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Starting the New School Year Right: Tips for Parents
By Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Thinking back to your own first day of school conjures up various memories -riding on the big yellow bus, wearing new shoes, or passing out cookies for Miss Hall who always smelled like roses. Soon, you and your child will be facing a new school year together. Whether your child is moving up from the toddler room, embarking on his first preschool experience, beginning kindergarten, or returning to his child care center after a summer vacation, starting a new school year will most likely be met with great anticipation. This experience can be very stressful, as well as exciting for you both. In this article, Earlychildhood NEWS explores some of the factors and situations that may help you and your child make this important transition go more smoothly.

Look at Personal Factors
All children have their own unique personalities. How easily they settle into a new school program this fall depends upon many distinctly individual traits. For instance, some children may be 'slow to warm up' to an unfamiliar setting while others are considered to be very 'easy to please'. Children's abilities to make transitions can be influenced by their particular learning styles. Some children seem to relate better in the morning than in the afternoon. Others might prefer more freedom over a structured environment. For many children, age is a factor. For example, your three-year-old might cling to you and find separation difficult for the first week, whereas your independent four-year-old might give you a 'high five' and wave good-bye at his classroom door! Prior experience is another element that frequently affects the children's adjustment. If children have been in a particular learning environment or a group setting for several years, they are more aware of what to expect concerning school routines, sharing the teacher's attention, and understanding that you'll return at the end of the day to pick them up.

Even though your child may seem well-adjusted, very independent, and eager for her new school experience, don't be surprised if suddenly she seems to revert to a favorite old comforting device like sucking her thumb or clinging to your leg when she meets her new teacher. She may be momentarily overwhelmed. Be prepared to give her some extra time and reassurance to feel comfortable with her surroundings.

Participate in an Orientation
Some school programs offer an orientation session for you and your child. This provides a wonderful opportunity for you both to meet the teacher and explore the environment together. Orientations vary from program to program and may be quite informal or highly structured. Over the summer you will no doubt receive a letter from your child's teacher or the school's administrator explaining the date and time for your session and what to expect.

Some programs, especially preschools, arrange for small groups of children to come for an abbreviated day to gradually introduce a few children to each other and to assist them to become familiar with the teacher and the room. You might be encouraged to stay a while and then leave for a short time to help your child become accustomed to the separation process. Often, at this time, an administrator will provide a brief information session for parents.

If your child is starting kindergarten, you will most likely drop her off with the rest of her classmates on that first day or send her off on the school bus. You might be invited to assist her in setting up her cubby before saying good-bye. Possibly, the school will have an evening orientation for you or you may receive information during kindergarten registration.

Because it's important for you to feel positive about your relationship with your child's teacher and new learning environment make sure you ask questions at this time to clarify any concerns that you may have. And of course, let the teacher know if you are willing to be involved in your child's program as a volunteer.

If the school does not have an orientation, it's crucial for you and your child to take an informal 'walk through' together. Ask when it's convenient to visit the classroom so your child develops a visual, physical, and emotional feel ahead of time for his new surroundings. You will probably spot a particular activity or space that will become a familiar special reference point for him during the first few weeks. If possible, try to meet the teacher, or another friendly staff member, even if it's just to say 'hello'. This helps you and your child to make a special personal connection with his new setting. And if an indoor tour isn't possible, so the first day isn't a total surprise, try peeking through the window to discover some interesting features of the room or comfort spots to talk about.

Travel to School
Just leaving the security of her home can be traumatic for your child or, it can be very stimulating! Discussions and simulations are both splendid ways to handle your child's very real questions, for example, "How will the carpool mom find me?"

If your child is going to be a 'walker,' practice the route together and talk about familiar landmarks along the way. Time the trip so it will be unhurried and relaxing. Talk about safety issues and important people enroute. You might say, "Wait for the crossing guard," or "Hold Daddy's or your big brother's hand when you cross the street."

If your child is traveling by car, van, or bus, act out some safety rules, such as "Wait for the bus to flash its lights and stop." Arrange two chairs with a center aisle for a bus or place them behind each other like a car. Role-play buckling seat restraints and listening for the driver's directions. Actually drive the route to school. Afterwards, you may want to draw a map together to refer to next time as you anticipate how close you are getting to school.

What to Bring to School
Check on school policies before you go on a shopping spree. Programs vary in their suggestions for you to provide general items, like backpacks, and teachers might have some specific rules about whether or not your child may bring along certain personal things, such as his favorite toy boat.

