You blink back tears as you let go of her little hand. She walks into a classroom that suddenly seems much too large. She meets the eye of another child and then quickly glances back at you one more time! Suddenly, she’s off to new adventures of learning and making friends. As you dab the tears from your eyes, you know that your child’s first day of school is a moment that will stay with you for a long time.
No matter whether you know it as nursery school, kindergarten, kindy, preschool, école maternelle, or Reception, universally, parents know that feeling of dropping off their child for the first day of formal schooling. In many countries, around age 5 or 6, children make the leap from being primarily at home or in daycare to entering some type of formal education.
This is a momentous transition for both child and parent. Even at a young age, children recognize this as a big step in their educational journey. Parents also feel the pull of their heartstrings as their young child takes another step into the world outside their home and into new learning. With this big transition can come big complex emotions for both child and parent.
Helping Children Transition
A child’s first day of school is often a much-anticipated event as they feel proud to be old enough to attend school. Many have seen older siblings, cousins, or neighborhood kids attending school for years. Now they finally get to experience it themselves. Despite this anticipation, when that first day arrives, they often feel mixed emotions.
Depending on your child’s temperament, they may be excited and fearless about entering school. Or, if your child is slow-to-warm-up, they may feel nervous, shy, and even reticent to enter this new schooling adventure. Although you may have a sense of how your child will react to the first day of school, you still might be surprised when they begin to cling to your leg or cry as the big day begins.
All these big emotions, from excitement to nervousness, are typical for children on these first days of school. For most children, as the day goes on and they become accustomed to the new routine, their feelings settle, and they participate well. But for some children, it might take a few days (or even weeks) of school before they feel comfortable with a new setting and the process of separating from their parents.
Tips for parents
Prepare in advance
You can help prepare your child mentally and emotionally for the first day of formal schooling with a few activities. One helpful activity is to read books about the first day of school. There are many wonderful books available that follow fictional characters on their first day of school. These books typically address all the big emotions involved.
Another great way to prepare is to allow your child to visit the school before the first day. Many schools set aside a special day just for new students to visit. This experience can be helpful as your child transitions to formal schooling. Children can see their new classroom, become accustomed to their new surroundings, and perhaps even meet their new teacher and classmates.
Focus on helping your child feel secure
First-day worries often have to do with your child needing to feel secure and comfortable in school. With everything being new to them, it can feel a little overwhelming.
What can you do? Try to focus on helping your child feel safe and secure. Part of this process can be explaining the location of things, like the bathroom, their school supplies, and the lunchroom. Another idea is to talk through a typical day with your child. Explain the daily routine and how they will progress throughout the day, with times for learning, playing, and recess. Most importantly, discuss what happens when the school day is over and how and where you will meet your child to pick them up. All these little supports can alleviate the fear of the unknown and help your new student feel more secure.
It’s not uncommon, even among 5-7 year-olds, for there to be some amount of separation anxiety. Young children are still strongly attached emotionally to their parents, potentially making the transition to full-day school dramatic. It can be challenging for any parent to see their child crying and begging for them not to leave or clinging to them at the door to the classroom. As a parent, it’s helpful for you to empathize with your child’s feelings while also displaying confidence in your child’s ability to attend school.
It’s important to avoid minimizing your child’s feelings. Although tempting to say things like, “Oh, don’t cry. You’re not a baby,” or “It’s just school. There’s nothing to worry about,” these sentiments don’t help your child feel validated or heard.
Instead, listen with empathy to your child’s feelings and reiterate that they are safe and secure at school. Try, “I know you are scared and it makes total sense. Almost everyone is scared when they first go to school. Let’s go check out where you will be sitting and see if we can make a friend.”
Another way to help your child feel secure and connected with you is to have a special ritual for saying goodbye. This ritual could be a special handshake, a simple hug, or even a sticker that reminds your child of you. Any way of connecting with your child can help ease this transition. Leaving them a note in their lunchbox can remind them that they have something to look forward to during the day! It can be as simple as reminding your child that you are thinking of them.
Parents, You Might Need Emotional Prep, Too!
Don’t worry, parents. We didn’t forget about you!
Although your child’s first day of school is probably more dramatic for them, it can also be a big change for you. Many parents are unprepared for the emotional reaction they experience when their child walks through those school doors for the first time. Your child will likely navigate this transition with more ease if you, as their parent, feel at ease, too.
To prepare yourself for this big transition, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
It can be helpful for you to prepare yourself emotionally for your child’s first day of school. This might mean imagining the first day of activities in your mind to see what emotional reactions stir up. Avoid pushing away or trying to avoid these powerful emotions before the big day. It’s normal to feel a mix of sadness, pride, joy, or a whole range of emotions as your child transitions into school. Remember, it’s okay for adults to cry, too. The main focus is to help your child feel safe and confident entering school. If they have questions about your emotional reaction, respond honestly. It’s okay for them to know that it’s a big day for you, too! Keep in mind that if you allow yourself to feel the emotions before day 1, it will decrease the chances of you crying uncontrollably in front of your child at school (which may make it difficult for them to transition).
Many parents find it helpful to have a friend, spouse, or family member with them (or just a phone call away). After drop-off, parents can rely on this support person to help them process everything they’re feeling. Just as your child relies on you for emotional support, you need others to rely on, too.
At the end of that emotional first day of school, both you and your child may feel the need to decompress a bit. Be prepared for your child to experience a lot of feelings when they see you after school. Some parents have a special celebration planned with their children. It could be a simple dinner out, a special treat, a movie night, or another fun activity.
Your child’s first day of formal schooling can be an emotional time for you, your child, and even the rest of the family. Children thrive best when they feel safe, secure, and confident during this transition. As a parent, you can help by supporting your child’s needs and emotions as they make this leap into the world of school.
At BYJU’S FutureSchool, we love helping children thrive at school and at home. Our unique hands-on 1:1 and 1:4 classes in coding, math, and music support children’s academic development while building critical social and emotional skills like creativity, critical thinking, and cooperation.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.