For some kids, crossing the threshold to kindergarten may sound like an easy hop…but for plenty of others, it can seem like a leap across a giant canyon. And that doesn’t even include how it can feel for you, bravely letting go!
Maybe your child seems a little tense this summer; or maybe you feel that way yourself. Or maybe you’re hearing lots of questions from her, or perhaps an upswing in tummy complaints or requests for your time. If so, you’re certainly not alone. Across the country, lots of families are getting ready to start kindergarten—and they’re going through pretty much the same things you are.
So, aside from biting your nails and waiting, what can you do? Lots, says Natalie Madorsky Elman, PhD., founder and director of the Summit Center For Learning, and nationally respected author of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Helping Your Child Make Friends. While many of your child's fears will calm down once school starts and she's able to adjust to new routines, you can still take some very helpful steps to address the anxiety of these weeks before school. Here are four tips to get you started in taming the kindergarten jitters:
Take fears seriously. It’s all too easy for us, as experienced kindergarten graduates, to say things like, “Stop worrying,” or “Everything’s fine.” For kids, however, kindergarten can seem terrifying and their fear about starting with all those "big kids" may be huge. Keep a light touch and listen more than you talk. The only way to find out exactly what's making your child nervous is to listen carefully, and without judgment. In fact, for some kids, just the listening may do the trick!
Help demystify the school. “It’s so important,” says Elman, “for your child to feel familiar.” For kids, she says, this is often a very concrete matter. “They wonder: Where’s my classroom? Can I find it? Will I be able to find the bathroom when I need it?” Many schools offer an early orientation—make sure you attend. And if your child is especially shy or nervous, consider going back another time, just the two of you, to walk around. If your school allows it, see if you can pop in during the week before school, when the teacher is setting up. A quick hello can be deeply reassuring for both you and your child. Just be sure to check first with the principal to see if it’s OK.
Try jump-starting a new friendship. If your child attends a neighborhood school, check around and see who else is starting kindergarten. Try meeting up somewhere close to home for a brief visit—even just an hour or so—doing something low-key and fun. Or if you’re attending a magnet or a private school, see if it will give you a class list over the summer. Whatever you choose, says Elman, “It’s wonderful if your child knows even one other kid, and has had a playdate.” Knowing the name of even one other child who will be at school will help your child feel like he has a sense of what to expect.
Visualize success. Sometimes, says Elman, kids just can’t stop worrying. The night before school, she suggests, “have them close their eyes and visualize a successful day. “ Walk them through it, from leaving the house to walking into the classroom, saying hello. As Elman points out, it works for athletes—and, with your encouragement, it can work for kindergarten kids, too.
Of course, despite all this support and planning, there's going to be a good deal of the unexpected as your kindergarten kid starts school. But rest assured: by recognizing your child’s fears and addressing them in these practical, compassionate ways, you’ve given a message that will last well beyond the first day of school. You’ve told your kid in no uncertain terms that no matter what, you’re there and you'll figure it out together.