When a child enters first grade, anticipation and anxiety mix together over this exciting milestone. As the first day of school approaches, a parent wonders, “Will my child like his teacher?” “Will the teacher like my child?” “Will my child succeed in learning?” “Will my child get along with the other children and make friends?” The most difficult part of a child’s transition to school is the experience of separation from people and an environment that are familiar and safe. To help children adapt more easily in school, parents need insight into the developmental needs of their children so they can build a vital bridge between home and school.
School should be a place that is attachment safe and developmentally friendly. This means that the adults in charge are collecting your child in a friendly and warm way throughout the day, helping him get his bearings, making him feel at home. Parents want to make sure that their child’s curiosity, love of learning and relationship with the teacher are not spoiled by methods such as prizes, punishment, and consequences that are alarming and crush the spirit of emergent learning.
Cultivate the roots of attachment with your child throughout his school years. We often hear that children have to be encouraged to separate from parents so they can get along in school and learn to be independent. The opposite is actually true. Children will become independent and get along more easily when they know we are watching out for them and they can depend on us. The attachment to parents continues to be the primary source of children’s growth until adulthood. We intuitively know how to hold close those we love even when apart, and we want to practice these ways when children are in school.
Create a pleasant environment on school mornings and avoid pressure, so that you and your child can enjoy the time together before you separate from each other. This might mean waking up earlier, preparing food, clothing and other necessities the night before, establishing a morning routine together with your child(ren) ahead of time, eating breakfast together, putting on pleasant music, having a “no tv or computer before school” rule, etc.
Make greeting and collecting your child part of your way of life. After any separation, greet your child affectionately with a warm smile, and delight in your eyes. Let him know how happy you are to see him when he wakes up in the morning, when he comes home from school or from other activities, or when he comes back into the kitchen after playing in his room.
When your child goes off to school (or anywhere else that causes separation), bridge the separation. Talk with him about what you’ll be doing together after school, give him something sentimental of yours that he can take to school, let him know that you put a note or a surprise in his knapsack, etc. In other words, always walk your child into attachment with you.
Be a matchmaker for your child. Introduce him to his teacher, the principal, the guidance counselor, the school secretary, the guard at the gate, and anyone else who is responsible for your child during school hours.
Orient your child in school. No one likes to feel lost in a strange place. Make sure your child knows where things are in school and who he can turn to when he needs help. This will help your child feel at home in school. Even showing a child where the bathroom is and making sure he has what he needs to use it helps a child feel more secure at school.
Watch out for the “friends are good for your child” trap. Young children are quite mean and wounding to each other. The friend of yesterday is not the friend of today. Children put conditions on each other’s friendship. Friends can also pull your child away from you. Friends are nice to have, but not if they pull your child away from you so that your own influence over your child is weakened. If you think of yourself as a magnet, make sure both your child and his friends are pulled to your side, rather than repelled and pulled to the opposite pole.
Always stay in the “Mother Goose” position. Let your child feel that you are watching out for him and that you are in charge. Make it easy for him to depend on you and know that things are being taken care of. This can mean staying in regular contact with your child’s teacher, being emotionally available for your child so he can share his experiences with you, and taking the lead in situations that require parental intervention.
Listen to and care about what your child tells you about school. Your child needs you to help him or her adapt to this new experience and to the frustrations that come along with it. Children need to have their tears frequently over what isn’t working for them, and they need their parents to be able to collect their tears and be a safe haven for them. If your child is showing signs of stress and anxiety, it’s important to bring him to rest.
Parents play a large role in making sure their children are safe and secure in school, both physically and emotionally.Children must be able to give their hearts to their parents and teachers, because it is only then that their minds will be open to learning from them.
Shoshana Hayman is Director of Life Center, www.lifecenter.org.il, Faculty Member Neufeld Institute, and Lecturer at the Lander Institute Jerusalem Academic Center.