Making choices about selecting school supplies, for instance, "Should we get the 'Pooh' or 'Barney' pencil box?", helps to personalize the 'going to school' process for you and your child. It can also be comforting for her to have some familiar items with her during the first day. Some things that you may wish to consider for this important beginning are: backpack; lunch box or insulated bag with a non-breakable thermos; bedding for naps (preschool); crayons, pencils, or paper (kindergarten); smock; and a labeled change of clothes with a waterproof bag. Many of these items you can store away together in your child's own personal space known as a cubby.

Routines Are Important
Routines help to make events familiar for your child and enable you both to slip smoothly into the natural flow and pattern of the day. For instance, it is soothing for him to know that snack comes after free play, as well as comforting for you to know that at 10 A.M. he's enjoying the carrot sticks you lovingly prepared for him.

Good-byes
Start the new school year off right by establishing special good-bye rituals to ease the transition between home and school. If your child rides a bus or goes in a carpool, you might give each other a hug, then blow three kisses at the door. Or, if you drop your child off at school, you might ease out gradually by putting a puzzle together each morning, then matching thumbs-up signs at the window. Give yourself a little extra time to make sure you can participate in these important little rituals. And never 'sneak out' on your child.

Be sure to talk briefly with the teacher so you can share pertinent information before you leave in the morning and then again at the end of the day. Enlist her assistance in providing a cuddly spot or comforting activity with a friend if separation seems difficult for your child.

Toileting
So he won't feel embarrassed, practice washing hands, flushing, and tearing off toilet paper at home. Make sure your child knows where the toilet is at school. Help clarify policies and questions for him. For example, does he need to raise his hand to go to the bathroom? Must the bathroom door stay open? In case of an accident, show him where his change of clothes is kept.

Eating
At some centers, children and teachers eat together and serve their food family style. Provide opportunities at home for your child to practice independently pouring milk, serving with a big spoon and cleaning up the table. Discuss what happens if he doesn't like the food.

If he's eating in a cafeteria, practice carrying a tray and paying for the meal. If you pack his lunch, you might like to write some surprise picture notes to tuck in his lunch box to let him know you are thinking of him in his new school!

Resting
If it's sometimes difficult for your child to fall asleep, provide some self-comfort items - a soft fuzzy blanket, a loveable old teddy bear, Mommy's scarf or picture. Share napping hints with the teacher- head rubs relax her and bare feet seem to soothe her.

If she can't sleep, talk with her about the rules so she doesn't cry or become overly frustrated. See if the school has a quiet area or little 'treasure' box for her to play with on her mat.

Encourage Conversations
Lay the foundation for open communication early in your child's school career. To help build trust and self-confidence, encourage your child to discuss his feelings. For example, he may be concerned where mommy and daddy will be while he's at school. You might explain how this is his very special place to do things that he likes, such as block building and playing with friends. Describe how daddy also has a special place to go to work with his computers. Reassure your child that at the end of the day you will pick him up and you'll all be together again to do the things he likes at home. Reinforce that his teacher cares for him, too, and will help him at school. Validate his feelings. Let him know it's okay to feel sad, homesick, or happy. And assist him to be a part of the decision-making process as he begins school. Involve him in discussing what he'd like to bring for lunch on the first day - an apple or a banana? Have him tell you if he wants to wear the dinosaur shirt or the rainbow one. Meaningful times like these help to relieve anxieties and ensure that this new school experience will get off to a good start.

Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

Give Yourself a New Start, Too!
When your child goes off to school, you may be a little lonely or anxious, too. Here are some ideas to help you touch base at home or at work:

  • Frame a family photo to look at whenever you miss your child.
  • Tape up one of his art masterpieces to brighten your day.
  • Type and enlarge one of his favorite cute sayings to create a cheerful banner.
  • Play a tape with him singing his favorite songs.

Enjoy your new-found extra time independent of your young child. Pamper yourself:

  • Read a chapter book
  • Take a long soaking bath or shower
  • Have a relaxing massage
  • Call a friend - uninterrupted
  • Shop without a cart
  • Take a rambling walk
  • Refinish some furniture
  • Tune up your car
  • Cook a complicated recipe
  • Write an inspirational poem
  • Have a romantic lunch with your spouse
  • Go for a haircut and make over
  • Exercise to your favorite music