Coping With Kindergarten Transitions

Laurel has always been a creature of habit. Her within-day care class transitions always were hard so I thought I was ready for a challenging transition to kindergarten. Turns out I wasn’t prepared for the impassioned sobbing of “I don’t want to go to kindergarten, I want to stay home with you!” (both awake and even in her sleep one night), the magnitude of her distress at drop off, or heart wrenching comments such as “Mommy, you’re so smart you could teach me everything I need to know. PLEASE let me stay home with you.” Not surprisingly, we’ve been scrambling to cope; I wanted to share tactics that have been effective for us this week, plus some great suggestions I received from folks via Twitter and Facebook.

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Remain calm. Jon and I are at our best – and Laurel calms down fastest – when we’re calm, patient, and supportive. Sometimes it’s hard not to get frustrated, but deep breathing – and keeping in mind how huge a transition this is for her – helps put things in perspective.

Listen. As Hetti recently pointed out in her post on fall structure strategies, sometimes kids just need to air their feelings. We always affirm with Laurel that we hear and understand her before anything else.

In this vein, my friend Jason eloquently suggested: “With our almost 5 year old, we help her find ways for her to express her frustration and feelings. We listen but don't try to solve anything for her. Generally, we don't reassure her because we want her to be able to reassure herself…we ask about her feelings as well as specific things that make her feel the way she is feeling. What specifically does she not like about kindergarten? Why does she not like those things? Are there things she does like? I find that helping my daughter become more adept at these kinds of metacognitive approaches to dealing with change help her so much more than giving her specific advice and telling her how it is or will be.”

Pick up the phone. After our rough second day, I suggested we make a couple of phone calls. Laurel chatted with one of her best buddies from pre-K (who also is having some rough transitions regarding riding the bus) and the call did wonders for both of their moods. Laurel also called her grandmother. Interestingly, during both conversations Laurel talked only about the positives of school; it was such a relief to see her body and face relax and hear her tone change as she laughed and recounted some of her favorite things about the day. It also was affirming to me that there were, in fact, some high points!

Plan a get together. We’re celebrating Laurel’s birthday with a few pre-K friends this weekend and I think it will help to see familiar faces. If we didn’t have the party, I would have tried to organize a play date with friends.

Play high/low. I absolutely love the high/low tip in Sheri’s easing back to school jitters post. It already has proven very useful in illuminating parts of the day that Laurel loves or isn’t wild about, which then helps us get to conversations about how to focus on the positive and find ways to cope with the less fun parts of the day. Knowing these extremes also makes it easier for me to communicate to her teacher about needs and issues.

Send them with a reminder. Whether it’s a concept (such as kisses per The Kissing Hand) or a physical object (such as the worry stone – which we refer to as a peace stone – Jon gave Laurel), little reminders of home and family can help. If you give your child a physical object, I recommend something small enough to fit in a pants pocket so it is easily accessible any time of the day, but not so small that it is easily lost.

Build in celebrations, milestones, and choices. Whether it’s a small treat or something “as simple as a dance party in your living room” (recommended by my friend Cara), celebrate the end of each school day during the first challenging week or two. My friend Kristen at Cool Mom Picks also suggested using a classic sticker chart where there’s a small prize of the child’s choice at the end of the week.

Contributing writer Sarah also suggested: "Validating her feelings is crucial, then maybe say, ‘School is something that every kid needs to do. Would you rather have a special treat before school or after school?’ and then she can pick; maybe out to breakfast for the first week, or a fun picnic after. The more choice you can give her (red sweater or blue, backpack or tote bag, etc.) the more empowered she may feel. If it persists, speak with her teacher about giving her a special task first-thing in the AM so she looks forward to arrival." I agree with Sarah wholeheartedly; we've always used choice to diffuse battles and power struggles.

