Kindergarten is now a nearly universal experience for children in the United States: 98%, or more than 3 million children, attend kindergarten prior to entering first grade (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1996, p. 62). The number of children who have preschool or child care experience prior to entering kindergarten has also grown rapidly in recent years: between 1985 and 1995, the number of children between 3 and 5 years of age attending preschool programs grew by 32% (NCES, 1996, p. 43).
In part because of so much experience in preschool settings, many children make the transition to school without difficulty. Other children may be wary of their new surroundings, but they adjust over time. Wariness in new situations is not all bad; it indicates an ability to discern who may and who may not be trustworthy.
This article discusses some ways parents can help prepare children new to school before the year begins, common problems faced by children just beginning school, and strategies parents can use to help their child adapt to the new environment.
The details of registration, immunization requirements, and information about arrangements for transportation, snacks, or meals are best attended to by the responsible adults well ahead of September. It is often helpful to find out from the school what school personnel expect of entering kindergartners in terms of self-reliance. Are they expected to know their address and phone number? Do they need to know how to tie their shoes and zip jackets?
Many schools provide introductory packets or booklets for parents of kindergartners or new first-graders, and they distribute this information during registration (and often earlier, upon request). Other ways to find out about the school’s expectations include calling and requesting any other introductory material that is available, visiting the school—including the building, playgrounds, lunchroom, restrooms, and classrooms—and asking for a meeting with the most likely teacher of your child.
If your child shows no special apprehension about entering the new school environment, it is best for you to be matter-of-fact about it, too, and to take any opportunities as they arise for informal chats with the child about what is likely to be ahead.
Acknowledge and Accept Uneasiness about the New School
For children who show some concern about what the new experience is likely to include, it is easier to help them through the adjustment period if you are reasonably sure the new environment is a sensitive and responsive one. Your confidence that school will be a good experience will make it possible for you to reassure your child that he or she will be all right and that the adults in the new situation will understand the child’s feelings and be ready to help with difficult moments. Many children pick up their parents’ uncertainties and anxieties and persist in behavior that will either get them reassurance or, in extreme cases, provoke a change in plans.
A parent’s uncertainty about what is in store for his or her child may be caused by concern about the quality of education offered in the school or about the curriculum and teaching practices in classrooms. Many parents find that their concerns stimulate their active participation in school activities, volunteering in class, and taking part in discussions of school plans and new curriculum approaches. If inquiries into the school’s curriculum and teaching practices do not reassure you, and other options for schooling are not available to you, then it may be best to focus on simply reassuring your child that you will be glad to help him to do well and are always ready and willing to talk with him about his experiences.
For some parents, their child’s entry into school arouses apprehension or unpleasant school memories from their own childhood. Such hesitation may be based on a parent’s experience with schools that were insufficiently aware or sensitive to his or her cultural background and needs. In such cases, it may be helpful to contact a neighbor or friend who has already had experience in the school or class that your child will enter and to discuss your concerns and perhaps visit the school with her.
The young child, however, is unlikely to be concerned about such things as curriculum and teaching methods, or to be too concerned about her parents’ experiences in school. She is more apt to wonder what it might be like on the school bus with many other children of different ages and sizes, what she will do when she has to go to the bathroom and where it is, how meals will be managed, where she will put her coat, or what the new rules will be like. Some children want to be sure about where they will be dropped off when they arrive at school, who will meet them there, and who will meet them when they return home after school. Relaxed informative discussion of such details, and even rehearsal of some of the procedures, can reduce apprehension.
For children with little or no previous experience in large group settings, a casual visit together with your child to the school grounds, a walk through the hallways, and a visit in the classroom—plus a brief meeting with the teacher—can assure both of you that the new experience will be manageable.
Inviting to your home a neighborhood friend who is also going to start school with your child, or an “experienced” first-grader, can often provide a relaxed setting to discuss going to school and provide a “buddy” who can help reduce the strangeness of the new experience. Also, if kindergarten is to be the child’s first experience in a large group setting, giving the child some advance experience of being apart from you and from home for brief periods before school begins, perhaps visiting a friend at her house for a few afternoons before school starts, can help build confidence in her capacity to cope with the new phase in her life. Most likely, however, your child has already been away from home for a good part of the day in a preschool program of some kind, and she has probably already developed useful coping skills for entering a group.
Be Matter-of-Fact about What’s Ahead
Instead of asking your child at the moment she leaves for school “Are you okay?” indicate that you believe he or she will do fine, that there will be people in school ready to be helpful when necessary, and say something like “I know you’ll get used to it all in no time!”
