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The First Day of School
First Day Jitters? Make It Familiar...

first day of schoolThe scene is the same all over the world...

Adorable little children, dressed in their brand new school clothes, clutching Mommy or Daddy's hand and facing the exciting and terrifying prospect of spending a day in SCHOOL... for the very first time.

How the scene turns out depends on everyone involved.

It can either lead to a smiling step into the adventures of education or a terrified child clinging desperately to the safety of familiar necks, arms or any free body parts as a frustrated teacher tries to unwrap the screaming bundle from parents who are feeling incredibly guilty, embarrassed and confused.

What can you do to make sure you get the first option and not the second? The truth is that there are no guarantees. No matter what you do, your child may still have a panic attack at the moment of separation. The good news is that there are steps you can take to get all of you ready for ahead of time... and to deal effectively with the panic if it does happen.

Make It Familiar

The reason kids panic at leaving parents to enter a classroom is the same reason you get butterflies when you have to go on a first date, start a new job, or meet your future in-laws for the first time... it IS scary. It probably goes back to the first humans who learned that a strange environment could be dangerous - who knew what lions and tigers and bears were hiding in unfamiliar territory. Survival demanded that all of the senses be sharp so dangers could be recognized - and escaped - in time.

That "fight or flight" behavior is strong. It's why there are still humans on earth - it's a good thing. Yet, a small child recognizes the signals as danger. The same feelings that come up when a big dog appears or a scary stranger approaches are coming up in this situation. Past experiences tell your child that the thing to do is get to Mom and Dad for safety. The brighter your child is, the more likely it is that they will make this connection. With the scary times in the past, you've cuddled your baby and made the scary thing disappear. This time you're trying to push your frightened baby right into the arms of the scary stranger! What is going on?

The only way to prevent the "fight or flight" panic response is to make the scene familiar. Most schools will welcome visits from parents and preschoolers in the spring before they start school. Visit the school, meet the teacher, find out which neighborhood kids will be in the same classroom. If you sense that one visit hasn't helped - arrange a second or a third trip. Let your preschooler know that their friends will be there and that they will get to play together after they do their school work. Maybe you could get a couple of the parents to meet you at the school for a pre-classroom hello and a group entry into the foreign classroom. There is comfort in company whether you are 4 or 40!

One thing you should not do is paint a picture of school as a wonderful paradise. The reality is that school is work for kids. It can be fun, but it isn't a day at the beach. Don't promise that they will learn to read or be the smartest child in the classroom. Kids take every word you say as truth and may feel even worse after they spend their first day sitting at a desk. There are several books that you can share with your children that explore the range of emotions that starting school can bring up. Make these books part of your daytime reading with your preschooler in the weeks before school... don't read them right before bedtime unless you're prepared for scary dreams.

How to Deal With the Panic

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So, you've done everything right. The first day of school comes up. There you are with your prearranged group of parents and everyone goes off happily to the classroom... except your baby who tries, but crumples into a mass of tears and pleading screams at the last minute. How you react will make a difference... but be prepared if there's nothing you can do.

Kids are not all the same. Some people react better to new situations than others, just like some kids are better at running and others are better at writing, the strengths and weaknesses of your child are what defines who they are and makes them so lovable. They're not perfect - and neither are you. The fact is that it is hard for all of you to take this step to adulthood.

  • Acknowledge the feelings - Letting children know you understand WHY they are scared can actually help calm them down. It's ok, it's normal. Spend a minute validating the feelings.

  • Provide support - Help them recognize and accept that they are focusing on the scary, strange stuff and it makes sense that they are scared. One by one introduce all of the familiar things that are on the other side of that looming door. The teacher, who they've met and liked, the friends who they will get to see, the familiar books and the lunch you've packed...every little piece of normal life that you can give them to hold on to helps them let go of you. It may help to have a favorite stuffed animal or a small token to hold when they start to get frightened. Assure them that you'll be there at the end of the day to hear all about the fun they had during the day.

If all else fails, help the teacher to untangle you and your child without getting upset. Very few kids stay upset once they get inside the classroom and discover that there are really no scary monsters lurking there. The screams normally stop as soon as you are out of sight and they spot familiar faces in the room. Just smile and remind yourself that parenting is not always an easy job!

Here are some book suggestions to help you get ready for the big day:

  • The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

  • First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, Judith Dufour Love

  • I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas

  • Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen


also see -> Alone After School | Helping Kids Do Their Homework

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