First Day Blues: Letting Go of the Little Ones

You read more Parents and Parenting magazines than you care to count, hoping to master the proper composure on the fateful day your child will go to school for the first time.  You have asked everyone in your spin class for advice, in an effort to ready yourself.  But even still, the first day of formal school for a young child can be as life-altering for the child as for the parents.  And in just a few weeks, the scene with which you’ve been mentally occupied for the last year will be here to greet you.  Are you really prepared?

You’ve imagined walking her to her new class, and you have tried to grasp what the tearful goodbye might feel like.  Yet you still feel that combination of excitement and trepidation brewing inside your belly.  After all, this is the time when you free your little one to learn and grow in a school setting, full-time.  

For child and parent, it means adjusting to the new schedule – and adjusting ultimately to a new phase of your and your child’s life.  The feeling of leaving your youngster with a new person for a majority of the day is daunting, but the first day of “real school” doesn’t have to mean a meltdown for you and your son or daughter.  

Rena Essrog, JFCS Director of Programming and Clinical Services, offers some tips for a smooth transition.  “Try to get back on a normal routine before school starts, start reading with them at night, and get to bed earlier.  You can get school supplies, start driving by the school, or even take them to their classroom if you can.  Try to get them familiar with the idea of school.  Children will feel comforted by the structure, and you want to make sure there are no surprises for them,” says Essrog.  

In the meantime, it is very important not to let your own fears and phobias transfer to your kids. Much like children do throughout their lives, they tend to mimic our actions and feelings – and parents are usually the gauge children use to set their own emotional status.  “Parents have to separate their emotions from their children’s on the first day and leading up to that time – they have to try not to get very emotional about the separation in front of them.  If you’re hysterical, crying, and latching onto them – they tend to absorb that behavior,” says Essrog.  

Lauren Butler, a licensed clinical social worker at JFCS says, “Keep in mind that during adjustment periods, such as beginning a new stage of life or when transitioning back to school mode, your child may experience some regression, and needing more reminders or help than usual.  For younger children, parents should keep in contact with teachers so they can be up-to-date with what’s going on.  If you know certain traits or characteristics, such as their particular areas of struggle, difficult behaviors and/or strategies which have been helpful, then be proactive and let the teacher know.  This way, the teacher can be more prepared and effective in supporting your child when situations specific to your child arise.”  

Above all, staying positive and reminding the child of his or her past milestones (e.g., reminding them how well they did on their first day of camp, at their first sleepover, at their first birthday party with people they didn’t know) is important.  The child will make the connection they have had transitions in the past and uncomfortable situations, but got through it successfully.  Parents can also share their own first-time experiences with a child, which will help the child relate to his/her own situation.  All in all, while the first day of school can be a hard lesson for child and parent, the good news is that with a little help and support, you can be getting straight A’s in the transition sooner than you expected!  

Here are some other ways you can help your child through the new school experience, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, which can be applied to first-time students and returning students:

  • Let your children know you care.  If your child is anxious about school, send personal notes in the lunch box or book bag.  Reinforce the ability to cope.  
  • Do not overreact.  If the first few days are a little rough, try not to overreact.  Young children in particular may experience separation anxiety or shyness initially but teachers are trained to help them adjust.  
  • Acknowledge anxiety over a bad experience the previous year.  Children who had a difficult time academically or socially or were teased or bullied may be more fearful or reluctant to return to school.  If you have not yet done so, share your child’s concern with the school and determine how they would handle it should similar problems arise.  
  • Arrange play dates.  Try to get involved in your new community to arrange get-togethers with some of your child’s potential classmates before school starts and during the first weeks of school to help your child establish positive social relationships with peers.  
  • Extracurricular Activities  Go for quality, not quantity.  Your child will benefit most from one or two activities that are fun, reinforce social development, and teach new skills.  Too much scheduled time can be stressful, especially for young children, and may make it harder to concentrate on schoolwork.  

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