Beginning kindergarten is a significant developmental step for children and parents which evokes many feelings. So, how can we help our children navigate these feelings in this big transition? We have some insightful tips from Dr. Nancy Close, PhD Assistant Professor, Clinical Director Parent and Family Development Program at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center, and creator of the Woof Woof the Shadow Pup bedtime activity. “It is OK if your child takes some time to feel comfortable as a kindergarten student. At this age children are exploring their world in so many ways,” explains Dr. Close. Read on to discover more tips including book recommendations to help manage these feelings.
What are the top 5 most common feelings among Kindergarteners that parents often need help navigating?
Children experience a mix of feelings as they anticipate and begin Kindergarten. The most common ones that parents often need help navigating are anxiety and fear, excitement, anger, and sadness. These vary from child to child and according to a parent’s own comfort with various feelings. Children have very different capacities to express and regulate a range of feelings. Parents often do best helping their children navigate the difficult feelings their parents were comfortable with helping them understand, express and manage. Children benefit from parents’ support with all feelings. This support can involve staying with children during moments when their feelings are overwhelming, connecting feelings to behaviors, modeling ways of coping with a strong feeling and giving them words for their feelings.
What circumstances typically elicit these feelings in Kindergarteners, both at school and at home?
Beginning kindergarten is a significant developmental step for children and parents which evokes many feelings. There are so many new routines, expectations, people, and places they need to adjust to. All this newness can cause some separation anxiety- more difficulty getting ready and going to school, clinginess and worry and even some regression. Children this age often think when they go to kindergarten they should already know how to read or write. They also worry if their teacher will like them and if they will make friends. Parents and teachers can help children manage these feelings, but the experience can feel difficult for everyone.
How can parents best address each of those feelings effectively with their children?
It is helpful for parents to appreciate how going to kindergarten is a big step forward. They too may experience anxiety about this transition. It carries so many different meanings. “My baby is growing up… Will he be safe at school… Will his teacher like him… Will she make friends… Will she be comfortable learning new things… Will she be respectful may be some of the worries that go through parents’ minds. If children are taking the bus for the first time, it is not unusual for parents to follow the school bus to make sure their children get to school safely. During this time routine, rest and sleep become even more important. It is helpful to be patient when children come home from school and not ask too many questions. Children will talk about their day and their feelings when parents say something like, “I wonder how your first day at school was?” and then wait for them to share. It can take some time before they feel ready to share. If children do not talk at all about their day, it is fine to reach out to the teacher after the first week. It is important for parents to know that children’s difficult behavior or some regression may be due to the hard work they are doing in adjusting to kindergarten. It can be helpful for parents and teachers to acknowledge that starting a new school is both exciting and hard and that all children have many different feelings about this big step forward. It is important to refrain from quizzing the children about kindergarten. It can be helpful if parents share their own memories about going to kindergarten by saying something like, “I remember when I started kindergarten, I was afraid I would not find a friend.” Statements like this tend to normalize some of the feelings that come up with such a big adjustment.
Do you have any favorite book titles top of mind that you’ve seen help with these feelings or that you would recommend?
Feelings: Ruby Finds a Worry, Happy Sad Today, I Need a Hug
Starting School: Off to Kindergarten, The Night Before Preschool
Friendship: Frog and Toad, Giraffes Can’t Dance, Free to Be elephant Me
Separation: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Self Confidence and Pride in who you are: You Are Enough, A Little Bit Brave, All Are Welcome, Speak Up Molly Lou Melon
How can parents work with their child’s teacher to help both address and foster healthy expression for their feelings in the classroom?
It is helpful if teachers and parents appreciate that a child’s behavior is communication and make attempts to connect children’s feelings to their behaviors and acknowledging all feelings are ok. The learning curve for managing feelings in this age group is the work of adaptively expressing and regulating all feelings. Adults need to remember this is a process. It is always a good idea to avoid shaming a child for having a particular feeling particularly when it is strong.
What are some fun and effective ways that parents can teach their children to self soothe when they’re not around to help?
Taking big breaths, maybe a mantra parent and child develop together – that focus on themes – anxiety about separation – “It is ok to miss mommy. I will see her soon.” Or “when I go home I will play with my… “Mommy is thinking about me,” “Daddy is thinking about me.” “it is ok to feel……. “I know sometimes school can be hard.” “I am a good learner……. “I am a good friend.” Sometimes it helps if children can bring a lovey or a small picture of them with their parents to school and keep it in their backpack. Just knowing they are there can be soothing and reassuring.
Is there anything else important to remember about the back-to-school transition?
It is important to remember growth and maturation involve conflict and struggle. It is OK if your child takes some time to feel comfortable as a kindergarten student. At this age children are exploring their world in so many ways. They have a drive to feel competent and capable and need many opportunities to develop all kinds of skills; social, academic, emotional, creativity, attention, focus and persistence. As they grow their self-confidence, they do develop a wonderful sense of pride in their accomplishments. Making a positive adjustment to kindergarten will certainly grow a child’s competence, confidence, and pride. If parents take some time to watch their child’s make believe play during their adjustment to kindergarten, they may see some play scenarios that may reflect how that adjustment is going.