Calming The First-Day Jitters

As an educator and mom, I’ve found that the first day of school is often a nerve-racking time for both parents and young children alike. Little ones are embarking on a brand new milestone in their educational journey, and parents have to come to terms with their baby growing up. For some, it may even be the first time a child is away from his or her parents. These changes can be understandably tough on the household, but there are steps parents can take to help ease the transition.

Take it from a former teacher — children need to feel confident and prepared going into their first day of school. Simple adjustments to their routines at home, leading up to the big day, can help the family feel better about the change.

Every year before the start of a new school year, I would send my soon-to-be preschool parents a note introducing myself, and more importantly, giving them some reassurance and suggestions for reducing the dreadful “first-day” jitters.

Parents were always very appreciative and found my suggestions very helpful, especially first-time parents. In fact, years later, when I was teaching high school freshmen, a mom came up to me during a parent/teacher conference, took out a neatly folded note out of her bag, opened it and placed it in front of me. She continued to say, “You were my niece’s preschool teacher and my sister found this so helpful that she kept it. And when it was my daughter’s turn to start school, she passed the letter down to me.” Needless to say, I was speechless! It touched me so much to think that my note was still helping young families.

So, as a new school year quickly approaches and a new set of parents are faced with “first-day jitters,” I thought I would share some of the same time-tested strategies I shared with my “new families” many years ago. Hopefully, you will find it helpful in making your family’s transition this year a smooth one.

1 Read about the first school day with your child. It is often anticipation of the unknown that makes children anxious about going to a new school or classroom. Reading about the first day of school gives children an opportunity to imagine their own experience and express their fears. The following books can help your little one prepare for how he or she may feel when school starts:

“When Mommy and Daddy Go to Work” by Joanna Cole
“First Day” by Joan Rankin
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
“Don’t Go” by Jane Breskin Zalben

2 Prepare your child for longer periods of separation, slowly. Before leaving your child at school for the first day, have her stay with a grandparent or a babysitter for increasingly longer periods of time. This time away will help her build trust that you will always return.

3 Tour the school with your child. Visit the classroom your child will be in, meet the teacher, and tour the playground so that the places and faces he will see on the first day will feel familiar and safe. Afterward, talk about what you both saw and how fun the different activities looked. Refer to the teacher by name to help your child think of him or her as a person you know and trust. Reinforce the idea of school being a safe place to learn and play.

4 Set up a trial or “Discovery Day.” If it is possible, ask the administration to set up a day that you and your child can visit the class and see it in action. Stay in the class until you see your child venturing and exploring the class by herself.

5 Set the stage. Talk to your child about the first day of school and help her visualize what the day’s activities are likely to be. For example: “On Monday when you go to school, you will see your friends, play on the swings and read stories. Ms. Smith will be there to help you. It will be a great day! And Mommy or Daddy will be there to take you home when school is over for the day.”

6 Shop for school supplies. Most children love shopping for school supplies. Give your child the opportunity to pick out a few items he likes (within reason, of course) to provide a sense of ownership and responsibility in the decision-making process.

7 Establish a daily routine that fits your family’s school year schedule and try to stick to it. Don’t wait until school begins to start implementing your weekday morning routine. Begin activities at the same time every day starting at least two weeks before the first day of school.

8 Nighttime routines are important, too. The entire family can help make the morning of the first day (and every school day) easier by taking care of tasks the night before. Try making it a habit to pack book-bags, complete homework, and pick out the next day’s clothes in the evening to avoid morning mayhem. Read a bedtime story early enough in the evening for your child to get a good night’s sleep. Many morning issues can be avoided if everyone is well-rested and ready to begin the day!

9 Establish a partnership with your child’s teacher. Children look to their parents’ behavior for emotional cues. The more comfortable you are with your child’s teacher, the more comfortable your child will be. Over the first few weeks of school, regularly touch base with your child’s teacher about how he is adjusting. The more visible you can make the connection between home and school, the more secure your child will feel.

10 (And the hardest!) Say a quick goodbye and promise to come back. When dropping your child off at school on the first day, give a quick hug and kiss, cheerfully say goodbye, and promise to return later. When you linger, you undermine your child’s confidence that you feel good about where you are leaving her.

Finally, learning to say good-bye is just one more part of growing up and one more important milestone. Keep in mind that everyone adjusts differently; it may take anywhere from a day to several weeks to be comfortable with the transition, so be patient and remember, this too will pass!