Affirm trust. Just last night we discovered that one of the major pieces for Laurel isn't just being sad about missing us, it's being scared. She said something along the lines of, "Kindergarten is scary because I don't know if I can trust the grownups." We found that it helped to affirm our trust in her teachers and the fact that we would never put her in a situation where we didn't trust the grownups. It also was helpful to engage her in little games, such as estimating how many kindergartners Laurel's teacher has taught in her career, to illustrate that her teacher has been doing this a long time (to rave reviews, as it turns out) and is trustworthy.

Thank the teachers. I have made a point to express my gratitude to Laurel's teachers for their patience and kindness. I know teachers should be used to this sort of thing, but after having a really terrible experience in first grade (I cried daily at the beginning and my teacher turned on me and was cruel, which made things even worse) I've been worried that Laurel's teachers will get frustrated and cast her aside as problematic or high maintenance. Communicating her typical adjustment patterns with them has been helpful for all parties.

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These are tactics that have worked for us so far and every day has gotten a bit easier. Day 1 was horrible (breakdown at drop off, random crying through the day, almost no lunch consumed probably due to stress, end of day meltdown about going to kindergarten the next day). Day 2 was hard but not horrible (similar to Day 1 minus random crying throughout the day and a little more lunch was eaten). Day 3 (yesterday) was markedly better (breakdown at drop off but otherwise much happier through the day – Laurel’s teacher even sent us a note to tell us Laurel had an awesome day and smiled a lot – and only minimal complaints about going to kindergarten the next day).

I also received some great tips via Twitter and Facebook. Some of these, such as keeping to routines, we engage in regularly so I did not call them out above:

On routines:

@3keyscoach: “You've probably thought of this but what is the going to school routine like? Keeping calm, light, & fun reduces anxiety.”

From my friend Karen at Keeping the Castle: “Keep the goodbyes short and sweet every day. The longer you hang around, the worse it is.”

Share, relate, and engage:

@mamajoan: “Tell a story about a time when you started something new (job, etc.) and you were scared at first, but you came to love it.”

@3keyscoach: “Have her talk about fave parts of kindergarten/going to school. Get mind off negative.”

@GrowBone: “My son didn't want to go back this year until I reminded him duck, duck, goose was more fun with a full class than just the two of us.”

@ameliasprout: “I would find out what she doesn't like. Maybe you can address it better if you know what it is.”

@SBeeCreations: “First step - find out exactly what they find horrible. Likely, it's something specific that can be worked on. Keep teacher involved.” And also (after I mentioned that recess was the worst part): “Ask what her favorite part of recess is. Maybe the swings are more peaceful. Talk about what a small part of the day recess is.”

Kristen also suggested probing the bad more; for example, “Is it really that K is terrible or is it that she's scared or upset about leaving? Getting that all out in the open sometimes helps.”

My friend Susan suggested: "Sometimes I'll ask them what would make something better, and then be surprised when I'm told 'having a sticker on my hand' will do the trick…an easy fix that makes them comfortable over tons of crying and yelling!"

Get creative:

@3keyscoach: “What does little one fear? Find out what is so horrible. Draw, tell a story, or make up a song about it.”

@sgetgood: “Maybe give her a challenge each AM, e.g., count yellow things you see in class, etc. So she has something concrete to report.”

Karen also suggested school transition songs such as We Had A Happy Day and I Like To Go To School to focus on positives of the day.

Stay positive (grownups):

@ron_miller: “Make sure you and your spouse aren't giving subtle negative messages. Emphasize the fun, friends and being a big kid.”

Don’t dwell:

My friend Kim suggested: "I have learned after 3 kids to not feed into it. There is such thing as giving too much of a forum for feelings - believe it or not, sometimes they just want to sound off and don't need you to make it better all the time. Just acknowledge their anxiety but don't add to the glow; just say, “Oh I am sure today will be great!” And add "Sometimes I feel like that when I go to XXX but then I am so proud when I make it through." Then change the subject. Feeding into it validates that they should hate it or be worried. Act like it is the most normal thing and get on with hers, and your, day. It will dissipate much sooner.”

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