The first day of kindergarten is equally exhilarating and terrifying for many kids. Remember how intimidating it felt to walk into that big room filled with people you’d never met, excited about the novelty but unsure of what was to come? It’s a rite of passage kids all over the country go through this time of year. Luckily, their parents are right beside them along the way, ready to quell any fears with a reassuring hug goodbye. And then the school day begins and there’s so much going on that they’re too distracted to remember being afraid.
The transition’s often a little harder for parents, who walk out of the classroom after goodbye hugs with a million thoughts running through their heads at once. Will she be okay today? Is the teacher going to watch after him? How did the years go by so quickly? There are plenty of guides for how to prepare children for kindergarten, but parents need a heads-up, too. After all, they have to cope with someone else taking care of their kids, with being separated from them for long periods of time, and ultimately with their kids’ growing up way too fast. How should parents prepare for that tumultuous first day?
Get to know the school, teacher, and fellow parents.
Taking a tour of the school and meeting with the teacher beforehand is an excellent way to put everyone’s mind more at ease. “My husband and I toured the school before we applied and we spent many days during the interview process at the school,” shares Jennifer Kellogg, a San Francisco–based art director who sent her daughter, Lily, to kindergarten last year. “We also had a school picnic and a class party.” She says that becoming familiar with the school and the community made the first day of school much less anxiety-ridden. “All these preparation activities helped because we got to know the families, so we really felt at ease on the first day,” she explains. “[It] was exciting because we knew these people were going to become like extended family.”
To enhance that connection to the school and your child, get involved in classroom activities if you can. Volunteer to help out on certain days throughout the year, or see if there’s anything you can do remotely, like organize snack days or field trips.
Take time to plan out the first morning.
Anxieties and tension will inevitably run high the morning of the first day of school, but you can minimize these feelings with some organization beforehand. Parents should help their kids pick out a special outfit and pack the school supplies they chose. Discussing what they need to expect that first day and how they’re expected to behave is important, too. Just don’t focus on responsibilities too much; otherwise, kindergarten will seem even scarier. “Emphasize the things they may enjoy doing at school,” Kellogg advises. It also helps to have a fun event planned after their first day so that they have something specific to anticipate. Parents who work full-time may want to take that first day off so that they can spend time with their children afterward and discuss their experiences.
Understand that it’s okay to feel sad, scared, and happy all at once.
The first day of school is full of conflicting emotions for both kids and their parents. When the alarm went off at Kellogg’s house on Lily’s first day of kindergarten, Lily was so excited about going to “big-kid school” that she barely had an appetite. Kellogg and her husband drove Lily to school and walked her up to the entrance, where other families were already gathered and chatting with the teacher. “The teacher greeted the kids and the parents, and suddenly I knew everything was going to be okay,” she recalls. “I remember feeling like I really connected with this community of people and that the school felt warm, safe, and nurturing.” But even though she knew that Lily was in good hands, she still cried after hugging her goodbye. “I remember thinking that my child’s growing up and she’s happy and healthy, but I still felt a little sad,” she shares. “She’s not a baby anymore; she’s in ‘big-kid school.’”
It’s perfectly normal to feel proud that your kid has come so far, just as it’s normal to feel sad that time is going by so quickly. That another person will have authority over your child is hard to come to terms with as well. And if you’re a stay-at-home parent, these feelings could intensify even more. But it’s important not to let the kids see just how difficult it is for you, because that might upset them. Stay calm and positive around them and open up to your partner or to fellow parents instead. They know what you’re going through and can offer comforting words.
Keep the goodbyes short but sweet.
“Walk your child to the classroom, but try not to linger too long,” Kellogg says. “It makes it worse for kids.” If you hug them like you’ll never see them again, they’ll start to wonder why, and that’ll just make them more anxious. If you’ve taken the day off work or you’re a stay-at-home parent, make plans to do something immediately afterward to distract yourself. Celebrate your free time by doing what you haven’t been able to with a kid in tow, like meeting a friend for a shopping date, getting coffee, or simply lounging at home and enjoying the quiet. Call friends or family members with kids who’ve already dealt with the first “first day” if you’re having a lot of trouble coping.
Most parents invest time and energy preparing their kids for the first day of kindergarten, but how many spend enough time preparing themselves for the big change? If you take time to acknowledge concerns and work toward reducing them, perhaps that first day won’t be so intimidating for you or your kids. It’ll never be easy to let go of their hands as they take their first steps into “big-kid school,” but it doesn’t have to be quite so hard.