Last year, five-year-old Simone Wagner had a hard time settling into grade one. “There were lots of stomach aches and crying,” recalls her Toronto mom, Sandy Pereira. “There were nights when she just wouldn’t settle down and sleep. In the morning, we’d have to drag her out of bed. We were late the first four months of school.”
“Grade one can be tough for a lot of kids,” says Jane Garland, a child psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. As kids are transitioning out of a more play-based environment into one where they’re expected to spend long periods at a desk, you can expect a bit of pushback. But, “if your kid is throwing tantrums, having tummy aches that quickly disappear once you let them stay home, refusing to get out of bed in the mornings or crying, they might need extra help to get comfortable,” Garland advises.
Find out why your kid doesn’t like grade one
Grade one is full of new routines, which might include having recess on the playground with the rest of the “big” kids, being at school all day for the first time and eating lunch in a crowded cafeteria. There’s also a stronger academic focus on reading and writing compared to kindergarten, and your kid might be aware they’ll be graded. It’s important to try to figure out what’s specifically affecting your kid: In Simone’s case, her meltdowns were often over math problems.
Start by talking to your kid, but don’t barrage them with questions. “Asking directly often leads kids to clam up,” says Garland. At dinner, get everyone to mention one thing that was tough and one thing that made them feel good that day (some call this “roses and thorns”). “This opens the door for problem-solving,” she says.
If your kid still won’t open up, reach out to their teacher, says Kym Wand, a grade one teacher in Waterloo, Ont. If you notice there are certain days they’re more anxious, Garland suggests finding out what happens on that specific day of the week—like gym class or math worksheets—which might clue you in to what’s going on.
How to help your child with the transition to grade one
How you help your kid will depend on what the problem is, and there’s a good chance you’ll need the school on board, so don’t be afraid to speak up, says Wand. For example, if your kid is anxious about their new routine, ask the teacher to pair them up with a buddy for lunch and recess. Or maybe they can come early one day to help with a task. This could help them connect with the teacher.
If academics are the issue, tell them that school isn’t always easy—and that’s OK. “Say, ‘There are lots of things I don’t know either, and we’re going to work through this together,’” suggests Wand. If they’re struggling with academics, find ways to work reading and writing into your day at home, whether that’s reading a piece of mail or writing a thank-you card. (Keep in mind that if your kid is one of the younger ones in the class, even a few months difference in age can affect their learning abilities and confidence, says Garland. Your support will help them catch up.)
Also, a regular sleep routine goes a long way. “Without a good night’s sleep, kids are more likely to be lethargic throughout the day, affecting their mood, behaviour and learning potential,” says Wand. Make sure your kid is eating a good breakfast and keep an eye on how much lunch they’re eating at school, says Garland. If you find they’re eating very little, simplify their lunch with items that can be eaten quickly, like drinkable yogurt.
When kids push back about going to school, Garland says it is important that you not give in and let them have a mental health day. Although your instinct might be to protect them, it really just makes it harder to go back the next day.
The good news is that with patience and support, most kids find their way. This was eventually the case for Simone, who made leaps and bounds in terms of her comfort level in class. “She ended up liking school,” says Pereira. “By spring, she was happy to go.”
If sitting for long periods of time is difficult, Wand suggests showing your antsy kid how to do a chair push-up, by holding the sides of the chair they are sitting on and pushing their bottom up a bit.