Annie Keeling: Take wing: Off to school for the first time
Cautious. Excited. Scared. Apprehensive. And that’s just what the parents are feeling on that very first day.
School gives parents a glimpse of their child’s growing independence — and the inevitable changes to a family’s routine. This can sometimes be tough, creating fear or anxiety — in the child and the parent.
Some children have a harder time with change than others, but there is usually some level of difficulty for all kids. A chaotic reaction to change can be normal.
When possible, let your child know that a change is happening with these three steps of Change Readiness:
Be ready and sure
Your confidence is the key to change. If you are hesitant about making a shift, it will be more difficult for your child. He/she looks to you for self-reliance and certainty, as well as your trust in him/her.
Many parents, especially first-timers, are understandably anxious. It’s common for parents to telegraph their concern to their kids. “Don’t swing on that bar. It’s too high. You’ll hurt yourself,” or “I’m worried that you’ll catch a cold without your jacket.”
Your child might also hear you express worry to another parent, see your furrowed brow at drop-off, or find you hovering when he/she meets a new friend.
When we have confidence in their growing abilities, our children have more room to explore and try new-to-me skills. By telling our kids, “You’ve got this,” through our attitudes and actions, we are letting them know we trust them.
Use the Power of Three to help a child make a change. This refers to providing three opportunities for him/her to gain an understanding of what will happen. Space them out, but don’t let too much time pass before an event.
The week before school starts, practice what it’s like to sit in a circle, listen to directions, respect other bodies (a circle of stuffed animals is fun) and other school expectations. You could visit the school or show your child a photo of a classroom in action and ask her what she sees.
The day before, help the child get ready, laying out clothes, making a menu for lunch, etc. and talk briefly about the school day.
The morning of the event, use a routine chart to ensure the start is relaxed and smooth. Don’t over-talk. Be brief. Whenever possible, incorporate different learning styles, such as visuals, movement, or sound.
Make the change … and acknowledge it
Feelings of loss, grief or unhappiness are normal. Let your child know that if she finds this difficult, you can accept his/her upset feelings.
Getting out the door
Leaving on time in the morning can be a huge challenge. Maybe your child gets easily distracted. The journey to the breakfast table might include two or three stops to play. He/she might intend to put her socks on but is found moments later crawling into the blanket fort and playing hide-and-seek.
The power of visuals
Parent reminders sound an awful lot like nagging. Is there another way?
Young children’s visual area of their brain develops earlier than the more logical, linguistic part. They respond well to pictures, sometimes better than words. So take yourself out of the equation. Make a routine chart.
First, brainstorm together a list of morning tasks that need to take place. For example:
Stretch and smile
Make your bed
Eat breakfast / carry off the dishes
Wash hands / brush teeth
Put on shoes / get backpack
By the door — ready to go
Create a chart or list of visuals. This could include photos or a drawing of your child doing each activity.
In the morning, you don’t need to give much instruction. “Check out the chart. What’s next?” The act of moving to the chart and looking at it helps a child organize his thoughts and actions.
If your child is having trouble saying goodbye at drop-off, make a chart that includes driving there, the goodbye and the parent’s return.
In addition to the ease of the visual instruction, positive attention works wonders. Instead of saying what the child is NOT doing, notice any step in the right direction. Give positive feedback or “credit.” Use facts so the praise is descriptive instead of generic. Add a family value to the report.
“You put your clothes on by yourself. You’re being independent.”
“You brushed your teeth without complaining. That’s respectful.”
“You carried off your dishes. Your cooperation helps the whole family.”
This eliminates nagging, diminishes dawdling and feels great for your child to receive. It’s amazing how effective this is instead of reporting what he/she didn’t do.
Scared of school
There are times that no amount of preparation can keep a child from feeling scared. If a child is fearful, encourage her to release feelings through tears, movement, puppet play, or time in nature. Increase special time — parent/child one-on-one time — for at least 15 minutes a day. Play deep touch games like “Big Bear, Little Bear” (http://startsmallparenting.com/the-power-of-touch/) to encourage laughter and safety.
Keep your own concern or discomfort in check. If you are hesitant at the school door, looking worried and biting your lip, then he/she will clearly sense your discomfort. It’s not only words that are important but our tone, body language and our thoughts as well.
As with any change, as much as possible, be sure and confident. Both you and your child have got this.
Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.
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