Making the 1st day of school a success: Tips for easing your child into a new year

July 31, 2018

I’ll never forget my daughter’s first day of school. My tears were bittersweet. My baby was old enough to leave my side and go to school for the first time — but she did so without a fuss. I thought she would be the one crying, not wanting to let go, but it was me who couldn’t keep it together. Still, it was a win, because my plan had worked!

You see, two weeks before school started, I had secretly implemented “Operation: Banish School Jitters” to prepare our normally clingy girl for her first day while reducing the likelihood of the three Ts: tears, threats and tantrums.

Every night for two weeks, we’d set aside a few minutes before bedtime to pick out her clothing for the following day, and I’d set our alarm clock earlier to prepare for her new wake-up time. As the big day approached, we made a few practice runs to school so she would get used to the route, even going so far as to sit on the school steps and peek in the windows. After a few repetitions, she couldn’t wait until the day she could finally go inside.

To help banish the first-day-of-school jitters from your household, we asked a teacher, a principal, a therapist and an early childhood leadership coach for their best tips for a smooth transition from home to school. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Share positive first-day-of-school stories.

Sharing personal experiences is a helpful way to let children know they aren’t the first ones to go through this process and that it’s normal to feel anxious or scared.

“Tell a story about how you, the parent, were nervous for your first day and emphasize how you got through it, using concrete examples… ‘I brought a picture of my mom with me and looked at it when I felt sad,’” says Stefanie Sugar, mom to a 3-year-old and co-director and founder of the Behavioral Psych Studio.

Jonah Dragan, a former private school teacher in New York City says other family members of varying ages and experiences should also share their own first-day-of-school stories.

“Older siblings can be especially helpful here,” Dragan says, because they may relate more strongly to other kids — and even more so if they’re siblings.

2. Read books about the first day of school.

Books specifically published to help kids cope with anxiety on the first day of school can help your child see things from different perspectives.

“The ‘Kissing Hand’ is a great preschool-aged book for the first day of school, and the emphasis is on giving your child a sense of connection to their primary caregivers — via a sticker, hand-drawn heart on their hand or a kiss — while they are at school so they can feel connected to the caregiver while away,” Sugar says.

Samantha Kaplan, principal at Yorkville Community School/PS151 in New York City, recommends the following books to prepare kids for the first day of school:

  • “Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten,” by Joseph Slate

  • “Franklin Goes to School,” by Paulette Bourgeois

  • “First Day Jitters,” by Julie Dannenberg

  • “The Night Before…,” by Natasha Wing

  • “Wemberly Worried,” by Kevin Henkes

3. Create your own book about going to school.

Chanie Wilschanski, a mom of four and an early childhood leadership coach with DiscoverED Consulting, suggests taking it a step further by writing your own storybook. In it, you’ll share details about what your child’s first day will be like. Then, ask them to draw pictures to accompany the words.

The story might include the time they’ll wake up, what they’ll have for breakfast, what they’ll wear or any other details that will help them visualize their day. Here’s a sample storyline:

“I am (name of child). My first day of school is (date). My school, (name of school), starts at (time) so I will get up at (time). After I use the bathroom and brush my teeth, I will get dressed and put on my (describe outfit). Then, I’ll head to the kitchen and eat (name of food) for breakfast. When I’m finished, (name of caregiver) will (mode of transportation) me to school. Once we arrive, we’ll head to my classroom to meet my teacher, (teacher’s name), and all my new friends. I can’t wait for my first day of school!”  

4. Meet classmates and teachers in advance.

A familiar face in the classroom can make a child’s first day of school less intimidating, Kaplan says.

“Parents should contact the parent coordinator at the school and see if they can get contacts to organize a playdate prior to the first day,” she says.

Your child will usually have the opportunity to meet their teachers in advance at an open house, but Wilschanski suggests reaching out to the school to ask for a photo of your child’s teachers regardless. Hang the photos on your refrigerator or on a calendar marking the first day of school, and talk to your child about their teachers each day leading up to it. As you count down the days until school begins, your child will become familiar with the teachers’ faces.

5. Send them off with a meaningful item or reminder from home.

Let your child bring a meaningful item from home — like a small toy, stuffed animal or a book that they associate with mom or dad.  

“Tell them you can feel it when the child hugs the object or whispers to it,” Sugar says.

When my own daughter started school, she brought a family photo of us and put it in her cubby so she could look at it whenever she felt homesick. As she got older and learned to read, I began putting short notes or pre-printed riddles in her lunchbox.

6. Slow down and savor the moment.

Mornings can be chaos. The alarm doesn’t go off, the dog has an accident in the house, your kid can’t find his superhero cape and suddenly you realize you’re all out of juice boxes. It happens to the best of us, but the first day of school only happens once, so do yourself a favor and prepare in advance.

Allow your child to pick out their outfit the night before, ensure you have everything you need for breakfast and lunch, set aside a few extra minutes to talk about any of your child’s concerns, leave the house early and snap a few photos.

7. Develop a special goodbye ritual.

“Creating a consistent goodbye ritual creates a sense of security for the child, and they know what they can expect,” says Wilschanski, who used this exercise with her daughter who struggled with separation.

Your goodbye ritual could be as simple as a high-five or a silly handshake or facial expression that will leave them smiling as you say your goodbyes. Wilschanski says her own ritual with her daughter begins with her setting expectations by saying, “I’m leaving in two minutes.” Then, when it’s time to go, she gives her a hug, followed by a kiss on each cheek and then a high five.

When the time comes to leave your child at school, Dragan says, be sure to phrase your message as a statement, like “It’s time for me to go” or “Enjoy your day! I’ll see you later.” Don’t pose it as a question — “Time for me to go, OK?” or “Ready to say goodbye?” — because he says children typically feel safer hearing that the adult has made a decision and is in control.

“The moment of separation is a huge milestone that may bring up powerful feelings in a child and can be unexpectedly difficult for adults, too,” Dragan says. “Remember to remain calm. You are their rock in this situation. If they protest or seem upset say, ‘It’s OK to feel sad and miss me. I’ll miss you, too, and will pick you up when school is over,’ and then leave.”
 

The more you prepare your child for their first day of school, the less chance either of you will encounter anxiety over this major life event. Keep your kids involved in the experience by telling them about your first day of school, asking them to help plan their outfit, meeting and familiarizing themselves with their teachers and by planning a special goodbye ritual that they can expect as part of their daily routine. If your kids know what’s happening in advance, they’ll be less likely to experience those back-to-school jitters.

Read next: What teachers wish parents knew

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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