Kindergarten Countdown: Transitioning To Elementary School

Kindergarten Countdown: Transitioning To Elementary School
a child smiles as he is about to enter a school building
Photo by Christine Bush/Park Slope Stoop

It’s been said that children grow up in the blink of an eye, but I really didn’t connect with that sentiment until registering my son for kindergarten.

How can my baby be old enough to navigate this gigantic school? With so many kids in his classroom, how in the world will he stay cool, calm, and collected? What if he runs out of the bathroom without pulling his pants back up?

Parents aren’t the only ones struggling with transition anxiety.

As we walked into our local school for registration, my typically outgoing and confident son stood quietly by my side, his eyes wide and weary of his new surroundings. Big kids were excitedly walking through the halls, morning announcements were beginning on the loudspeaker, and teachers corralled students into their classrooms. It was a lot to take in.

Take a deep breath and relax, moms and dads. Kids are extraordinarily adaptable — especially when families begin preparing for the first day of school ahead of time.

We recently sat down with Speak, Learn, & Play therapist Amy Weber to learn more about what makes the transition to kindergarten such a big step for kids (and their parents), and how families can ease their way into elementary school.

PSS: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself.

Amy Weber: I am a clinical social worker in private practice in Park Slope. I have over 15 years’ experience working with children and their families. My specialties include children with special needs, anxiety, anger/aggression, trauma, and adoption.

I am also the co-founder of Speak, Learn, & Play, a multidisciplinary therapeutic practice.

Even if children have attended preschool or daycare in the past, what makes kindergarten such a big step?

Kindergarten is a huge step for many kids. First, kids are often in smaller preschool/daycare settings, so the sheer size of a public school can be overwhelming, especially because they are sharing a building with much bigger kids!

Second, the demands of a kindergarten are often different from preschool/daycare. Generally speaking, preschool is play-based and the emphasis is on learning how to be part of a group. In kindergarten, the focus switches to academics and more structured learning, and this switch can be difficult for kids.

Additional factors include a potentially longer day, larger classroom size, fewer teachers in the classroom, and needing to navigate many more transitions throughout the day.

What are some things parents can do with their kids to help make the transition easier in the weeks leading up to kindergarten?

It is always great to visit the school (and, if you can, the classroom) ahead of time. Look at the playground, find the bathrooms, see the lunchroom. Point out anything that looks similar to their old classroom.

Start adjusting bedtimes and wake times for the school year, and do some “dry runs” to school to see how much time you’ll need to get to school on time.

Similarly, you can practice “lunch” by having your child unpack his/her lunch from his/her lunchbox independently and eating quickly.

If you can find parents/kids who will be in your child’s class, it’s great to try to have a playdate before school starts, so that your child will have at least one familiar face on the first day of school.

Some kids find comfort in having a “social story” about their upcoming class. These are easy to make with pictures or drawings, written in very simple language, explaining anything that you know about the new school.

Sometimes it’s useful for kids to talk about their own fantasies about what kindergarten is like: What do they think it will be like? What do they think the teacher will be like? What kinds of things do they think they’ll do in kindergarten? And, probably most important, what parts of kindergarten will be similar to preschool/daycare?

It is important to remind your child that they have been to school before, and, although this is a new school, there are many things that might seem similar (circle time, stories, outdoor time, lunch, snack, etc.). Normalize any feelings of anxiety and excitement for your child.

How about the night before?

The night before kindergarten is a time to relax and prepare. Lay out clothes, plan lunch for the next day, and spend time doing something fun. Eat a special dinner that everyone likes. Consider packing a family photo and/or special object for your child to have in his/her pocket or backpack, or a note to put in his/her lunchbox.

The most important thing is to RELAX!

Amy Weber (Courtesy Amy Weber)
Amy Weber (Courtesy Amy Weber)

What can parents do to ease some of their anxieties about the first day of school (and beyond)?

This is a huge transition for parents, too, to go from a small preschool/daycare setting to a large public school! However, it is really important to minimize your own anxiety in this transition.

Anxiety can be “contagious,” and if your child feels that you are apprehensive, they will be more concerned. Remind yourself that your child will adjust to his/her new classroom and teacher. It takes some kids a bit longer, but it will happen.

Try not to stay too long on that first day. It is difficult, especially if your child is crying or clinging to you, but it is best to remind your child about who will pick him/her up from school, and say goodbye quickly.

Have faith in the teachers. It is hard, because they are strangers to you, but they have years of experience in comforting children, addressing behavior problems, and helping kids to move into the routine, and they will take care of your child, too.

Don’t set a time limit for how long you feel that it should take for your child to adjust. Everyone adjusts on their own schedule, depending on their temperament and personality.

I would encourage parents to become as involved as possible within the classroom and in the school.

If you can, try to drop your child off at school and/or pick-up from school several times a week. Although teachers don’t have a lot of time for lengthy conversations during these times, it is helpful to engage in some face-to-face contact before the first parent-teacher conference.

Try to speak to at least one new parent. They are going through the same thing you are going through, and they will be your allies in the coming months and years.

For family-friendly news, events, information, and more from around Brooklyn, check out our sister site, City Kid Corner.