Going to kindergarten for the first time can be an intimidating experience. Even if your child has already been in a preschool or day-care setting, the environment was probably more homelike than the typical kindergarten classroom will be. He has to adjust to a new place, away from family or familiar caregivers, and he may be frightened by the strange surroundings. Your own thoughts may be more abstract, wondering, for example, whether your little kindergartner is going to be a good student, while she is simply worrying about where she’s supposed to go to the bathroom.
“Children are really facing the same fears that all of us encounter when we go someplace new or make a transition—fears about getting basic needs met,” says Mary Ann Rafoth, dean of the College of Education and Educational Technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. To make that first day go off without a hitch, here’s a rundown of what most children want to know up front and what you can do to ease their fears.
What if I get lost?
Navigating a new and unfamiliar place can zap anyone’s confidence. Even a relatively small school can seem vast and confusing to a 5-year-old who doesn’t know his way around. Nip that problem in the bud by arranging to visit the school in advance. Most schools are amenable to the idea and in fact may already have an orientation program for incoming kindergartners that you could take advantage of. “Although my son’s kindergarten was on the same campus as his preschool, taking a tour of his new classroom ahead of time and meeting the teacher made for a seamless transition,” says Melanie Simmons of Plano, Texas.
What if I have to go to the bathroom?
If your child hasn’t had the benefit of a tour prior to the start of school, tell him not to worry. One of the first things a kindergarten teacher will do is show all her new kindergartners where the bathroom is and tell them the rules for using it. They might have to raise their hand for a turn or do a thumbs-up, for example. “A good portion of that first morning is devoted to establishing a bathroom routine,” says Kathy Cox, a kindergarten teacher in Palm Desert, Calif. “Believe me, I want to avoid accidents as much as you do!” Do your child a favor and send him to school in easy-on, easy-off pants or shorts—no belts! Elastic waistbands are great so he won’t have to fuss with a zipper or snaps.
What if I get hungry?
Whether your child is toting a lunch from home or lining up for one in the cafeteria, assure her that there is a regularly scheduled mealtime and usually a snack time, too. “A lot of kids bring snacks from home for recess time, but a savvy kindergarten teacher usually has a jumbo jar of animal crackers or pretzels on hand to dole out, as well,” Cox says. What’s particularly nice about packing a lunch is that you can include all your child’s favorites and banish any worries she might have about not liking the cafeteria food. Later, as she becomes more accustomed to the lunchtime routine and perhaps more adventurous, you can study the school’s menu together and circle days when she might enjoy buying lunch instead. Most schools post online or send home a calendar of a month’s meals in advance. Tack it up on your refrigerator for reference.
Where will I put my jacket and backpack?
Having a place to put their things helps kids have a sense of belonging. Most kindergarten classrooms have built-in cubbies, usually small wooden cubicles or in some cases stacked interlocking plastic tubs, for the express purpose of storing personal belongings. In other classrooms, each child is assigned a hook for hanging coats and backpacks. Assure your child that he will be assigned his very own space. You’ll still want to label your child’s belongings to reduce the chance of mix-ups, however. “I get pretty busy with name tags,” Cox says, “and it helps if parents do the same. I ask them to label all their children’s outerwear and especially backpacks because invariably two kids have the same one.”
What if I get on the wrong bus?
To a child, the big yellow school bus is probably the diciest area of the whole kindergarten experience. Imagine being pint-size and having to jostle your way through a bunch of bigger kids besides remembering to get off at your stop. That’s if you can recognize it! If he’s riding the bus to school and doesn’t have an older sibling to shepherd him, try finding a responsible neighborhood child to keep an eye on him and escort him from the bus to class until he knows the way himself. As for the return trip, reassure him that his teacher or another school staff member will make sure he gets to the parking lot and onto the right bus. (Tell the teacher he’ll probably wear a name tag with the bus route clearly labeled.) Even so, it’s good idea to create a plan of action in case he does get lost, Rafoth notes. “Teach him his room number and teacher’s name, the name of his bus stop, and have him practice how to ask a grown-up for directions.”
Who will be my friend?
Once a child feels comfortable that her basic needs will be met, her next set of worries typically center on whether people will be nice to her, Rafoth says. From a kid’s perspective, she may be opening the door on an entirely different set of faces from those she’s become accustomed to in preschool, and that can be intimidating. “Fortunately, at this age they’re really too young to develop deep friendships, and kids will always find others that they like to be with and whose temperament and personality suit them in play,” Rafoth says. That may be comforting to you, but what about your child? Scan the class list when it’s posted to check whether you recognize a family name. Even with limited notice, you might still be able to squeeze in a play date so your child knows at least one person on the first day of class. Another idea is to contact the school’s parent-teacher organization to see whether there are families of current students who may have younger siblings entering kindergarten.
With a little kindergarten readiness preparation, you can curb most of your fledgling kindergartner’s worries and practically do away with separation anxiety altogether. Take out some books or DVDs from your neighborhood library about what to expect in kindergarten, and read and watch them together. Study any information packets you receive ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to call the school with questions. Armed with the data you need, you can put your child’s mind at ease about basic issues so he can get off to a great start and focus on the learning and socialization skills he’s there to acquire!