As seasons go, spring is generally considered to be the symbolic time of new beginnings and fresh starts. However, for young children and their parents and teachers, no season can compare with fall and the jittery excitement of starting school!
Even if children have been in summer childcare or are simply moving to a new level within their current school, a new school year can be a time of some stress and anxiety for all concerned. Parents and caregivers may have concerns about new schedules, new teachers and the bittersweet emotions they have about their child’s increasing independence. Teachers, whether novice or well-seasoned, face a new dynamic every year and the excitement of developing relationships with new children and parents. Of course, children are likely to be the most anxious about this adventure: new teachers, a new daily schedule, new friends and the broadened expectations that are placed on them may counter their anticipation to begin school.
With some sensitivity and careful planning, teachers and childcare workers can do a lot to mitigate the anxiety for everyone. The following ideas may be helpful ways to create a welcoming and peaceful start to the new learning year:
• Plan ahead. Give yourself ample time to prepare lesson plans, review new materials and ready your classroom. The more organized you are ahead of time, the more you can enjoy the first couple of days of school. Besides the peace of mind it will bring you, a well-orchestrated beginning will help build the confidence of parents and your new students.
• If possible, try to meet the families ahead of time. Plan a meet-and-greet or ice cream social to get to know one another in a fun, pressure-free environment. Many schools open their doors and invite families to visit the building a few days before school starts. If this is not possible or the families are already familiar with the building, send a letter to their homes introducing yourself, supplying relevant contact information and suggesting helpful hints for a calm first day.
• Create a list of mandatory or useful school supplies far enough in advance so parents have time to acquire everything that their children need to be successful. This gives busy caregivers the opportunity to avoid annoying last minute shopping and gives you the best odds that your students will have the supplies they require. The fun of choosing school items can also heighten anticipation for the first day of school.
• On the first day, greet every child warmly at the door—by name, if possible. This is a big moment for everyone. Children are likely to be nervous. Parents will surely be concerned about their child’s well-being, and they may even be struggling with their own conflicted feelings of excitement and loss. An enthusiastic “hello” and a positive first impression can help defuse these first few stressful moments. As you greet the children try to recall personal information (siblings’ names, pet information, etc.). These small efforts can help everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
• Allow parents and caregivers to stay as long as they like. This may feel a bit chaotic and disruptive, but think of the first day or two of school as an opportunity to set the right emotional tone for your classroom, not the time to settle into a routine. Over the long run, happy children and parents make your work much easier. If you are interested in formally celebrating the day, your school or classroom can be part of national first day of school festivities, a “holiday” aptly named the “First Day Celebration,” sponsored by First Day of School America. Their website, http://www.firstday.org/, has information to help you organize your own event.
• As part of your first day introductory materials, give parents and caregivers a written, detailed description of your goals and expectations for the school year. Include a school calendar and highlight upcoming special events (meet the teacher night, PTA meetings, etc.) that will further connect parents to the school community. Give parents as much advance notice as possible. You are making time in your busy schedule to participate in these events, and the more time you give parents to plan, the more successful they will be!
• Talk to parents about some of the common fears children might experience and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they might express them. It takes many children weeks to really settle into a school routine. There may be tears the first day–indeed, the first few days. They may feign illness or tell parents that they have no friends or that the teacher hates them. Help parents understand that while much of this is very normal, it’s important for them to contact you if they have any questions regarding their child’s school day. Assure them that you will immediately contact them if you have any concerns.
A child’s first day of school is a milestone that should be celebrated with enthusiasm and optimism. It is a wonderful opportunity to lay the foundation of your relationship with the child and his family, and it can also set the tone for school attitudes and involvement for years down the road. Creating an early rapport and partnership with the children and their parents will establish the groundwork for a productive year filled with learning and good memories.
Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 Educational/Funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children.