Sending your child off to school for the first time? A stress-free guide

Whether it’s pre-K or kindergarten, these 12 steps make it easier

Whether it’s pre-school, kindergarten, or even daycare, separating from your child can be tough -- in a lot of cases, tougher on the parents than the kids.

Karen Watson, the director of the Vlasic Early Childhood Center with Cranbrook Schools-Brookside in Metro Detroit, offered some guidance for parents.

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Be consistent -- Have the same person bring the child to each day of school or daycare, if possible. Establish, and get accustomed to, a routine. Try to wake up around the same time, maintain a breakfast routine, and prepare in advance everything you need to get out the door.

And, prepare earlier than expected -- It’s helpful to start your routines -- especially wake-up and bedtime -- a week or two before school starts, so that they’ll be well-established by the time the first day of classes roll around. This way, your child’s sleep schedule will be adjusted with plenty of time to spare. Then, you’re just adding in the school or day care piece, instead of changing everything on your son or daughter all at once.

Consider having a ritual -- Maybe it’s a special way you and your child say goodbye, such as three kisses and then you blow a kiss. Or perhaps it’s a special wave or some kind of moment. Having a ritual often helps the child. Just keep in mind, it should be pretty quick. Don’t make your ritual a long, drawn-out process. It could be just a quick moment that happens from the car. (And it’ll depend on the school -- as in, where your drop-off happens). Regardless, the habit will be reassuring to your kid(s), and it adds to the consistency piece of the equation.

Make your departure a statement, not a question -- This can be hard for parents and caregivers. Sometimes you’re nervous, and you want to phrase your goodbye as a question, so that (hopefully) your son or daughter can say some version of, “It’s OK. Yes, I’m fine.” But in this moment, the child is looking to you. Give a hug and a kiss, say goodbye, then follow through. The adult needs to project confidence to the child. Even if there are tears from your son or daughter, or you see some clinging at first, following through is the most important part here. Otherwise, the experience could become a battle of wills.

Don’t worry -- Just keep in mind that even if there are tears, or there’s clinging, or your child has a loud reaction to your departure, most kids will recover from the experience quickly. And many schools -- if you do have to leave while your child is crying -- will send you a quick text or even call you, when your son or daughter has bounced back. That can relieve some anxiety on your end. And that way, you won’t assume your child had an awful day just based on the goodbye. Most kids really enjoy the routine of school and the school environment, and they recover fast.

Speak highly of school while at home -- It’s really important that you talk about school with warmth and confidence around the house. Talk about the people and the teachers. That will bring your child comfort. Sing songs from school, take a picture of the teachers to display at home and try to connect the two places.

Make a plan -- With a kid who is reluctant when it comes to school, talk to the child on the way there. “I wonder what you’ll do first today. Maybe you’ll paint right when you get there. Or perhaps you’ll build blocks afterward.” Doing some version of that will make your son or daughter excited as to what (s)he’ll start working on, rather than focusing on the goodbye.

Be punctual -- It might sound obvious, but this can be hard for some families -- especially ones with several children, or kids in different schools or programs. Still, allow yourself extra time to arrive punctually; you’ll find it’s worth the effort. For some children, entering a classroom that’s already full can be a little uncomfortable. As part of your effort to be more consistent, try to arrive on time every day. Teachers are also thoughtful about timing out the day, so if your child misses something early on, it might be hard to jump in later.

Don’t compare your child with others -- (S)he is an individual with his or her own personality. Even if you have older kids, consider that this one’s needs might be different. Don’t be surprised or upset if your child clings or cries while getting adjusted to school, and don’t take it as a signal of a bigger issue. Your son or daughter might be more of an observer before fully participating.

Reassure children -- At the point of separation and throughout this process, remind your kid(s) that you or another caregiver will always come back. Because that’s the fear; children are scared of being left. You cannot reassure them enough. So, after the goodbye ritual, tell the child who will be back and when. Additionally, the caregiver should make every effort to be on time so that the kid isn’t left waiting.

Integrate books -- There are a lot of great books that address the idea of separation. A few suggestions include “You Go Away” by Dorothy Corey, “Owl Babies” by Martin Waddell, and “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn.

Use teachers as a resource -- Don’t forget about the educators, or think separation is your problem to deal with on your own. Work in partnership with the school, or your child’s teacher, for some help. Most early educators have experience dealing with this, and they might have some great suggestions, as well.

Keep in mind, weekends can be confusing for young children, at least in the beginning. It might be helpful to maintain your morning routine, or show your 3- or 4-year-old a simple calendar, depicting school on some days, and home on others. Sometimes after an extended period -- holiday break, for example -- even children who have separated fully will experience some anxiety that creeps back into the picture. But those kids are just out of their routine, and for little children, keep in mind: two weeks can feel like a long time!

Always remember this can be harder on you than it is the child. It’s a challenge to say goodbye to your little ones for an extended period of time, especially if they’re reluctant. Hang in there, parents and caregivers. It gets easier!

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