As I drove my 6-year-old daughter and her friend home one day, he told a joke. The punch line involved saying “Sofa King Awesome” fast several times, which both kids yelled at the top of their lungs. I almost drove off the road. “Where did you hear that?” I asked, trying to stay calm. “The bus!” the boy said proudly.
The school bus can sometimes be a bit like the Wild West—a bunch of rambunctious kids with only one adult responsible for making sure they all behave and get to school safely. If your child has never taken a bus to school before, the prospect can be intimidating for both of you. Getting prepared will smooth the transition and empower your kid all year.
Find out if your school district holds a bus orientation for new students, says Liz Warrick, a parenting coach in Boston. “There may even be an opportunity for your child to get on the bus or ride the regular route,” she says. Not every district offers this, so you can also ask for the route and drive it in your car. Pointing out familiar landmarks (your church, your family’s favorite playground) will help put your child at ease when he sees the same places on his way to school.
Try to get together with neighbors whose children will be riding on the same bus—having an older “buddy” to sit with should ease some first-ride anxiety. A few weeks before the start of school, you can also read a book about riding the bus, such as School Bus, by Donald Crews, or act out the experience at home with stuffed animals or dolls.
Since you're not at the school to load her onto the bus to come home, your little one might have a tougher ride in the afternoon. In the morning, show her that you are putting a drink pouch in her backpack—we like Tropicana Kids juice drink (in watermelon, mixed berry, or fruit punch) and the clear pouch shows us just what's inside when our kids are drinking it. Tell her to save it until the bus ride home. It will be the delicious moment she looks forward to all day, making the ride home more relaxing.
You’ve probably talked to your child about “stranger danger” and told her that if a stranger drives up next to her and asks if she wants a ride, for example, she should run away and yell. However, now you expect her to climb on a bus driven by a stranger, smile, and wave goodbye. It’s important to be positive and show your child that riding the bus is something to be excited—not nervous—about. “When children are uncertain about how to respond to a new situation, they look at their adult’s reaction to determine ‘Should I be scared here?’ If you are calm, it’ll be easier for your child to be too,” says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist and creator of the audio/video series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.
Talk through each step of the process: Explain that you’ll walk to the bus stop and wait with her and the other children. When the bus pulls up all the kids will line up, climb the stairs, say “Good morning” to the driver, and find a seat. Eventually, the bus will pull up to her school, and she should get off and say thank you to the driver.
If she’s still worried, ask her what she’s concerned about. “Often, children imagine unlikely scenarios or misunderstand facts,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “For instance, if your child says, ‘What if I don’t get off at school and end up somewhere else?’ you could say, ‘You can’t miss the school, because everyone on the bus stands up and walks off together. Also, the bus driver’s number-one job is to get every child to school safely, so she’ll check to make sure you do too.’”
Since bus time is unstructured, kids may experiment with behavior or language they normally wouldn’t try at home or in school, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. A classmate of my daughter’s came off the bus one afternoon and told her mother that the boys on the bus called her “fat” and “worthless”—not exactly what you’d want to hear from your kindergartner when you ask her about her day.
If your child is getting picked on while riding the bus, let him know you understand how upsetting that must have been, then role-play how he can handle future incidents, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Have him practice asserting himself by counting to 10, looking the bully in the eye, and saying, “I don’t like that” or “Keep your hands off me,” she suggests. Then he can turn and move to another seat. If the teasing continues, encourage him to sit near the driver or tell his teacher, and don’t hesitate to call the school yourself if the bully is undeterred by your child’s efforts to solve the problem himself.
Try not to freak out if your child comes off the school bus with some newfound vocabulary or rude habit that he’s never displayed before. “The important thing is not to overreact,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “When you show shock and horror, it just makes the ugly words seem more powerful.” Matter-of-factly say, “That’s bad manners” or “That’s unkind,” and briefly explain why before changing the subject. If he insists that all the kids do it, calmly tell him, “I expect you to make the right choice.” Then take a deep breath and move on. After all, he still has many years of bus-riding ahead of him.