Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via email@example.com.
Our daughter starts kindergarten in a month and already shows signs of anxiety. She keeps saying, “Kindergarten will be fun, right?” and has been clingy. Can we help her get ready? Parents in Danville
Dear Parents: Now is the perfect time to start preparing for kindergarten. Some 5-year-olds, especially first-borns, find “going to kindergarten” as baffling as going to Mars. Everybody talks about it and asks them if they are excited, but they have no idea what it really is and how to get there. Many parents navigate this passage with baggage — happy or unhappy memories and the realization that your “baby” is no baby anymore, making it more fraught.
Kids who attend preschool may find the transition easy. Simply say, “Kindergarten is like preschool for older children. You do a lot of the same things: circle time, playing, learning things. You also learn to read and write.” Make sure he understands that learning to read and write takes a long time. Many kids come home from the first day of kindergarten crestfallen: “But I don’t know how to read yet!” Add relevant information such as larger class size (alas … budget cuts), greater variety of kids (ethnically, ability levels) and addressing the teacher more formally.
If your child is new to group care, allow more time and effort to prepare him. Preparation depends first and foremost on his temperament. If your child is shy, slow to warm up and struggles with changes and transitions, he’ll need more preparation and support.
You obviously need information about your child’s kindergarten in order to prepare. I’ll assume that, like most parents I know, you have done a thorough investigation, so you have the necessary details.
The key steps:
• Visit the classroom the week before school starts when the teacher is present and setting up (most schools welcome this). Introduce your child to the teacher, the room and the daily routine. Make sure to show her where the bathroom is and have the teacher explain how bathroom breaks will work.
• Find out about the plan for the first day of kindergarten. If it will be the usual — parents stay for the first period and then leave — let your child know. Tell her, “I’ll be back to pick you up” (after lunch/snack/whatever fits).
• In many schools, kids line up in the yard before going into the classrooms. Ask about it during your visit. Explain how it will work and point out to your child where to line up in the yard and let her explore the play structures.
• Play “kindergarten” at home. Your child plays teacher and you (or a sibling or friend) are the student. Let him practice typical kindergarten routines. Be sure to listen for unrealistic expectations or worries and correct them.
• If you know any future classmates, arrange play dates before school starts.
• Many kids somehow gather that you’re supposed to cry on the first day of kindergarten. Let your child know it’s not required. Tell her some kids do cry because they may not be used to being away from their parents, or they get so excited they burst into tears.
• Be prepared for a surprisingly intense wave of emotions for you when you leave her there. Hopefully your child will not cry, but you may! I suggest a tissue pack and coffee with a friend.
• Buy a backpack and a few school supplies in advance, letting her pick what she wants (within reason). Pack it with a laminated family photo and a note from you. If she has a “lovie,” let her take it in the backpack for the first week.
• Make a “My Kindergarten Book” together. Page 1: current photo of your child. Page 2: family photo. Page 3: photos of the school building, the class and the teacher (from the school’s website or your visit). Page 4: your child draws and dictates about his expectations. Once school starts, do a page per day until your child loses interest.
Prepare, but don’t obsess. On the first day, in addition to the tissues remember to bring a camera.