I don’t usually post “parenting how-to” advice. There’s a good reason for that: I also don’t usually know what the hell I’m doing at any given moment.
But tentative/anxious school aged children and big transitions like starting school? This I know.
My daughter started first grade today, and she turns seven on Saturday—two big milestones crammed into a frenzied start to September. Naturally, for the past 72 hours she’s been a tightly wound ball of moody nerves. But, having dropped her off at school for her first day without incident, I feel like I’m finally doing something right.
So, without further ceremony, here are my top five tips for helping your child make it through the first day of school (or any big transition/event), even if they already have a few years under their belt.
1. Keep your spirits high, but set your expectations low. Seriously. And not just starting the day before either. Even the most laid back child is bound to get even a small case of the jitters on the first day of school. Then there are children like mine who will stress out about it for a week before, AND a full week after school starts before they begin to feel comfortable in their own skin and a new routine again. But here’s the key: they really do look to us parents, including our own unspoken anxiety (if we have it), for cues about how they should respond. If we are worried about it, they will be too. It took me the first five years of her life to really understand this. So, keep it light. Don’t let conversations drone on about the first day all.the.time. Maybe mention it in passing here and there, and answer any questions that come up, but do not go on ad nauseam about it because that is what will make them wonder if there’s something to worry about. Still, even having a relaxed attitude might not totally work every minute leading up to the big moment, so be flexible with their moodiness, clinginess, need for physical touch, and seemingly manic emotions. If all of their needs eventually get to you, find some time to go for a walk or thrash around to some of your 90s metal collection, but otherwise, you need to be the rock for them until that time passes where they can exhale again.
2. Relax (some of) your rules a bit. We all have certain rules around the house. I’m not proposing anarchy in the name of keeping spirits light, but look at what you can flex on in order to maintain the peace a little more. Here’s one of mine: school day breakfast around here is consistently the same, and we have a clear expectation that it will include some kind of healthy(ish) carbohydrate, a protein, some water, and a bit of fruit. Not in a “clean your plate” kind of way, but in an “at least have a bite of each thing so it’s well rounded” way. We have this “rule” because of the wonky times they eat snack and lunch relative to the structure of the entire school day, and also because we cannot control how much of the food we pack is eaten during that time. Yes, there are days she will make the choice to go play with her friends rather than sit and finish her sandwich, and then she’s stuck until she gets home and can eat again. Still, I know she is nervous the first day and week, so I just set out a plate of those things without comment, trusting that she will eat enough of something (at home and school) if she wants to. Which leads me to . . .
3. Two words: gastrocolic reflex. Go ahead Google it. Suffice it to say that if you feed your child 15 minutes before you expect her to be in the car to go to [big moment of the day], and then wonder why they always have to use the bathroom to poop RIGHT BEFORE you’re about to lock the door to leave, then you are not familiar with this term. (I happened to learn it because of some health issues M was having a few years ago.) And, when someone’s nervous, their digestive tract is even more amped up and can behave erratically. So, take that into consideration when you plan out your morning/at home routine. Leave enough time so that your Nervous Nellie/Nelson doesn’t have to feel rushed when eating OR when using the loo afterwards. No one likes to feel rushed in either scenario, but feeling rushed (or prohibited altogether…remember, some children are afraid of using the school/public bathrooms to do their duty and will hold it instead) in the second situation is potentially bound to backfire in a myriad of ways, including constipation. Incidentally, breakfast is broken up into two parts in our house; she eats a little something when she first wakes up (to get things moving, if you catch my drift) and then a little more after she’s dressed. That set up has worked wonders for us having a stress-free departure.
4. Keep it comfy. Back to school shopping is all you hear about in the weeks leading up to school. A lot of folks like their children to be spiffy on the first day. A lot of children themselves like to make an impression too. The problem for some children can be that they don’t actually like the feeling of new clothing when their senses are already on high alert. Honestly, it’s more important to me that she is able to walk into that building and take in all the new sights/sounds/smells without the added burden of some distracting new seam or tag. Hence, she wears old rags for the first few days. It’s just one less thing to worry about.
5. Write a letter. I recently gave this tip to someone on Instagram who has a child starting Kindergarten and needs ideas about calming some nerves. We did this last year before Kindergarten, and did it again this year. I think it will actually become a new tradition of sorts. Anyway, my daughter dictated a letter to herself (for efficiency, I penned the letters these two years but next year she’s going to do it herself) to be read on the LAST day of the school year. In this letter, she describes (in her age appropriate way) how she’s feeling about the new school year, what she’s looking forward to, and what she’s slightly nervous about. The goal of this letter is twofold: first, to get her to vocalize any jitters she’s having and for her to pay attention to the good stuff too; and second, to allow her older, wiser self some ten months from now to see (especially year to year) how each year generally starts the same. There are normal fears that usually go unfounded, and expectations for good things that usually come true. It’ll be a great keepsake too where she can look back one day when she starts college, her first job, gets married, has a child, starts a global conglomerate to promote world peace, etc. and find that these kinds of feelings ebb and flow, and that she can manage it like she always has.
