raincoast Books Giant Ants and Evil Ninjas and Mole People, oh my! Getting to school is difficult, but very worth it, in this adventurous tale. $14,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Raincoast Books

Llama Llama Misses Mama

Written and illustrated by Anna Dewdney, Penguin Young Readers Group On Llama Llama’s first day of preschool, Mama Llama helps him meet his teachers and fellow students. But then she has to leave! Llama Llama misses his mama, but soon makes friends with his classmates, plays new games, and has lots of stories to tell Mama Llama when she (of course) comes back. $24,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Indigo


Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School

Written and illustrated by Adam Auerbach, published by Raincoast Books Edda lives in Asgard, a magical land where she has everything – except a best friend. Edda’s papa knows what to do: It’s time for her to go to school – on earth! But once she’s there, Edda feels sad because she’s the only Valkyrie (a Norse goddess). What will she do? $19,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Raincoast Books

Franklin Goes to School

Written by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark, Kids Can Press Franklin is both excited and nervous to start his first day of school (his tummy feels “full of jumping frogs”). But with the help of new friends, new adventures, and a new pencil case full of coloured pencils, Franklin learns that school can be fun. $7,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Indigo

Planet Kindergarten

Written by Sue Ganz-Schmitt and illustrated by Shane Prigmore, published by Raincoast Books Comparing kindergarten to traveling in outer space? Yes, please! Lift off on this adventure to a strange new world full of exciting twists and turns. $18,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Raincoast Books


The Best Thing About Kindergarten

Written by Jennifer Lloyd and illustrated by Qin Leng, published by Simply Read Books This book takes back-to-school books and flips them on their heads by focusing on the LAST day of school. Ms.Appleby asks her students: “What is the best thing about kindergarten?” and everyone has their own answer! $19,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Simply Read Books

The Kissing Hand

Written by Audrey Penn and illustrated by Ruth E. Harper, Tanglewood Press Beloved by children and parents alike for over twenty years, The Kissing Hand tells the story of Chester Raccoon, who doesn’t want to go to school. Mrs. Raccoon kisses his palm and tells him to press his hand to his cheek whenever he feels lonely, thereby giving him a way to take her love and reassurance with him wherever he goes. $26,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Indigo

Not This Bear

Written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Lorna Hussey, published by Raincoast Books Today is Bear’s first day of school, and he begs not to go. He’s terrified, but Mama tells him everything will be okay. Read along as he finds out about painting, new friends and stories at school. $13,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Raincoast Books


Ally-saurus & The First Day of School

Written and illustrated by Richard Torrey, published by Sterling Children’s Books Ally is a dinosuar, and nothing you say will convince her otherwise. Dinosaurs are her favourite! She even has a tail to prove it. But once school starts she feels more like a left-out-a-saurus. Many people don’t believe her dino-ness, or judge her for her choice not to be a princess. Will this tough little dino find some friends? $17,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Sterling Children's Books

The Night Before Kindergarten

Written by Natasha Wing and illustrated by Julie Durrell, published by Penguin Young Readers Pack your backpack, choose your clothes, go to bed early, and prepare to say goodbye to Mom and Dad—the night before kindergarten is busy with new and sometimes scary things. But maybe, just maybe, school will be worth it… $7,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Penguin Young Readers

Dad’s First Day

Written and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, published by Bloomsbury Oliver and his dad have spent the entire summer playing together – but now summer is over, and  it’s back-to-school time. Oliver is super excited, but his dad is worried. Will he be able to convince his dad that school will be awesome? $18,

How to calm first day of kindergarten fears—and make drop-off easier Photo: Bloomsbury

Read more:
20 secrets of kindergarten teachers
4 things I wish I knew about full-day kindergarten

This article was originally published on Jul 31, 2017

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