For kids, school is essentially the equivalent of having a job. Kids are expected to go to school, follow a boss, complete assignments, learn new topics, and teach themselves new skills to succeed. Once you get home from work, you have to finish any projects, eat dinner, maybe get an hour of relaxation time, and get up and do it again the next day. As adults know, starting a new job can be very stressful. For kids, the equivalent experience is starting a new school year. While the transition to school is bound to have some ups and down, there are plenty of scientifically backed strategies that we can use to help our children succeed. Whether starting a new school, transitioning to kindergarten, or just returning for another school year, each of these strategies will help you prepare for another great year.
1. Give Your Child Control. Ok, don’t give them car keys or anything, but find some way to give your child some control over the school situation. What will they wear? Take them school clothes shopping. What will they eat? Let them plan their lunch for the first week and take them shopping to pick out the groceries. Is their old backpack fading? Let them pick out a new one.
Sometimes as adults, it just seems easier for us to take care of things without our kids present. While there will be some parts of the school transition you simply can’t include your child in (for practical or scheduling reasons), make an effort to include your child. Find a way to give your child control. It will go a long way towards motivating their excitement about the coming year.
2. Prepare. Preparation is 9/10 of the game. The key to any successful transition is to have thought it through and to have a plan. The same is true for the school year. Read books with your child about going back to school, or starting a new school, or making new friends, or whatever topic you think is going to be hard for your kid. Make a clear plan and schedule of how school mornings will go and – this is key – display it. If your child or any of your children can’t read yet, draw or print out pictures. The plan can always be modified if it isn’t working, but you need to start somewhere. Have a family meeting where everybody goes over the plan and understands the expectations. My kids know that their job is put their lunch in their backpacks, grab homework, brush their own teeth and to put on their own shoes and socks. And they also know that they better be running to brush teeth by 7:45, otherwise we are all late. Knowing that, they are quicker to get up, get dressed, and eat breakfast.
We go so far in our family as to have a monthly calendar, visually displayed. When my kids couldn’t read, it meant we drew a lot of pictures on a white board. This calendar has everything – school, birthday parties, sports practices, play dates, hot lunch, field trips, vacations – you name it. The kids can see the calendar every morning when they grab their backpacks. Right next to the calendar, I post their school daily schedules, which helps them (and us) plan (i.e., it’s PE day – bring gym clothes). A huge benefit of this is that I don’t have to constantly answer questions about what is going on for the day or later in the week. Once the calendar is up, the kids can just go look for themselves. The same way that I am always checking my calendar on my phone, my kids are always checking the family whiteboard calendar.
Finally, the most important thing is to make a countdown to the start of school. Cognitively, children don’t understand time well until later in elementary school. A week or 10 days before school starts, make a big countdown until the first day. Then, have kids check off each day. It’s a big visual reminder for kids of what is going to happen. This visual reminder allows kids to understand the start of school in a concrete way well before they understand “next week” or “Tuesday.”
3. Build Connections. School does not exist in isolation. Developmental psychologists think of school as existing in an ecological framework. This basically means that school is connected with lots of other domains in life: kids go to a school, parents interact with school administration and culture, kids interact with other kids in school, teachers and kids interact, teachers and parents interact.
One of the greatest predictors of positive academic and social outcomes is how connected a student feels to a school. We can help our children feel connected to school in a few ways. First, take them to their classrooms, the playground, give them opportunities to spend time at their school, both before they start at the school but even in the days leading up to school. Why not go to play on your school playground the week before school starts? Or, take school supplies in early or meet a teacher if possible. Just being around the place will help your kids feel familiar and connected to it.
Second, as a parent, volunteer at the school. Get to know other parents and the teacher. Build your own relationships with the school, aside from the work your child is doing to build relationships. Even if you work long hours, you might be surprised at how you can contribute. Nearly every classroom requires some sort of cutout project for a holiday party or needs somebody to coordinate some activity online. Attend back to school night to see the school and meet people. You can find a way to be involved no matter your schedule.
Third, attend (or coordinate) playgroups or BBQs with friends from school. If you don’t know anybody at the school, ask around. While public schools probably can’t give you any contact information for peers in a class, you will likely have neighbors who can help you. At a private school, you might be able to get contact information for a few parents and be able to arrange a play date. These might not be your child’s (or your) best friends for life, but to at least know somebody’s name or somebody in the same class is key. Make sure to schedule a few play dates with school friends in the weeks prior to school. Peer relationships are the foundation of what makes school fun – and setting up a few social relationships prior to the start of the school year can help a child feel good about attending school.
4. Develop An Exit Strategy. Goodbye is always the hardest, especially for younger or more sensitive children. Take time as a family to make a plan for how to say good-bye. This plan will probably need to be re-evaluated every year, and it’s quite possible that it may be different for different kids. Is your child getting on a bus? Does a grandparent or a childcare provider take them to school? How will you say goodbye given your situation? With my kids, my oldest wanted nothing affectionate at goodbye. Our goodbye has been a high five since the start of preschool. My other child was different: goodbye is always 1 hug and 1 kiss. No more, no less. Once the goodbye has been said, walk away.
Every school year I see parents make a very simple mistake. They say goodbye to their child, and then they stay and take pictures or talk to other parents. Inevitably, the child gets very upset and anxious and starts crying because the parent is still there and not with them. Of course, the parent feels bad and then goes back for a second goodbye. Then it all happens again. Goodbye needs to be like taking off a Band-Aid. It’s hard for both of you – it’s okay to admit that. Wait until it is really time to say goodbye. Do whatever you agreed upon and leave.
5. Make It Special. School is hard work for kids – so celebrate the transition! Put a special treat in their lunch box. Each year I take my kids to the grocery store and pick out a special treat for in their lunches the first week. It’s always something I think is disgusting – like that fruit tape stuff – blech – but it makes them excited and they know that they have something to look forward to at lunchtime. Make a favorite meal the night before or the first night of school. I know of a family that has a special family ice-cream tasting party (with like, 7 types of ice cream) and then watch a family movie the first Friday of each school year. Other friends of mine have a sweet tradition of making a bucket list for every school year. Make a tradition and make it special. Mark the passage of time like a middle-aged parent of school-aged children would on New Years Eve (i.e., go to bed at 10). It doesn’t have to be instagram worthy – it just has to be yours.