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The Super Cool Guide to School

  1. See it from your child's POV. "School" is an abstract concept to a kid who's never been before. So when you talk about the big day, don't make general statements; instead, get into the details. Tell her about the games she'll play, the kids she'll meet, and how you'll always be there to pick her up at the end of the day.
  2. Make a visit. Most schools have some kind of tour or open house. Don't miss this event! While you're there, take pictures (include some of your child with his teacher). Looking at these photos is a great way to get your kid talking about what he's looking forward to and what he's anxious about -- and to help clarify any misconceptions he has.
  3. Talk the talk. School has a language all its own. So rename your everyday activities using preschoolese. When you paint or color, call it "art time" and do it in a designated "art corner." When your child eats her afternoon milk and cookies, it's "snacktime." No more nap -- it's "rest time" (you might even put a mat on the floor).
  4. Invent a voyage. Get him excited about the adventure of the daily trip to school. Will he get to ride on a big yellow school bus? Will he get to spend time in the car with Daddy each morning? Maybe there's a fun walk with Grandma in his future? Narrate the story of how he'll get to his destination with lots of colorful details. If he's not taking the school bus, do a dry run so he'll know what to expect.
  5. Go on a mini shopping spree. Buying her a new backpack, pencil case, and set of crayons will make her feel like a big kid -- especially if she gets to pick out the gear herself. But don't ask your child to save her supplies for school. Let her carry her stuff around and play with her gear right away. You want to make as many deposits in the school-is-fun bank as possible.
  6. Crank up the kudos. Now's a good time to start applauding your kid's school-tastic skills. If you see him share a toy with his sister, say, "I noticed that you gave Jane a turn with the ball. That made her very happy. Your new friends at school are going to really like it when you share toys with them." And don't worry about raising a praise junkie. You'll just be making him aware of some of the things that he's already good at so he feels less overwhelmed.
  7. Meet the parents (and the kids). It's intimidating to walk into a room full of people you've never met -- and then have your mom and dad leave! If you can, get a class list, or if you know parents of other children who'll be in your child's class, arrange some playdates so your child will be able to adjust to the social scene.

How to Choose a Backpack
How to Choose a Backpack

There isn't a wrong or a right way for a child to deal with being away from Mom and Dad for the first time. Different kids handle separation anxiety in different ways. The better you know your child's separation style, the more you can help him get through the first day of school.

The Crier

What he's feeling: I'm sad to leave my mom and dad and be alone in a strange place.

Your response: Try not to look worried -- kids pick up on that. Remind your child how much fun school will be and that you'll be back to get him a little later. You can also reassure him that his teacher is there to help him and make him feel better.

P.S. He'll stop crying soon after you leave. If you want some reassurance of your own, ask someone at the school to call you later to tell you how he's doing.

The Brave (But Scared) Child

What she's feeling: Not gonna cry, not gonna cry, not gonna cry. Not even gonna say goodbye because that'll make me cry. Just gonna knead this Play-Doh like crazy.

Your response: Don't panic if she doesn't say goodbye. She's just trying to hold it together. Say goodbye, but don't pressure her to respond. And don't talk about how you'll miss her or how sad you'll be without her -- it'll make her feel bad.

P.S. There's a chance she'll completely lose it when she sees you at the end of the day because she's been holding her feelings in. Make sure you spend some relaxing, calm bonding time together after school.

The Delayed Reactor

What he's feeling: I'm cool with school. I'm cool with school. Then, a few days or a few weeks later.... Wait -- where's my mommy?!

Your response: Talk to him about the things that he enjoyed so much at the beginning. Speak with his teacher so she can give him a little extra attention. Also, try to develop a quick goodbye ritual, like a handshake or a wink, that you can do as you leave.

P.S. It's not that your child suddenly decided he doesn't like school. He was just so caught up in all the new experiences that he didn't even realize he'd been away from Mom and Dad. He'll bounce back.

The Silent Observer

What she's feeling: Let me check out what's going on around here before I jump in and start playing with these kids.

Your response: Give your child time to adjust to her new environment. Then help her get used to the idea of becoming involved by reading books about school together, playing school at home, and talking about the teachers and children.

P.S. Remember that your kid is learning as she's observing. You might want to talk to her teacher about helping her find her comfort zone so she can get more involved.

Being away from home for the first time isn't easy, so send your child off with a discreet little memento to help him handle it better.

  • Leave the lovey at home: Get a T-shirt made with a picture of her Woofie or Teddy. $18.

 

  • A pic is worth a thousand words: Tuck one away inside his cubby or hang a photo key chain on his backpack zipper.
  • Lunch-box love notes are a great way to let your child know you're thinking of her while she's at school.
  • Little kid toys: He might not be allowed to take his favorite car into the classroom, but he can keep it safely in his backpack.
  • Blanket statement: Cut a tiny piece off her blankie that she can keep in her pocket and touch when she needs a pick-me-up.
  • Time will tell: His own digital watch will make him feel like a big boy, and he can look at it every so often to remind himself that you'll be picking him up soon!

It may seem like a lot of fun and games, but your child is actually learning important lessons as he plays.

Story corner: Just by listening and watching her teacher read Go, Dog, Go! your child is becoming familiar with basic literacy concepts, like reading left to right, and what words and letters are. Sometimes, if you walk by the book corner, you'll see preschoolers "reading" by turning the pages and narrating what they see -- a great precursor to real reading.

Puzzle table: Legos, and puzzles, and beads -- oh, my! Children improve their fine motor skills, concentration, and hand-eye coordination when they play these games. Working independently also gives them practice problem solving.

