Lisa Settles is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Tulane University School of Medicine, where she is the lead psychologist for the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders. Her clinical work focuses on children under age six experiencing emotional, relational and developmental problems. That expertise has led her to work with schools and parents to improve the mental health of the very young — and she is often asked for her advice on how to make it easier for children going to school for the first time.
How should someone emotionally prepare a child for that "big" first day of school?
Take it in stages. Start talking to the child about it in advance. You can read them stories about going to school or, because children learn through play, try calmly play-acting with them different aspects of the day, such as dropping them off or what they will be doing while they are at school. Make sure they understand you will be picking them up again at the end of each day.
During the week before school begins, I specifically advise parents to discuss drop-off and pick-up arrangements in detail with the child and come up with a separation routine that will make it easier for him or her to leave the parent. Sometimes it helps if the child can bring some sort of security object, like a family photo or a favorite stuffed animal that the child can have with them while at school. And don't forget to ask if they have any last-minute fears or questions, while at the same time letting them know it's OK to feel frightened, sad or angry.
On the night before school starts, I tell parents to review the school day routine with the child and enforce a bedtime to ensure the child is well-rested. Kids need about nine hours of sleep a night, so that bedtime needs to be maintained throughout the year. Another good thing to do is put the child's clothes out the night before to eliminate stress or delays in the morning.
Finally, on that first day of school, be sure the child is awake in plenty of time to prepare for school, which includes eating a healthy breakfast at home or at school. Go over the drop-off and pick-up arrangements one more time, as well as the separation routine. Get to school on time, but don't get there too early. And when you leave, don't drag out the goodbye. Leave promptly and with a positive attitude, after you have completed your planned separation routine.
What's the biggest mistake parents make in leaving their child on that first day?
One mistake parents make is sneaking out without saying goodbye, which can make the child feel like he or she has been abandoned. The other mistake is on the other end of the spectrum — hanging around too long or becoming emotional when it comes time to leave. That can make a separation worse for a child. Kids are smart and take cues from their parents on how to act. If you're emotional, they might become the same.
What if a child is having difficulty making the adjustment to school?
Parents should know that regressive or increased dependent "baby" behavior is common. Understand that Mondays and Fridays are more difficult days. And don't get upset at your child if he or she is upset or indifferent with you. Try to get them to verbalize their emotions.
How should a parent treat the child at the end of the first day?
Pick the child up at the planned time and place and ask him or her about their day. And be sure to ask something specific, such as "Who's the funniest person in your class?" Get them talking.