By Courtney Gessin, Speech-Language Pathologist + Founder, Communication Clubhouse
Whether it’s your child’s very first year of school or you’re heading back after a glorious summer break, the first day of a new school year can be quite emotional! There's anticipation and excitement, but also uncertainty and nervousness. The more you talk to your child, explain things in advance and share your own thoughts and experiences, the easier transitions can be. Here are some common concerns that children have and some tips to create a supportive dialogue with them to help ease into their school day.
Who are my teachers? In most cases, children will receive a letter in the mail about their teacher for the year. It can be really helpful for a child to have a photo of the teacher, if that doesn’t come in the letter, look at the school’s website to see what kind of information you can find about them and the school. Also, help your child practice saying their teacher’s name as well how they can introduce themselves to their teacher. Remind them the teacher is in charge and there to help you learn and also to keep you safe. If you need help, the teacher is there for you!
Who will be there? There will be boys and girls in the class. Some children have siblings, some are tall, some have long hair, some have pets. There will be many new friends. Remind your child it’s a new experience for everyone! Some kids will be shy, others will be very talkative, it may get super noisy at times and other times very quiet.
What will we do? Play games, read books, sing, create art projects. There will be routine for each day, such as assembly/circle time, art time, story time, snack time, etc. If you can, try to take a picture or make a simple drawing of your child’s classroom, labeling the different areas (cubbies, library, sensory table, quiet area, block area, tables, bathroom and any other important areas). Children will find it helpful to have this visual to prepare them for school and it is also a helpful prompt when you talk to them about their day. This will also help a child who struggles with verbal expression and conversation talk about school. Also, see if the teacher can provide photos of classmates so you can help your child recall their day and their experiences.
Who will pick me up? Let your child know who is going to be there at the end of the school day. And say after lunchtime (or the last activity) I (or their caretaker) will be there to pick you up. Young kids do not understand time, but they will understand that after a certain activity their school day is done.
What do we wear? Getting kids dressed and out of the house on time is often a struggle in the morning! Let them get involved with picking out their clothes for the day—try doing this the night before. Choosing appropriate clothes for the season and something they love is an excellent source of conversation.
When do we eat? Children who attend school all day will have a lunchtime and children bring their food with them. Talk about foods that are good to bring and let them see what you are packing. A bento box is helpful to pack a variety of their favorite foods in small bites. And make sure they have lots of practice opening their backpacks and lunch boxes, you don’t want this to be a frustrating time for them! Some schools have snack-time in which they prepare the snack. If your child is a picky eater, find out in advance what types of snacks they offer. Oftentimes a school will allow a parent to bring another snack to accommodate food preferences. This is also time for children to try foods they may normally not try, so it can be a positive learning experience for them as well.
Where do we go to the bathroom? Some children may be anxious about using the bathroom in a new situation or in an unfamiliar place. If this is the case, let your child’s teacher know so they can provide extra support. Perhaps this is gently reminding them to try the potty, or perhaps accompanying them.
Can I bring my favorite ____? Special toys need to stay at home so they don’t get dirty or lost or shared with their classmates, which often leads to arguments! Many schools have show-and-tell; this could be a great opportunity to share that special something with classmates. If a child is attached to a favorite toy or security blanket, or a pacifier it may be difficult for them to give it up at school. Don’t go cold turkey on the first day of school! And if they have nap time, this may be an opportunity for them to bring their lovey or pillow into class. Find out ahead of time so you and your child can be prepared. Talk about cubbies; explain that this is where coats, backpacks, lunch boxes are kept. Sometimes those favorite toys can be brought to school but must stay in the cubby.
And one question every parent asks:
What do I do if my child cries when I drop them off? It is totally normal for a young child to feel anxious at drop-off. Some children will cry and beg their parent not to leave them. It is challenging to remain positive in the midst of your child’s heartache, but it is important to maintain a smile and a positive attitude. Children can mirror their parents’ emotions and feel more stress and sadness if they sense you are struggling, too. At night before bed, retell the days' highlights and give a quick preview of the next day. Talk about your own day and what you're looking forward to tomorrow. Use a fill-in-the-blank style to help your child recall and engage in conversation-- I loved that yummy, vanilla ____ (pause and wait for them to say "ice cream"). If they don't respond, be silly and give the wrong response-- yummy, vanilla... Hamburger!! Nooooo... Yummy, vanilla.... Pizza! Noooo... Then give the correct response and add a detail. "It was dripping down the cone and making my fingers all.... Sticky!" On the way to school, talk about all the fun activities that await. Wonder together about who will be there, whose birthday it might be, what someone might be wearing, The “I wonder...” game is a great way to converse with your child. Keep it light and fun! Perhaps you can make up a little ditty that you sing together on the way to school, “Mommies and Daddies wish they could stay and play, but school is for kids so we’re on our way!” Tell your child that you can’t wait to hear about their adventures at school. Another strategy to ease the morning separation is to come prepared with something fun to share with the teacher, “I bet Ms. Smith will be so excited to hear about the watermelon popsicles we made last night. You can tell her all about our yummy dessert when we get to school!” Having a little mission will take their mind off of saying goodbye. Be consistent with your drop-off routine. When your child knows what to expect, they will ease into their day much easier.
"Communication is the key to achieving who you want to be!!”
Courtney T. Gessin, MS, CCC-SLP, has been working with NYC children and families for the last 10 years. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from New York University and her Master’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Hunter College, The City University of New York. She has worked with children of all ages and with a variety of communication needs. Courtney is passionate about helping children find and develop their motivation, confidence, intelligence and self-awareness.