My daughter starts Grade 2 this year but I will never forget her first day of school two years ago. It’s a big, tiring day this one, for both the parents and the kids. Beforehand, you’re full of apprehension about how it’s likely to pan out. Will your darling take to it like a duck to water, or be the terrified wallflower about to explode into tears at the first sign of your departure for the door? Here are some handy tips on how to handle your child’s first day of school.
It’s amazing how your own first day of school comes flooding back as you see your little one off to ‘big’ school, even if, as in my case, that was decades ago. So what’s the best way to drop them off and commit them to institutional care for the next 12 years without making them feel distressed and abandoned?
As many now know, the commonplace nature of pre-school these days has made the first day of school easier for many parents. The little ones who’ve been at pre-school since they were three years of age or even earlier are old hands at this new classroom/new teacher/new friends business. Then again, school’s a bit more of a big deal even for them. One placid little girl my daughter had been in pre-school with threw THE largest wobbly I’d ever seen when her father tried to leave the class on the first day of school. Made Linda Blair in The Exorcist look positively zen, including foaming at the mouth and rolling around on the ground banging into chair legs. Inconsolable.
Which raises the timely question of what to do if your child doesn’t want you to leave and doesn’t like, at all, this whole school idea. The advice from the education professionals is usually to find a kindly teacher or teacher’s aide, park your child with them, big hugs and kisses… and then skedattle the hell out of there as quickly as possible. “They’ll forget you in five minutes,” the teachers soothingly reassure.
This, it should be said upfront, is much easier said than done. It hurts to turn heel and leave that little distressed, tear-stained face screaming “Daaaaaaaaddddddyyy!!!!!!” as you leave. But from experience, it is the best advice. The alternative is you hang around trying to slowly integrate them into the group and they cling onto you for dear life while they find their feet. This can work, to the point where they’re happy for you to go… but it takes forever and it’s disruptive to the class. It will also tend to happen every morning for anywhere between a week and a month… or more. It’s better to rip the band-aid off quickly, if painfully.
There are plenty of other practical things you can do to reduce the separation anxiety on the first day, including:
- Taking them to the school before the big first day so they can see their classroom and perhaps even meet the teacher, if possible. Many primary and preschools facilitate this nowadays.
- Do school-like activities like drawing or storybook reading at home.
- Get them to try on their uniform.
- Organise play-dates with other kids you know will be at the school.
- Reminisce happily about your own first day of school.
- Let them bring a special toy, like a favourite teddy, to the first day.
There are plenty of techniques to help prepare your new school-kid for the first day but of course, none of that matter once the day arrives. They may still dissolve in a puddle of tears. The key is to remain calm and unflustered despite their obvious distress. Think in advance about what you’ll say and how you’ll react should it all turn into a meltdown, and definitely conceive an exit plan once you’ve offering your reassuring words, hugs and kisses. Don’t linger.
This can take a while. One kid I went to school with cried outside the classroom, his mother unable to leave, for at least the first four months of kindergarten, but eventually it does pass. It actually takes the littles one a little while to get used to the idea that school happens every day. It’s a tiring idea, for them and for you, but it does get better.