It's the start of a new school year—and a new experience for your family if you have a child just entering preschool or kindergarten. The day is likely to be filled with emotion, possibly compounded by separation anxiety that your child (or even you!) may experience. Why is the first day of school stressful for some kids while others seem to breeze through it? And how should a parent, child, and teacher team up to best handle this new and potentially unsettling situation?
Your Child's Temperament
Dr. Sucheta Connolly, director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says parents need to examine their child's history of dealing with separations. "What we know at this point is that children have their own unique temperaments, and that means that from a time a child is born we can notice that children respond to particular new situations differently from others. Some children are naturally shyer or hesitant in a new situation," she says.
If your child seems especially attached to you, he or she may struggle more with beginning school. "Some children just have a harder time separating from the safety zone of their family," says Connolly. Other indications of possible separation anxiety include a child's past behavior when left on a play date or at a grandparent's house.
Parents of an older child who sailed through the first day of school may be surprised to find a subsequent child cling to them on his or her first day. "One sibling may be very different from another," says Connolly. "You have to look at each child and how they function in new situations."
Preview School and Practice Separation
Young children are comfortable with a sense or predictability, and knowing what lies ahead can ease their nerves. "Take advantage of any opportunity that the school provides for you and your child to tour the school and meet the teacher," says Dee Wilmans, an early childhood teacher in Fairfield, Ohio. "If you are unable to do this, call the school and ask if there is another time that you could visit." During your tour, show your child the classroom, restrooms, library, and cafeteria if he or she will have lunch there—anywhere your child may be going throughout the day.
Beginning your daily "school routine" a week or two before classes start will help your child get comfortable with the new schedule. Adjust your child's bedtime as necessary. Designate a special place for your child's backpack and practice laying out clothes at night. A dress rehearsal where you run through your entire morning, including getting to school, can help calm everyone's nerves.
If your child will be taking the bus, go for a drive along the bus route so it will become familiar. "Remember to remind your child that he or she will be on the bus with other children," says Wilmans. "You could pretend to be the child next to your child on the bus and practice making conversation."
Wilmans also recommends that a child start out the school year implementing the same routine that will be followed throughout the year. "Don't drive your child to school [on the first day] if the rest of the year your child will have to ride the bus. Teachers and other staff are often more available to help students on the first day or week, and the transition could be harder later."
Lastly, Connolly recommends practicing separations with your child if he or she is particularly apprehensive. If possible, leave him or her with a friend who will be in the same class at the start of the school year or even riding the same bus.
"If you know that your child tends to be anxious or afraid, you can even set up a bit of a reward program that helps the child practice," says Connolly. "It's OK to say directly to your child, 'I can see that you're worried about this.' Let them know you are confident they can make it."