This is the longest two weeks of my entire life!" my daughter, Elisabeth, groaned last December while flopping onto the sofa. At age 4, she was experiencing her first winter break from school -- and she wasn't happy about it. She missed her teacher, her friends, her school routine. But the more she sighed, the more I celebrated. What better evidence that her first school experience was going well?
And now it's September. How can I ensure that Elisabeth's love of school stays with her as she adjusts to kindergarten, with a new classroom, teacher, and expectations? The key, say educators and parents who've been there, will be for me to stay involved in her school life, but not to focus on academics -- yet.
"There's a wide range of readiness among young children for reading, writing, and adding. These skills will come in time. Meanwhile, your job is to help your kids view school as a happy place to be," says Carissa Olivi, a former preschool teacher who's now on the board of education in Orange, NJ.
For some children, a positive attitude about school may require coaxing, since school presents a lot of new challenges -- being away from Mom, making new friends, taking turns. Here's how to help your child meet those challenges -- whether he's starting kindergarten, preschool, or a two-mornings-a-week nursery program.
Nana Silver is the author of Rules for Parents (Berkley Publishing Group).
It's not always easy to get anywhere on time with little kids, but it's worth making an extra effort to be prompt on school days. "A child may feel like an outsider if the others are already there, engaged in activities," says Marilyn Gootman, author of The Loving Parent's Guide to Discipline.
Diane Max, a mother of three in New York City, finds it can be hard for her son, Jonah, now in kindergarten, to cross the threshold if the classroom is already bustling. "It's much easier for him if we get there a bit early," she says -- especially on "high-risk" shyness days, such as the beginning of the school year and the first days back after vacation or illness.
Being on time at the end of the day is just as important. Standing alone while the other kids are happily reuniting with loved ones can cause a young child to worry that by going to school, she risks losing you -- or getting lost.
"My kids hate it when I'm late," says Susan Schwartz, a mother of four in Winchester, MA. Once, she was in such a rush to pick up her daughter from preschool that she got a speeding ticket. By the time she arrived, her daughter was wailing, "You're the last mommy!" Schwartz wouldn't recommend risking a ticket, but her experience taught her that it's worth trying to arrange your schedule to be punctual. When you're not, apologize and let your child talk about how she feels, since the fear and anger loom larger if they're kept bottled up.
KNOW WHEN IT'S TIME TO GO
A main part of the "curriculum" for children starting school is learning to feel secure in the classroom even though they're away from Mom, Dad, or babysitter. You can help by trying to keep your own anxiety in check, as a child's fear is often fueled by his parents'. If you seem worried, he may decide school isn't a safe or nice place to be.
Usually, it's best to leave the classroom when the teacher suggests it. After Thanksgiving break during my son Willie's first year of preschool, I found how hard it can be to do this. He sobbed so loudly when I started to go that I insisted on staying until he calmed down. Finally, his teacher put me out of my misery by gently guiding me toward the door, promising that Willie would stop crying sooner if I left. Skeptical, I stood outside the classroom with my ear cocked. Sure enough, the waterworks stopped in 10 seconds -- once the teacher suggested he help her make play dough.
"It's so hard to walk away when your child is screaming," says Olivi. "But put your trust in the teacher. This is a time for your child to bond with her and to realize that she's another person in his life who will keep him safe."
TEAM UP WITH THE TEACHER
If school doesn't go smoothly for a child, it's human nature to blame the teacher. But accusations are sure to backfire, even if the teacher really is part of the problem. If you accuse him, you put him on the defensive, which is counterproductive. "Instead, say in a nonthreatening way that you're concerned for your child, and ask how you can work together to solve the problem," says Gootman. "Teachers feel positive when they see that a parent cares and is interested and concerned but not breathing down their necks or telling them how to teach." They also find it helpful if parents alert them to any information they have about how children are feeling at school. For instance, some kids may be stoic if someone hits or teases them, but cry about it when they get home. It helps to keep the teacher in the loop.
Also, give a heads-up about anything going on at home that may affect how your child is feeling -- not just biggies like illness in the family, but also more mundane issues like a sleepless night or a nightmare, says Olivi. That way, the teacher will be able to put the child's negative mood or behavior in context and can even help her through the rough patch. For instance, when Elisabeth was feeling blue because her dad was away on business, her teacher suggested she make a "Welcome Back, Daddy!" card, which turned her view of the situation in a happier direction.
