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The countdown has begun. The dog days of Summer are numbered.
Some of us are crying. Some of us are cheering. And some of us are doing some disturbing version of both at the same time. (That’s me, by the way.)
Your and my kiddos will be going to school within the next few weeks! Some are returning to school and some are going for THE VERY FIRST TIME! Or maybe yours have already started but are having a hard time and you’re looking for some help to make their transition easier.
Here are some tried and true tips for easing your child into days at school instead of days at home:
1) Talk about what’s ahead and start to get into the routine
If your child’s school has an orientation, attend it with your kids. Seeing their school, meeting their teacher, and possibly making new friends before the first day has even begun is a great way to kick the year off. Help your child get acquainted with important buildings or rooms in the school so they are familiarized with the surroundings, and feel confident and prepared.
Speak with your child about how you will drop them off and where, about the structure of the day and how they will do certain activities, and about how you will pick them up after nap/art/whatever scheduled activity is last of their day. Kids, especially younger ones, are not great with the concept of time, so helping them understand the order of their day based on landmark activities is helpful!
By modifying your home schedule to mirror that of the school, your child will feel adjusted ahead of time. Often times, this means bringing bedtime a bit earlier so that an early wake up is not such a shock to their system. Additionally, structuring meal times and nap time to align with what they will do at school will help them feel ready since they will know what to expect.
2) Read books leading up to the start of school about separating and reuniting
There are many books with the theme of separating and reuniting. But there are two that I just love. Some parents may be wary of talking about being apart, but when children know you are comfortable speaking about something that might make them sad, they often feel more safe, prepared, and reassured.
One book I recommend is called The Kissing Hand. We have it in both English and Spanish, and it is great.
It tells the story of a mother raccoon about to send her child raccoon away to school. The child is nervous and does not want to go. The mom teaches the child that if she kisses the inside of their palm, that they can then carry her kiss with them, and if they ever miss her, to simply place their hand on their cheek to feel her loving kiss. This gives the child all the confidence they need, and off they go to school!
The other book I recommend is called The Invisible String. This book can be used for many themes, not just in preparation for school drop off.
In this book, a brother and sister are awoken by a thunder storm and they run into the family room to find their mother and be comforted. She explains to them that even though she wasn’t in their room with them, that they are always connected by an invisible string from one heart to the other. She details that you are connected to all of your loved ones no matter where they are — there is no distance too great to feel the love. This is also a good book if you have to speak to your children about the loss of a loved one.
3) In the weeks leading up to school, practice coping skills for when they feel overwhelmed or sad
In moments of calm and low stress, talk to them about their feelings and emotion coach them through coping skills they can access for any big feelings they have at school. Practice doing deep breaths, putting your “kiss” to their cheek if you’ve read The Kissing Hand, thinking of things that make them feel happy or safe, and speaking up to a trusted adult if they are feeling upset. If they feel like they have some tools in their emotional toolbox, they may feel less likely to need them, or if they do, they will feel secure in knowing what helps them.
Another way of supporting your child through the transition is to send them with a comfort item. It could be a stuffed animal, a special small blanket, or a token item that you have given to them specially. Bonus if it fits in their pocket! Some schools also allow family pictures in the room, and sometimes a child just needs to see your face to feel good. (Note, some kids do worse if they are reminded of you or your family, so take your child’s personality and temperament into account.)
4) Get the kids packed up and ready the day or night before so you can focus on special attention to them in the morning
Do what you can to get the children’s backpacks and lunch bags packed and set for the morning in advance so that you don’t have to stress about that on top of the other getting ready stresses.
Let your kids help pick out what they want to wear, or pick out for them a special outfit and have it laid out ahead of time as well. The fewer things you have to do in the morning equals the fewer things to get angry about.
A bonus of having so much set for the day in advance is that you can plan for a few extra minutes of special time in the morning. Your children may be stressed or nervous about school, so getting extra hugs and love in the morning may just fill their tanks and help them start off the day on the right foot.
5) At drop-off, keep your loving goodbye short and sweet
So often our kids look to us to figure out how to feel about situations, and school drop-off is no different. If you seem unsure, your child will feel that and it will fuel their discomfort. If you express confidence in their safety and in the wonderful experience they will have, they will feel more secure.
The best approach to goodbyes is to tell them about your excitement for their day, give them some love, and then swiftly leave. Do what you can to not linger — every hesitation that you show makes them feel more and more nervous.
(P.S. I know that this is much easier said than done. I feel ya. But I swear this works and helps kids get over the drop-off anxiety faster.)
If your child is already upset to see you go (which I expect from my younger child as he begins preschool this school year), the best thing you can do is show compassion, offer validation, and then continue with the short and sweet goodbye explained in the paragraph above.
You can say, “You’re sad that I am leaving. It’s okay to be sad! You know what? I am sad to say goodbye too! I am going to miss you! And, also, I am excited to see you after your fun day at school and hear about all the cool things you did. You are safe with Mr./Ms. Teacher. I love you and I will see you later!”
And if all else fails, a couple renditions of “…Grooooown-ups come back!” à la Daniel Tiger may help.
6) Plan for some extra downtime after school
A day full of new faces, a new place, new activities can leave children feeling worn out! So much activity! So much stimulation! It may be tempting to plan to something fun to celebrate the first day/week/etc, but likely your children will need some downtime to regroup.
7) Prepare yourself for the dreaded meltdowns known as “after school restraint collapse“
Besides being physically fatigued from such busy days, your children will be emotionally spent. They have done their best to be at their best, for a whole day! They have battled with many emotions and have done their best to keep it all in.
And now they are home. And feel the most safe. And are ready to explode.
Your kiddos have worked super hard to keep it all together all day at school and they won’t have much left to give in the way of good behavior for you at home.
So, just know that. Expect epic meltdowns.
Give them some grace, and understand that these are no typical tantrums. These are special, and require special care. Meet your child with love and compassion. And hugs. Lots of hugs.
Another helpful idea is to have a calming corner at your house where they can unwind when they get home. We are in the brainstorming process of our own calming corner and when it’s ready I will share with you all so you can create one too!
Best of luck as you venture into this school year!
Christina is the writer behind the blog Real Life Mama. She is a mom two littles, a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. Christina and her family live in San Diego, where she is a full-time mama, part-time mental health therapist (LPCC), and round-the-clock blogger, writer, and author. If she ever gets a moment to herself, she can be found singing at the top of her lungs, cooking, and crafting. Thanks for reading!