Nothing is quite like the excitement of anticipating your five-year-old walking through the doors of "big school" for the first time. Everyone's been talking about it and preparing for it for months - the build-up is intense! And before you know it, the big day is here. Like any good parent, you want to know how to help your kindergartner navigate through the first few days and weeks of school. Here are a few tips that will help you and your child during this exciting time.
Tip 1: Recognize and manage your own emotions.
Let's be honest - a good portion of those first day jitters belong to you, especially if this is your first time through the experience. What you don't want to do is project your anxiety on to your child. Just because you would be shy and nervous in a room full of strangers doesn't necessarily mean your child will. But a child that senses your anxiety (and even young kids are amazingly good at picking up emotional signals), may start to suspect that there is something to worry about. That's really not a burden you need to add to your child's backpack.
Journal, talk with your spouse or friend or do whatever is necessary to identify your own feelings and thoughts about your child's experience. Put them in a separate pile from what your child is thinking and feeling about going to school. Manage your feelings in a way that allows you to be genuinely positive when you're talking with your child. If you express calm confidence that your child will do well, have fun, and make new friends, that will help to set expectations for a positive experience.
Tip 2: Do more listening than talking.
The flip side of tip one is that even the most confident five-year-old may have a few feelings of fear, simply because the situation is unknown. And you don't want to be so gung-ho positive that you miss those feelings all together or that you discount them. The bottom line is that the only way to really know what your child is thinking is to listen. Adults are much more comfortable giving directions, sharing our wisdom and explaining things to young kids. Often, adults tend not to be that great at really listening to young children.
Your homework assignment is to become a master of open-ended questions - questions that give your child the opportunity to go on and on about feelings related to school. One of the best catalysts for good conversation is a children's book about a character going to kindergarten. Ask your local children's librarian for suggestions - they're some of the most helpful people on the planet!
The trick to making it a catalyst for revealing discussion is to stop now and then and say things, including:
- Why do you think the character is feeling that way?
- Do you think any of the kids will feel that way at your school?
- Do you think you might feel that way?
- What do you think the character should do?
- What would you do if it was you?
- I wonder what [the kids, the classroom, the teacher, etc.] will be like at your school. What do you think?
Remember that the point is to encourage your child to talk while you listen. Not only might you hear things that help you better understand your child's thought processes and coping skills, but you will also be sending the powerful message that you want to know what your child is thinking and that you'll be there to listen the next time as well.
Tip 3: Establish a partnership with the teacher.
Determine right now that you will do your part to work together with your child's teacher on behalf of your child. Why? There are several reasons, but one you may not have thought of is that your child will get a sense of security and comfort when observing important adults - parents and teachers - talking, getting along and interacting in positive ways. By doing that on the very first day, you send the message to your child that the teacher is someone to trust and talk to, too.
Tip 4: Encourage your child to ask for help.
New situations lose most of their scariness when we find an ally that we can trust to help us navigate and answer our questions. Some children have already had enough experience in new situations, or have a confident enough temperament, that they will assume the teacher is a trustworthy helper and will confidently ask where to hang their jacket or where the bathroom is, but other children may need to hear that message directly from you.
If you have a child with a more cautious temperament, it might even be helpful to practice asking the teacher for help by acting out the process using puppets, dolls or action figures. Think of some likely scenarios, like needing to go to the bathroom or not knowing where to throw away garbage. Then ask your child to be the teacher while you portray the new child with a question. Be sure to throw in lines about feeling shy, embarrassed or afraid so that your child can respond with words of comfort and reassurance as the teacher. You might feel a little silly, but some young children need to see and hear how the conversation would go and what would happen next. If your child still seems uncertain about the teacher, it might also be helpful to reminisce about other adults that your child has had experience with and who have been helpful and kind - a Sunday school teacher, a gymnastics teacher or a child care provider, for example.
Although there are many other tips and tactics for managing this important transition in the life of your child and family, these four are especially important for supporting your child emotionally and laying the ground work for a terrific kindergarten experience for everyone!
This article was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture's Military Families Leaning Network as part of a partnership with the Department of Defense. The contents of this article are considered to be in the public domain. For additional information, visit the Military Families Learning Network website.