Helping Your Child Have a Smooth Transition into Kindergarten

byMark Gardner, LCSW

Starting Kindergarten is the beginning of an educational adventure. For some, it will be their first exposure to school. For others, it will initiate being in a whole new school environment. Transitions to new school experiences are opportunities for excitement and anticipation. They are also times children can feel worried, scared, and apprehensive. This article will explore how you can prepare your child to have the smoothest transition possible.

What makes children feel apprehensive?

Depending on whether your child has older siblings or not, your child may or may not have had any exposure to her new school. Either way, Kindergarten will introduce your child to many new experiences; your child will be wondering if she’s going to be ok there: “I don’t know anyone.” “Everything is bigger; I might get lost.” “Am I going to miss my mom or dad?” “What am I going to do all day?” “Will I like my teachers?” Much of what is there and will happen is mysterious and unknown – the keystones to eliciting anxiety in children (and adults).

What’s new? What’s the same?

The first step is for you, the parent, to start answering the questions: What’s going to be new for my child? What kind of experiences potentially will pose challenges for my child? What will be the same or something they’ve already experienced? What is my child worrying about? What is my child looking forward to? Make your lists. This approach will help you target both possible sources of anxiety as well as areas of competency your child already has. So, if he knows that some of his friends will be there, he will feel better. If the classroom looks different, he may wonder where he’s going to play or where the bathroom is. Once you have your lists, go over them with your child. Let him add other things he’s wondering about.

Start filling in the blanks

Now that you’ve got your lists, it’s time to get the answers to you and your child’s questions. Call the school. Take a field trip to the new school and classroom. Be sure to find out when the late summer open houses or orientations are so you and your child can go. Many times schools make decisions about classroom placements later in the summer. In the meantime, you could talk to the principal or her assistant to ask about the classrooms and school.

Obviously, the best person to talk to when you get the opportunity is your child’s teacher. Not only the best source for answering questions about the school day, he will be able to fill you in on how he addresses the transition and makes children comfortable. Opening the door for a positive working relationship with your child’s teacher will further enhance your child’s experience all year long.

Getting to know the school better and how the school day will go

Children don’t fear things they know. Here are several ways to familiarize your child with the school and how the day will go before school starts:

  • Many times your child will have “ambassadors” close at hand who can help your rising Kindergartner learn the ropes by giving a tour of the school. Older siblings or older neighborhood kids can play this role. If needed, go multiple times at different times of day with several “ambassadors.”
  • Take your child in to the office to meet the staff when you drop of the requisite paperwork. Children will feel better if they know there are friendly faces to look forward to seeing when school commences. If other events or community meetings take place at the school, bring them with you.
  • Spend additional time on the school grounds. Get your child out to the playground and fields so that they associate fun with the school.
  • Read children’s books to your child that are about starting or being in school.
  • Have fun outings to procure your child supplies for his new school experience. Give your child as much choice as possible for these accessories as he will feel more excited and proud of the items.
  • Plan wardrobes ahead of time so there will be no battles or surprises on the day of.
  • Join the PTA. This will enhance your inside information about the school and teachers. See if you can meet the parents of older children who know the ins and outs of the school and its Kindergarten teachers (this can also be a good strategy to help your child get the right fit in a teacher if you’re concerned about this).

Discussing options for starting school: promoting autonomy and rehearsing

Sometime in late July or early August start talking to your child about how the school day will go. This can include the incumbent changes to bedtime and morning routines, as well as what you know about how the school day will go. Also discuss what the afterschool schedule will be. As much as is possible and appropriate, involve the child in the decision making and routine creation that you can. We know that when a child feels in control of themselves and their daily activities, she will be more confident and secure. One can also use pictograms to create a visual schedule of her day. Then practice the routines at least a week or two before school starts. Rehearsing helps your child learn the routines and lessens the unknown.

This is also a good time to decide how the child will get to school: walk, bus or ride with parent? If it’s walk or bus: who will go with the child?; who will they ride the bus with?; where’s the bus stop? Will you drop off at the front of the school or the classroom? Is there a friend with whom your child can go to school?

This is also the time to decide on your goodbye ritual at or before school: some hugs, transfer of the special object (see below), high fives, kisses, or some combination of these.

If you think your child will be missing you during the day, creating some ways for your child to feel connected to you while there may help. Give your child a token object of yours to hold during the day. Make it small so she can put it in her pocket and touch it when needed. Create a special ritual for its morning transfer to her; give it special powers – kids love the idea of magical things.

Also, you could print out a very small picture or album of pictures of you and her loved ones to look at when she’s at school when she’s missing you. This can also be a nice way for your child to show new friends her favorite things (of course, as long as she’s not disrupting the classroom routine).

Finally, discuss the fun activities you have planned after school, so your child can have something to look forward to when they’re woolgathering in class the first several weeks of school.

If separation anxiety occurs

Separation anxiety is a term used to describe the distress a child feels when she has to say goodbye to a parent, most often experienced during a drop off at school or daycare. It is very common for this to occur initially in new situations, like the beginning of a new school year. However, if, after a few weeks, it continues at the same intensity, or, if it has gotten worse as the days have gone by, it could be a more significant challenge for you, your child and the school to tackle. If this is the case, please see the previous Family Compass newsletter article by Dr. Alison Gardner about separation anxiety.

Kindergarten is an exciting new world for your child to experience and explore. New learning and new friends will expand her horizons. However, new experiences can also involve emotional challenges. Following many of the strategies outlined above can prepare your child to have the most successful transition possible as she embarks on her new adventure. Bon voyage!