Fall offers a fresh start for educators, parents, and children of all ages. Whether your child is attending school for the very first time or heading back to school after a fun-filled summer, it’s important to consider the emotional impact of new beginnings. Major milestones and transitions often bring excitement and joy. Times of change can also feel challenging or frightening, especially for young children who were perfectly content in their previous routines. How can we best support our children in the midst of all this newness?
Here are 5 Ways to Prepare for New Beginnings and Back to School Bliss:
Speak positively about your child’s school and teachers
Children are constantly looking to us for information, especially when it comes to new people and places. Can I trust these new teachers? Will I have fun at my new school? Even if you have a less-than-stellar first impression, be sure to speak positively about your child’s school and teachers. Point out the activities or personality traits that will resonate with your child. “I noticed that your new classroom has a sand table. I wonder what sand tools your teacher will have?” “Your new teacher knows how to play the guitar, just like Uncle Dan. What songs do you think she’ll play?”
Help your child visualize his new environment
Many teachers send an introductory letter or photo to students prior to the beginning of school. I spent over a decade as a preschool teacher; I was both thrilled and embarrassed to hear how prominently my photo was displayed in my students’ homes! If your child receives mail from his teacher, refer to it often. “Let’s show Grandma the picture that your teacher, Jake, sent you!” “Can you help me find a special place for Jake’s picture?” If a picture is worth a million words, an in-person visit must be worth a billion. As hectic as this time of year can be, try to squeeze in any school or home visits that are offered to your family. You can also invite your child to chat with other familiar children or parents about their positive experiences with his new school or teachers. “Our neighbor Emily also had Jake for a teacher last year. What do you want to ask her about your new classroom?”
Allow your child to keep a transitional object nearby
As adults, we sometimes forget how much comfort and safety a little piece of home can bring. Transitional objects offer security to children who crave familiarity in new places or uncomfortable situations. Follow your child’s lead. If she’s having a hard time saying goodbye each morning or is hesitant to leave the house, carrying a small item to school may be helpful. It’s certainly challenging for a child to keep track of her one-and-only lovey while going about her day. Encourage her to choose something a little more ordinary or simple to replace. (If she’s adamant that Bunny comes along, at least you tried...) I’ve observed children benefiting from the most common household items: an extra set of Daddy’s keys, an old MetroCard, a ticket stub from a recent zoo or museum outing. Check in with your child’s teacher about any policies that may exist regarding “things from home”. Even if a particular item is not allowed inside the classroom, your child may find comfort in keeping a special photo or transit card tucked safely away in his cubby or backpack.
Always say “goodbye”
As an early childhood educator, I tried to be incredibly flexible while supporting families during the separation process. Every parent and child has unique needs and different approaches when faced with challenging situations. I did have one hard rule: you must say “goodbye”. I know how tempting it is to sneak out of the room when your child appears comfortable and fully engaged in an activity. Stepping in to say, “I’m leaving now” could potentially interrupt your child’s play and result in a few tears. However, it’s best to be honest with your child about your planned departure, rather than simply disappearing on him. When well-meaning parents sneak out, children often feel betrayed. They may also develop a fear that the people they love and trust will vanish at any moment. Always say “goodbye”. Difficult experiences offer us valuable opportunities to learn and grow. You can help your child develop coping strategies by encouraging her to seek out her favorite activities or people prior to your departure. “I see your teacher Emily in the block area. Would you like to build with her after we say ‘goodbye’?”
Give it time
This final tip is just as much for you as it is for your child! As a family, it can be difficult to adapt to new routines. I sometimes find myself thinking, “I can’t believe so much is about to change. We are in such a nice groove right now!” Be gentle with yourself and allow the entire family some time to adjust. You may notice changes in your child’s sleeping, eating, or general behavior during this time. She’s working hard to master the details of a new environment, which can be emotionally and physically exhausting. If you find yourself stressing about additional responsibilities (like lunches that need to be made or children that need to get out the door), remember that your attitude and energy typically set the tone for your child’s day. Breathe, smile, and ask for help. My 22-month-old-son is thrilled to gather items to pack in his backpack! It keeps him actively engaged while I tackle Mama-specific tasks. I wish you and your family the best of luck in whatever new beginnings you experience this fall!