It’s the start of the school year! End of summer vacations, unstructured time, sleeping in (if you’re lucky enough to be one of the few who has a child that does this)! Many parents breathe a sigh of relief (Hooray: No more trying to create a daily structure!) along with a feeling of dread (Oh Dear! Coordinating and calendaring school schedules for the next nine months!) Here are some thoughts about how to potentially ease the transition:
1. Set up and script the environment
Give yourself and your family transition time by starting the new school schedule a few days or a week ahead. For example, start bedtime earlier. (I know, most of us have missed the boat on this by this time. That’s ok don’t stop reading!) Talk about what will be coming up: “This is what we’ll be doing when you go to school: We’ll get dressed do you want to wear your red pants or your gray ones? Then we’ll have breakfast sooooo early! And then we’ll get in the car and drive to the building with red paint and a mural. Do you remember what is painted on the side of your school building?”
2. Make it fun
Take a fun trip to the store to get new pencils, markers, or a lunch box. Have them put their favorite stickers on their lunch box or back pack. Talk about the people and fun things your child may be doing at school. “You can play in the castle and the construction vehicles in the sand! They may have paint at the art table. Remember that swing that when you swing on it you almost touch the tree?”
3. Help facilitate bonding with the teacher.
Meet the teacher and introduce your child. Let the teacher know any unique aspects to your child that help them transition or make them feel safe: “He may need his lovey, He really likes construction vehicles, She likes to dress up like Elsa’s sister,” Or “If you ask him a question, it will often take 10 seconds for him to reply, but he will if you wait.” Put a picture of the teacher on your fridge and talk to him/her “Hi Miss Kathy. I know you are going to help Aiden learn and grow this year! I’m excited to get to see you soon.”
4. Provide a Transitional Object
At my child’s school, they invite the parents to make a photo book of all the people, places and things that their child likes. Then, if the child feels sad or lonely, they can look through the book with their teacher and tell them about how they like to dig in the sand with Papa, read this book with Nana, get pedicures with Mama, etc
5. Read stories and playact separating and re-connecting
Separation is one of if not THE most terrifying fears for children. When separating from your child, always focus on the re-connection. “When I come to get you, I get to hear about your day! And we can go to get ice-cream with your sister! I can’t wait to snuggle you tonight before bed!” Have you ever noticed how the central drama of almost every child movie is some kind of separation (or threat of) separation and then reconnection?
An awesome book for young children that gives story and image to transition objects, separating, and re-connecting is The Kissing Hand.* The Kissing Hand tells the story of Chester the raccoon who “doesn’t want to go to school.” His Mom helps him by providing a kissing hand that “whenever you feel lonely and need a little loving from home, just press your hand to your cheek and think ‘Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you.'”
If your child is really struggling with separating, have a stuffed animal of theirs play feeling sad/mad/afraid and have the child play the Mom/Dad/Caregiver reassuring and returning. This helps them develop the inner resources and awareness of connection.
6. Allow all feelings and get support
Your child is likely to have feelings during this transition especially if it is their first time in preschool or starting kindergarten or new school/teacher. Give them special time. Special time is dedicated time each day when they get to choose what to play with you for 10-30 minutes and you stay completely present- no phones, no coffee, no multitasking. Expect more “broken cookies.” Broken cookies are when your child has a meltdown over what seems to be disproportionate to the situation because they are having big feelings that need release. You can tell it’s a broken cookie if no matter what you do (try to fix the cookie, offer another cookie, say they can have another cookie tomorrow) they still cry or escalate crying. Just let them get it out and be there for them. That will let them know they still have a safe harbor in you and the world will be ok even if big changes are difficult and feelings seem overwhelming.
7. And finally, last but not least: You!
The thing that no-one tells you as a parent, though, is that YOU might have big feelings about your little one’s transitions as well! You may experience “re-stimulation” around re-experiencing your childhood transitions. If you had a hard time with separation when you first went to school, took a long time to make a friend, were a biter or a hitter, or were bullied, all of these experiences come flooding back to you as an adult who now has a child because time does not exist in the emotional world. You may also feel sad, relieved, happy, mad around the way your child transitions. If they cling to you, you may feel anxious, angry, sad, or guilty. If they run off and don’t even say goodbye, you may feel sad. This is where “Listening partners” are so helpful. A listening partner is a friend, often a fellow parent, that can just listen to your experience as a parent. they don’t try to fix you or offer advice. They listen to your experience and travel with you along the path of parenthood.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, illustrations by Ruth E Harper and Nancy M Leak, Terre Haute, IN: Tanglewood Publishing, 2006.
I am NOT Going to School Today by Robie H. Harris illustrated by Jan Ormerod, New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003.
All Kinds of Friends by Norma Simon illustrated by CherieZamazing, Chicago: Albert Whitman & Company, 2013.
Hand in Hand Parenting (handinhandparenting.org)
Special time, stay listening, and listening partners are all tools from hand in hand parenting. Hand in hand parenting is an organization of resources to support parents and provide them with the insights and skills they need to listen to and connect with their children in a way that allows each child to thrive. They work with parents and primary caregivers whose children are ages one month to six years, and their approach falls within the authoritative or democratic parenting category. They advocate for a combination of responsiveness and nurturing combined with high expectations for behavior, to form strong parent-child connections that last a lifetime.
Dr Laura Markham
Dr Laura is a Psychologist that has written several blogs and books on parenting with pragmatic tips on how to connect with your child and make the parenting journey more easeful and successful. Here is one helpful related blog: “Preparing your Child for the New School Year” http://www.ahaparenting.com