Sand/water table: The tools and toys help teach science concepts like cause and effect. Since there's no right or wrong with these materials, kids feel a sense of success when they play with them.

Science projects: The class hamster is a great tool for kids to observe living things and learn what they need to grow. Other science tools like scales and magnifying glasses allow kids to examine, experiment, predict, question, and problem-solve.

Circle time: Learning to sit patiently, saying good morning, and talking about the day's events is a key part of your child's day. This preschool town meeting gives her important practice for the skills she'll need to master for kindergarten.

Art area: Crayons, markers, safety scissors, glue, and paintbrushes are all great tools for mastering fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. And children love to talk about their artwork -- it gives them practice with language and self-expression.

Block area: What isn't your child learning? She's gaining basic math skills when she counts them, identifies their shapes, and compares their sizes. Building houses, roads, and forts helps her hone spatial skills that will be helpful for geometry and physics later on.

Outdoor play: It looks like chaos, but all that activity helps kids learn what their bodies can do. Children need to move and experiment to master balance, improve coordination, and develop their muscles. Group activities on the playground also teach kids cooperation.

Sources: Debbie LeeKeenan, director, Eliot-Pearson Children's School at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts; Amy Flynn, director, Bank Street Family Center at Bank Street College of Education, in New York City.

Our expert kid, Walter Goldberg, gave us the inside scoop on what scares first-time preschoolers the most. And our expert grown-ups responded.

  1. What if I have to go to the potty? Kids this age are often just out of diapers and nervous about using the bathroom at school. Show your child where it is, and practice using it with her. Also, let him know that if he does have an accident, it's no big deal because you've sent along a change of clothes.
  2. What if my teacher's mean? Remind your child that teachers choose the job because they love kids, so they won't be mean -- they'll be kind, patient, and fun. You can also tell him that if a teacher gets mad, she'll always calm down and never stay angry -- just like Mommy and Daddy do.
  3. What if I don't know the answer to a question the teacher asks? It's always okay to say, "I don't know" or to raise your hand if you have a question. Tell your kid that it's the teacher's job to help her learn. Nobody knows the answer to everything, and her teacher will be happy to explain the things she doesn't know.
  4. What if I don't know anyone at school? Emphasize that part of what's fun about starting school is making new friends. Tell your child a story about a friend you met in school: Often what helps kids overcome their fears is hearing that their parents once felt the same way. Invite children from school over for a playdate to help the friend-making process along.

Your child's teacher runs a classroom full of kids every day. Feel free to use her expert ideas and strategies at home.

  • Sing it: Lots of preschools have a "cleanup" song that you can use at home to encourage your child to pick up his toys after playtime.
  • Chore is fun: Preschool teachers are great at finding age-appropriate tasks for kids. If your 3-year-old daughter is in charge of napkins at school, make her home job placing a napkin at each plate at dinner and then throwing them away after you eat.
  • Bin there, done that: In the classroom, most things that the children need are within their reach and very organized. Toys are at a child's level, separated into different categories, and labeled with both a picture and a name. If you set up your child's bedroom or playroom the same way, it'll keep everything neat and also give her the freedom to choose what she wants to play with without asking Mom or Dad for help.
  • Art smarts: Limiting choices helps your child make decisions. If you let him choose from three paint colors instead of putting out all 10, you'll have less mess and your kid won't be overwhelmed by too many options.
  • Visual cues: Use a large calendar or schedule with fun pictures to reinforce what day it is and what the family has planned.
  • Coming up... The "3-minute warning" before ending one activity and starting a new one is a great tactic. If your child's teacher uses a musical signal, timer, or minute glass to emphasize the transition, use that too.
  • House rules: Many teachers talk about classroom commandments with the children and then post them in the classroom. Create a list for your house, hang it in a prominent spot, and refer to it when issues arise.
  • Quiet, please Have a signal to get kids to quiet down and pay attention. Find out how it's done in your child's classroom, or try one of the following techniques.
  • The Classic: Teach your child that when you put your finger to your lips he should do the same. Sssh together.
  • The Discreet: Use your two fingers to point to your eyes to let your child know you want her to look at you.
  • The Fun: SOS! SOS! Before you had kids it might have meant "emergency," but now it means "Sound of Silence!"

Try to minimize any other changes going on in your child's life during the weeks leading up to school. If she's moving from a crib to a bed, giving up naps, or changing caregivers around the same time as she starts preschool, the experience could be more overwhelming than it has to be.

  • Over the weekend or after a shopping trip, fill a bunch of snack-size baggies with small portions of healthy snacks and put them in a "snack cabinet." Then you can easily to toss them into your kids' lunch boxes for the rest of the week.
  • Keep the TV off in the morning. You're more likely to be late for school.
  • Tone down your evenings and weekends. Your child will be tired from school and need more of your attention when she's home. At the beginning, limit your evenings out, keep playdates and after-school activities to a minimum, and make your weekends relaxed and unhurried.

The Experts

  • Lolita Carrico, mom of Jaden, 5, and Jack, 3, and founder of ModernMom.com.
  • Ellen Birnbaum, associate director, and Nancy Schulman, director of the 92nd Street Y Nursery School, in New York City.
  • Walter Goldberg, 6-year-old Brooklyn schoolkid.
  • Marie E. Jones, lead preschool teacher at the American River College Child Development Center, in Sacramento, California.
  • Karen Reivich, PhD, psychologist, coauthor of The Resilience Factor, and mom of four.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.