By Jennifer Sheehy Everett
Kindergarten is a rite of passage, there's no denying it.
Every year, moms, dads, and caregivers strap bulging backpacks onto still-so-small children and send them off to tackle what may be the first stop on their educational journey. The nervousness and excitement in their tiny bodies may be palpable, but perhaps not as overwhelming as the flood of emotions their parents experience at this time of momentous transition. Some may shed tears of worry over how their child will fare being separated from the safety of their parents or go-to caregivers. Others may feel slightly more comfortable if their child has daycare history, but they still may wonder how well he or she will navigate a more structured and less individualized classroom.
Parental emotions will run the gamut, and experts agree that feeling them bubble up as Kindergarten nears is perfectly normal. Thankfully, there are myriad useful tips that all parents can lean on to alleviate the anxiety that often accompanies this important life transition for their little one and family. Start by looking inward Explore and embrace your feelings. A parent's primary role is to care for and protect his or her child, so that first moment of letting go can be jarring. Amy Meade, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Arlington, with affiliations with McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School -- and mother to a preschooler -- recommends parents spend adequate time digging into what is most upsetting them about the transition.
"Parents should identify their worst-case scenario fear, then consider the likelihood of that negative event actually happening," Meade said. "If they have more than one specific fear, they can apply this exercise to each of their worries. Oftentimes, parents will find that they are underestimating their ability to cope [with such a transition]."
In some cases, parents may be assuming that their children will face the same challenges they encountered when starting school. Their experiences will likely bear no resemblance, so experts recommend gifting children with a clean slate as they kick off Kindergarten.
Recognize that you (and your children) are more prepared than you believe. "Thankfully for families, transition [to Kindergarten] isn't really a one-time event," said Margaret Caspe, PhD, director of Research and Professional Learning at the Global Family Research Project (GFRP), a nonprofit formerly known as The Harvard Family Research Project and formerly affiliated with Harvard Graduate School of Education. GFRP's mission is to connect research, practice, and policy to promote innovative strategies across family, school, and community settings, and the organization views transition as a shared responsibility among families, schools, early childhood programs, and communities.
"You don't wake up for that first day of Kindergarten and -- BOOM -- the transition has happened," Caspe said. "The transition actually starts very early on, when a child is 3 or 4, and continues across the Kindergarten years into 1st and 2nd grade. This [knowledge] should alleviate a lot of pressure for families. [The success of the transition] doesn't all hinge on that one day. There is a long trajectory." Be a sponge Seek out information. "Any kind of information that families can get across the transition, or any transition activity that is offered -- information sessions to introduce the school, administration and staff; school tours; PTA-sponsored events outside the school, etc.) -- will be helpful," Caspe said. "Many families find the logistics of transition particularly difficult; for example, what time the bus will come, what will happen at lunchtime, how a child will transition from school dismissal to an after-school program, how a parent should log into any online parent portal, etc. Once families are in the system, these things seem to make sense, but getting onboard the system can be hard."
Talk to peers and build social networks. While Meade reinforces the importance of collecting information that gives a window into the school day and experience, she sees equal value in parents building relationships with other families in the school community to learn about their experiences and concerns.
"Talk to parents of children who already attend the school and to parents of other children entering kindergarten," Meade said. "The latter probably have worries that are similar to yours, and it's very powerful to share 'Me, too' moments with parents facing the same transition."
Caspe added: "When families feel connected to other people and have an opportunity to have these social networks, it leads to increases in family well-being." Developing an open and trusting relationship with a child's teacher is an equally valuable connection to establish at the outset and rely on throughout the school year. Create a plan and materials to help navigate the transition Establish routines that manage school logistics. "Research shows that routines are important," Caspe said. "Think about what your routine will look like the night before school, the next morning, at school drop-off and pick-up, etc. Are we packing our bags and laying out clothes the night before to make sure we are ready in the morning? What will it look like when we say goodbye at school? Where will I drop you off? Where will I pick you up? Coming up with routines around separation and reunion are particularly helpful for children and families."
Help teachers get to know your child. In many communities, Caspe says libraries or early childhood programs will give children "All About Me" books they can complete at home and bring the first day of school. These books effectively introduce a child to his or her new teacher and can help parents feel that their child is understood and valued for his or her unique personality and contributions. "All About Me" books of varying types are also available online for download or purchase. Parents and children can also find other creative avenues to share the story of their lives with teachers, and preschool programs may be able to contribute a portfolio of a child's work to include in any package for teachers.
While information gathering, relationship building, routine setting, and storytelling about the unique children parents will deliver to Kindergarten classrooms is extremely valuable in lessening parental anxiety, parental self-care should be an equal priority. Take care of you Make time for self-care. "It's critically important for parents to get enough sleep and give themselves time to exercise to manage stress," Meade reminded. "They should also lean on close mom or parent friends -- and/or a therapist -- to talk through any emotions. A child shouldn't be the one to take on a parent's emotions. They simply won't know what to do for the parent or how to help."
Master the poker face. If anxiety is still rearing its ugly head as the first day of Kindergarten arrives, parents should do their best to project a sense of calm, as much as they may be inwardly nervous, Meade said.
"Be strong for your child," she recommends. "Deliver a positive message about the transition and entrance to school. Children are perceptive, and they will fare better if they see parents who are excited about their transition rather than fearful of letting them go."
Key for parents to remember as they prepare themselves and their children for that first day is that schools and teachers are well-trained to support children of all personalities and needs during the transition to kindergarten, and many teachers draw on a deep skill set honed over years of welcoming eager and anxious new students. And, along the way, they've likely also mastered how to support the wide-ranging, and perfectly understandable, emotions of moms, dads and caregivers. And for that, parents can be forever grateful.
Jennifer Sheehy Everett is a writer, PR consultant, and mother to a busy toddler who's pretty certain he runs the show at her and husband John's home in Melrose. She enjoys music and performing, dance, golf, travel, the pursuit of tasty food and wine, and time with cherished family and good friends.