I went to a “Mom Chat” group today. I have wanted to go since I first arrived in Germany six months ago and, on a whim, I decided that today would be the day. I get anxious in new circumstances, which is why it took me this long to get up the courage to go.
I walked in (10 minutes late!) and I could already see people were grouped in cliques. The childcare area was at capacity and could not accommodate my three preschoolers. I tried to start some conversations with other moms, but they avoided eye contact and silently continued their crafting.
Ultimately, I busied myself with my own children, thinking about how to extract myself from this awkward situation. With a little more thoughtful preparation, I could have done so much better! Maybe if I arrived on time and set some expectations for myself in advance, the day could have ended with new friendships, rather than a heavy feeling in my stomach.
I’m an adult and I still get the jitters about meeting new people. Can you imagine your child attending a new school or grade level for the first time and having to meet new friends? And then a complete stranger, aka the teacher, sets all the rules and expectations? Fortunately, there are many things that you as a parent can do to help set your child up for success and ease some of the anxieties they may face throughout the lead up to their first day of school.
Maintain a Back-to-School Countdown
Knowing the date and time beforehand can eliminate some of the mystery surrounding the first day of school. Using a paper calendar, add a sticker, or use X- marks on each day leading up to it. It’s normal for your little one to get frustrated that it is “taking sooooooooo long” to get to the big day… or to feel a little nervous! You know your child better than anyone else, but I’ve always found that a countdown to big days can help manage expectations.
Practicing a countdown also has the added benefit of allowing your child to practice their numbers and days of the week while giving a sense of security in knowing when the big day will arrive. If you have younger children, I suggest starting your countdown only a week in advance for their shorter attention spans.
Take a Tour of the New School
Try to get a tour of the school before the new school year begins. If you know what school your child will attend ahead of time, you can even participate in some of the school activities open to the public. Previewing the school will help your child become familiar with the building and some of the staff members. While on the tour, discuss important locations within the school building, such as the main office, exits, cafeteria, and my personal favorite… the library.
Alternatively, sometimes schools let children play on the school grounds during the summer or after-school hours. Encourage your child to meet new friends at the playground. It’s likely they will attend the same school the following year. While at the playground, you can help them establish a sense of ownership by cleaning up after they use the equipment.
Discuss What to Expect on the First Day of School
Talk about what school will be like and typical rules. Review a potential schedule for the day while at school. You can call the main office to get a sample schedule to review with your child. Will your child have two teachers? If so, will they switch classrooms or will another teacher be in the same room all day? Will there be teacher’s aids in the classroom? Mention the special classes they might have, like art and gym, and how they’ll be able to check books out from the library.
Sometimes schools use the summer break to make the classroom lists. When you get a notification about your child’s teacher, make a big deal about it. Practice saying the teacher’s name and talk about what things your child wants to know about their teacher. Visit school’s website to see if the teacher’s page has any helpful information. Some neighborhood communities have Facebook pages, so feel free to ask around for some details about the teacher or grade-level team of teachers.
Discuss Topics They Might Encounter on the First Day of School
Okay, so let’s talk ice-breakers. They are great because they get new people talking and getting to know each other, but children get anxious when they don’t know what to say or how to respond to a question. Role-play with your learner using some typical questions they might encounter on the first day of school. Some typical questions they may encounter are:
“What did you do this summer?”
“What is your favorite subject?”
“What do you want to learn this year?”
“What is you favorite animal?”
Sometimes teachers do an interest survey to help get to know your child. Discuss your child’s interests and things they feel comfortable sharing with others.
Go to school with a neighbor
Don’t we all agree that everything is easier if you bring a friend along with you? Get to know a family that lives near you that has a school-age child as well. Maybe set up a play-date before the school year starts so they can get to know each other. If your child has a new friend to bring with them to school, that friend may be able to introduce your child to new people, or at least be someone to talk to in the beginning of the school year.
To sum up…
School can be a major deal for some kids, especially if they’re not used to being away from their parents, or if it’s a new school in a new town. While every student has different challenges and confidence levels, there are some things parents can do to ease the tension a bit. The first couple days may be a challenge, but you can help make it just a bit easier by taking the initiative to prepare your child for the first day of school.
By Jennifer Sobalvarro, who has experience teaching in 3rd and 5th grade classrooms as well as ELL instruction.