Be careful, however, not to promise that it will be exciting and fun from the word “go.” For some children, that may be so. But for most, some upset at entering a new environment that is large and swarming with strange children and adults should be expected. Accept the child’s feelings without dwelling on them, and let her know that you understand it takes time to get used to the new people, places, routines, and rules.
When a child talks very excitedly about what she or he expects, tone it down a bit so as not to add to excessively high expectations. In fact, it is a good idea to say to the child, in an informal context, something like “You’ll make some new friends and have lots of good experiences in kindergarten. But most likely there will be moments when you wish you were at home (or back in your old preschool).” Such statements prepare the child in a way that when these inevitable moments arise they are not unstrung by them. As the saying goes, to be forewarned is to be forearmed!
Some young children are very eager to get to the big school and are unprepared for differences from their earlier group experiences in a preschool or child care setting. In kindergarten or first grade, it is harder to get the teacher’s attention than in a preschool group. In kindergarten, they will have to work in larger groups and observe some rules about getting along with new adults and children. Furthermore, in school, children are expected to be slightly more self-reliant and to be able to do many more things for themselves than was expected in preschool. Parents can often help by providing practice with dressing, buttoning and unbuttoning, zippers, and the like. For many children, confidence in their ability to handle these details frees them to attend to the more important aspects of this important new phase in their lives.
Resistance to Going to School: School Phobia and School Refusal
If your child has had few previous group experiences, then some degree of anxiety on separation—for both child and parents—is to be expected and is not a cause for alarm. If your child is reluctant to go to school, try to resist offering a reward or a bribe, such as promising a special treat for quiet separation; by doing so, you may signal that she or he has cause to be upset. Instead, it is best to express your confidence in the child’s ability to gradually get used to the new situation and to do well in it.
School phobia, currently referred to by psychologists as school refusal in its mild form, occurs in only about 5% to 10% of children. Full-blown school phobia is very rare, occurring in only 1% as a form of severe phobia (Murray, 1997). At some time during their school experience, however, many children occasionally suffer from some of the symptoms generally associated with school phobia.
School refusal takes many forms such as crying, shyness, tantrums, petulance, persistent clinging, and, in many cases, illnesses such as sore throats, stomachaches, headaches, and the like. These illnesses often occur shortly before it is time to leave for school, tend to subside when the child stays home, and often reappear the next morning.
Occasionally, school refusal occurs after a long break from school such as the summer holidays. In such cases, children anticipate problems on their return to school. For example, they may be responding to underlying worry about their abilities to do well enough in class or about relationships with peers. Parents can usually help the child talk through such fears. Persistent cases of such school refusal usually require professional assistance to prevent them from becoming a serious pattern of behavior.
Many parents worry about preparing their children for the transition to the “big school.” Even if your child has had a year or two of preschool or child care, the transition to school can be eased by good preparation at home, working with the school, and maintaining an open, matter-of-fact communication strategy with children.
For More Information
Elovson, Allana Cummings. (1993). The kindergarten survival handbook: The before school checklist and a guide for parents. Santa Monica, CA: Parent Education Resources. (ERIC Document No. ED372843)
Graue, M. Elizabeth. (1993). Ready for what?: Constructing meanings of readiness for kindergarten. Albany: State University of New York Press. (ERIC Document No. ED355012)
Holloway, Susan D.; Rambaud, Marylee F.; Fuller, Bruce; & Eggers-Pierola, Costanza. (1997). What is “appropriate practice” at home and in child care?: Low-income mothers’ views on preparing their children for school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 10(4), 451-473. (ERIC Journal No. EJ516738)
Karnofsky, Florence, & Weiss, Trudy. (1993). How to prepare your child for kindergarten. Carthage, IL: Fearon Teacher Aids. (ERIC Document No. ED392547)
National Center for Early Development and Learning. (1999, Winter). Kindergarten transitions [Special issue]. Early Developments, 3(1). Available: http://www.fpg.unc.edu/~ncedl/PAGES/prdcts.htm [2000, April 28].
Paulu, Nancy, & Greene, Wilma P. (Eds.). (1992). Helping your child get ready for school, with activities for children from birth through age 5. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document No. ED352158)
Ryan, Bernard, Jr. (1996). Helping your child start school: A practical guide for parents. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group. (ERIC Document No. ED404026)
Walmsley, Sean A., & Walmsley, Bonnie Brown. (1996). Kindergarten: Ready or not? A parent’s guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (ERIC Document No. ED400081)
Murray, Bridget. (1997, September). School phobias hold many children back. APA Monitor, pp. 38-39.
National Center for Education Statistics. (1996). Digest of education statistics, 1996 (NCES 96-133). Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC Document No. ED402679)