What are your tips for your child embarking on something new? How do you help them cope with stressful transitions?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
This year, we purchased a new advent calendar to count down the days to Christmas. The one we had been using in the past few years was a total flop. This could be related to the fact that we forgot to fill it with treasures. Ahem. Maybe. But this one is foolproof because it already comes with all of the treasures waiting to be discovered. And M is in love with it. Each morning she comes down the stairs, the first place she goes is to the advent calendar to open the day’s door and reveal the animal inside. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out she has been assembling a little school of animals on the front porch.
Tonight, M decided to write a book. Actually, she started it in school today and finished it at home. She told me she wanted to write a book for her Kindergarten teacher “because no one else has yet”. She wrote it without any help. Although she doesn’t use so many words, I think it’s clear just how she feels about this important person in her life. One might even call it a love story. And sometimes, you just nail it on the first draft.
August 31, 2007. That was the day you were supposed to be born, at least according to the white-coated “experts” and their charts. In my typical Type A fashion, I planned my last day of work before my maternity leave to be August 28, so I could work right up until the end. I’d have two days off to get organized and pack “the bag”, and then you’d be born. There was a plan. Perfect.
But nope. August 31st came and went. You just weren’t ready.
So I waited. And waited. And waited.
Truth? I was already a little miffed that I could have been working instead. It seemed so important at the time to not take any “extraneous” time off from clients and the courtroom just to sit around the house. The heat wave smothering Boston at the time certainly did not help. As I stepped into my mother shoes, I was already feeling the outer edges of a life that would no longer be entirely mine. I was being introduced into the art of “letting go”. I was not a quick study.
Then, after a week that felt like an eternity, you arrived on September 6th.
You came when you were ready.
At the time you were born, I didn’t realize that your “delay” would mean an extra year until you could enter Kindergarten in our city. Once I did figure this out, probably when you were around three years old or so, I did not exactly embrace that extra year. A lot of “if only” thoughts cluttered my mind. If only you had been born “on time” instead of when you were ready. This was still my kind of thinking back then.
But then something shifted in me. I began to listen to the pure tones within myself and of my loved ones, and blocked out the white noise of external expectations. I realized that I was not entirely happy with my chosen profession, at least not in the way that I was then working. I began to accept, if not appreciate, the kind of sensitivity you innately possess. A sensitivity that, at its meridian, was so entirely contrary to the path of life we had first chosen for you: nine hours a day in loud and busy daycare classrooms. A sensitivity that still quite often means you are not ready to do things at the speed or volume that others might. A sensitivity much like mine.
If both of us were going to survive, something had to change. So, a few months before you turned four, I let go and left what I knew to start something entirely different that would nourish my soul and my heart, and also bring you closer to me more often. I sensed that it was where we both needed to be. I was ready.
It has not always been easy. There have been many false starts over the past two years. Even though I was ready to embark on a fresh new journey, you were not. You sent up several red hot flares to signal you were in distress. I put aside many of the things that I wanted to accomplish for myself during that time so that I could be the kind of mother you needed for a while, but more importantly so that you could be the kind of kid that you are. I do not say this as a martyr or a saint—you know perhaps better than anyone else that patience was in short supply for much of this past winter and spring as we untangled the biggest knots, and I am now well aware of how much I benefited from it all even though almost none of it was part of my plan.
It’s also precisely when I realized that the extra year that I had once considered a detriment was actually a gift. That extra year allowed me to really get to know you and myself. It allowed all of us to make all of the necessary adjustments before we sent you off to school.
That time is what allowed you to be ready today, September 9, 2013, your first day of Kindergarten.
You are ready to widen your circle. You are ready to weather the storms of friendships and steep learning curves. You are ready to take risks. You are ready to speak up when you do not want to be rushed. You are ready to take in all that life has to offer. You are ready to chart your own course even when it might be the one less traveled. You are ready to try new things. You are ready to discover who you are going to be.
I am ready to follow your lead.
Readers: I’m taking a blogging sabbatical for the remainder of September. After three years of doing this, I need the time and space to think about the direction I want to go with this blog, and weigh M’s privacy as a factor going forward now that she’s more “out there”. I’ll be back in October, though maybe in a slightly different way.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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