For most of us, beginnings are exciting and conjure up thoughts of adventure, and experiences to be enjoyed. For others, beginnings are visions of things unknown, and may include insecurity about social situations and physical comfort. For all of us, the feelings associated with beginnings are a healthy combination of both — excitement at experiencing something new, along with feelings of not being quite sure how it will all play out.
As we send our young children off to their first days of school, let’s reflect on what may be most helpful for our children and for ourselves to prepare for a positive and successful new school year.
Young children depend on the adults around them to help them navigate most situations. We have all experienced how children hang on to you and look at your face as they enter a new situation. They are looking for your reaction. Children have a keen ability to determine just what their parents are feeling and they actually look at our reactions to know if a situation is safe and secure or if it needs a different type of response. This is an important concept to keep in mind as we prepare our children and each other for the new school year.
When I meet with parents who are new to our program (at Manhattan Day School), I often ask them how their child has dealt with new beginnings in the past when left with a babysitter or at the home of grandparents. As you can imagine, I hear about children who can be left at any time with anyone and seem to be fine. I also hear about the children who have a more challenging time getting adjusted to a new situation. Whether you are the parent to the child who has more ease or the one who has more challenge, beginning a new school program likely will be very different than other “firsts” for your child. I’ve watched my staff members work with families to help even the most anxious child (and parent!) reach success as they begin the school year. There are so many factors involved that we can’t control, but there are some that we can.
I hope my recommendations help you prepare. By the way, the start of the school year can produce anxiety whether we are discussing a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old.
Here is what I’ve learned:
1. Respect the teachers.
While you know a great deal about your child, the teachers know about children and about creating classroom communities. We want them to integrate our individual child into the group. Follow their advice and policies regarding how long to stay and what is working best for your child.
2. To the extent that you can, treat the first day of school like any other day.
It can be so tempting to take videos and pictures, to linger in the room and watch. I know it’s counterintuitive, but staying longer doesn’t help the process. I’ve seen that it can confuse a new student. They are not sure what will be happening next. Is Mommy staying? Is she coming right back? Will she be peeking in the window? My advice is to make a plan with your child, communicate it well and follow through. Here’s an example: “I’ll help you put your things in your cubby, then I’ll give you two kisses and a hug, and then I’m going to go.” When this plan is followed through regularly, it becomes the morning routine and the child can regulate him/herself. If the plan is different each day, it becomes more challenging for this young student to adapt. Let’s remember that we all crave routine. The earlier we can establish routine, the better.
By the way, most schools love when parents come to help with an activity, to read to the class, to cook or bake. You will all have those opportunities after the adjustment to school period is completed successfully.
In most schools, the teachers have a plan for integrating students and helping children acclimate. Ask about the process and follow that process. Trust those teachers.
3. Dress your child for comfort.
Hopefully, there will be play, outdoor fun, exercise, dancing, cooking, painting, eating, drinking, spilling, and lots of potential for mess. Leave the special outfits for special occasions. Dress them like you want them to have fun. This includes comfortable shoes. Flip-flops, crocs, and sandals are best left for the beach.
4. Most early childhood programs are all about communication.
The classroom teachers will let you know how and when you will hear from them and how you can communicate. Arrival and dismissal are not the best times to gather information about your child’s day. The teachers have to receive and dismiss everyone safely. Keep those arrival and dismissal conversations short and try to schedule a time to speak to the teacher later in the afternoon or evening to find out details of the day.
5. Keep your eye on the goal.
Another question I often ask parents is to share how they would like their son or daughter to function in second or third grade and beyond. The consensus is that we envision our children functioning as students with well-developed social skills, the ability to work independently as well as in groups, the ability to listen, follow directions, and produce developmentally appropriate school work. This process begins in preschool. Learning the skills of navigating the classroom is what early childhood programs are all about. It begins on Day 1.
6. Early childhood programs are fun.
They are your child’s first introduction to a group experience. Your child will love being in school with his or her friends. She will love the routines. He will love the special activities. His language and communication skills will explode. The anxiety of the first few days will disappear quickly and your child will run into the classroom ready to see what is waiting for him.
This will happen with your encouragement, positive attitude and the trust that you have in the school you have chosen.
I must share with you that despite our best efforts — having a plan, trusting the school, and following the guidelines — those first days can still produce “first day jitters.” How can we deal with that? By understanding that it’s normal and it’s temporary. Children are more resilient than we imagine and they do adjust. Some children need more support than others, but it really works out. School is a good place for children. Keep your eye on the long-term goal and it will work out just fine.
I wish the enthusiasm and love of school that our youngest children demonstrate could stay with them throughout their years at school. Here’s wishing all our families much success as the school year begins.
Aviva Yablok is beginning her 16th year as Early Childhood Director at Manhattan Day School in New York City. She has spent her career surrounded by children, teachers, and parents. Her work focuses on helping introduce children and parents to the wonder of being part of a learning community. Mrs. Yablok is a resident of Teaneck.