Kindergarten | Parenting Tools | Behavior + Discipline

Parents can ease kindergarten separation issues

You've read the books, chatted with the pediatrician and considered the advice of everyone you know who has forged this path already.

Now it's September, and your child is about to embark upon what promises to be the great adventure of his young life: his first day of kindergarten.

It's show time.

Every parent hopes the transition into kindergarten will be a smooth one. Kindergarten, after all, is a child's introduction to formal schooling and all the opportunities, expectations and dreams that go along with it.

That's why it's disappointing -- even upsetting -- when your child enters the classroom that first day with the weight of the world upon those small shoulders that also carry his Spiderman backpack.

"There are always students who cry those first few days or don't want their parents to leave," says Kathy Gildea, a school counselor at Island Park Elementary on Mercer Island. "It's important for parents to understand that even with good things, we have anxiety."

Even children who have spent time in day cares and preschools can find kindergarten a new -- and very scary -- experience, Gildea says. "Kids encounter more responsibility in kindergarten, such as learning to follow rules in the classroom and acclimating to a structured schedule," she says. "There's often a cafeteria, recess, music class and a whole new group of kids engaging in activities. There's a lot that happens."

One way for parents to help their young student deal with these fears and feelings is to start measuring their own, contends Elaine Goldberg, a kindergarten teacher at Mercer Island's West Mercer Elementary.

"If the parents have made peace with what they're doing, if they are comfortable with the school and they communicate that to the child, the transition goes beautifully," she says. "Whether or not there are separation problems has a lot to do with the tone parents set."

A parent's attitude and demeanor can make or break the farewell-at-the-door scene, Goldberg says. "If we can get the parent to say goodbye and leave quickly, the child will soon be distracted. But if the parent hangs around and seems anxious, the child tends to have more trouble."

To help students -- and their parents -- with the transition process, the Jewish Day School in Bellevue offers "Step Up Day" in May for incoming parents and their children. Children visit classes, parents chat with staff and educators discuss ways to help prepare for kindergarten.

Diane Zipperman, a counselor at the Jewish Day School, says visiting the school is an effective way to help diffuse a child's kindergarten angst.

What else can parents do? "Over the summer, look for opportunities to make references to school in general," she says. "Point out the back-to-school sales or shows on TV and say things like, 'When you go to school, this is what you'll be doing.'"

When talking to your kids about school, pay attention to their reactions, Zipperman advises. Do they have mistaken beliefs? Have they heard frightening tales? "Now's the time for parents to have private conversations with older siblings," Zipperman says. "Tell them to save the horror stories about that time at the playground."

Introduce rituals such as clothes shopping and let children participate in those outings, Zipperman says. "Do things that make going to school more of a reality."

The week before kindergarten begins, establish routines such as waking up at a specific time each morning and getting school clothes ready, she advises. And when that first day arrives, stay calm and matter-of-fact.

"This is an experience that is exciting -- but also bittersweet," she adds. "For parents, it can evoke emotions such as sadness or ambivalence. It's important that we recognize our own mixed feelings; they are normal and natural to have -- for parents and for children."

If the child does have trouble separating, reassure him, tell him he'll be all right -- and make a quick exit.

"Teachers are skilled at steering these kids toward an activity; most of them calm down," Zipperman notes. "The majority of children make a good transition."™

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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