RAISE YOUR HAND
To the degree that your schedule permits, help out in the classroom, participate in fund-raising, join the PTA, read the school newsletter. Your involvement lets your child know that his school is a part of your world, too. More than that, volunteering helps you watch out for your child's interests.
"A school is like any institution -- if you're involved, the people there are more inclined to be responsive," says Bonnie Kaye, of Fairfield, CT. "Because I was on the parent advisory board at my daughter Lindsey's preschool, I knew the director and the teachers. When Lindsey became quiet and withdrawn at school, it was easy to talk to her teacher about it -- we were friendly."
If you work full-time or for other reasons can't make such a commitment, you can still be involved through after-school activities and fund-raising efforts. "Let the school staff get to know your face," says Kaye. "The more you make clear that you care -- that you're part of the team -- the more credible an advocate you can be for your child."
QUIZ YOUR KID
To build strong connections between home and school, you need to have a sense of what's going on in your child's classroom. Natalie Cull, a mother of three in Wildwood, MS, always sits her two oldest daughters, ages 10 and 7, down at the kitchen table in the afternoon and gives them 15 minutes of her undivided attention.
"They just spew!" says Cull. But what if your child isn't such an enthusiastic reporter? If your "What did you do in school today?" is answered with "Nothing," you have plenty of company; most children don't like to be quizzed. Plus, young ones may not even remember all of the day's experiences. So ask small, undaunting questions that will help jog the memory: Did you get to play outside? What did you have for snack? What did you sing in music? And when your child does talk, be a good listener.
Whether your child's class studies butterflies, your hometown, baby animals, or holiday traditions, the topic is a way to train kids to think, remember, make connections, and theorize, all of which are foundations for future learning. You can help by stoking your child's curiosity and enthusiasm about whatever subject is being covered at school.
For example, Schwartz is planning a trip to the local science museum now that her 6-year-old son, Jeff, is studying rain forests in kindergarten. The night after an animal handler came to his class, he excitedly recounted to her how the lizard used its tail to defend itself. "His world had suddenly expanded. He was fascinated," says Schwartz.
She also plans to build on Jeff's enthusiasm by taking him on a visit to the library for books about reptiles they can look at together. "It's a huge boost to his confidence to feel as though there's something out there in the world that he knows about."
Parents can also reinforce the social learning that school provides. When Kaye enrolled Lindsey in preschool, she didn't realize how much she'd glean from her daughter's teacher about how to handle Lindsey at home. Like many young children, Lindsey sometimes found it difficult to move from one thing to another. "When I'd come to pick her up, she'd be so immersed in an activity that she wouldn't want to go. It was hard to get her to stop what she was doing," says Kaye. With the teacher's help, Kaye came up with a simple system to help Lindsey: a five-minute warning with a minute-by-minute countdown until it was time to go.
"I used it at home, when she didn't want a playdate to end, with equal success," Kaye says.
As much as possible, try to make your at-home expectations consistent with the school's. Plenty of social rules, such as doing minor chores and waiting your turn when someone else is talking, make sense in both places. By insisting on them at home, you make the adjustment to school easier for your child.
CLEAR THE CALENDAR
Children don't really need a slew of extracurricular activities; even a half day of school can be stimulation enough. Exhausted, stressed-out kids have a harder time adjusting to school. So don't sign up your child for anything unless she's wildly enthusiastic and begging to go. And if she changes her mind, let her quit.
Schwartz says she made a mistake when she paid for an entire year's worth of dance lessons for her son when he was 5. "He really wanted to do it, but when it was time to go to class, he'd be playing with his brothers and I'd practically have to rip him away," she explains. "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't pay for the whole year in advance."
The best judge of how much structured activity a young child should have is the child herself. She'll let you know what she needs. If you sign her up for swimming lessons and she stands on the edge of the pool crying, try again next year.
By following these seven tips, the odds are I'll be able to help Elisabeth move smoothly from pre-K to kindergarten. Of course, if I do my job well, I'll be left with one of the happiest dilemmas of parenthood -- getting used to letting her go. Last year my husband took plenty of photos documenting Elisabeth's first day of school. All of them feature her beaming face, but none include me. I was too busy wiping away my tears in the potty room. I'm hoping that this year I'll finally be ready for the camera.