Ask Dr. Ava: School-Year Start
How Parents Can Help
But what can be done about those fears? And how can you help your child to go to school feeling confident and competent? To begin, you need to recognize and empathize with your child's emotional experience. That's why I described what school looks like through your child's eyes. But being empathic and aware is not enough, you also need to fulfill three important parental functions for your child: preparation, perspective, and reassurance.
The two biggest anxieties for preschoolers are going to be anxieties about the unknown ("What's going to happen?") and separation anxieties ("How will I manage without Mommy?"). Many preschools acknowledge that it's normal for your child to have difficulty separating from you -- in fact, it's a healthy sign of attachment! For that reason, they will often let you stay with your child for a while until he begins to feel more comfortable, and they set up an initial adjustment period to help your child get oriented to his new class.
You can help keep things running smoothly during this transitional period by preparing your 2- to 5-year-old before you take her to school so she knows just what to expect ("Mommy's going to sit in your class for a while. Then I'm going to get a cup of coffee, and then I'm coming back to pick you up."). Be sure to encourage her to participate in class activities while you're gone ("Why don't you build me a tall block building as a surprise when I come back?"). And finally, keep your "good-byes" short and sweet, rather than long and drawn-out. If you keep things matter-of-fact and play down the drama, you will help your young child let go of you more easily.
Books and videos that tell the story of a child's first day at school can also help your child anticipate what's going to happen, and letting a child bring a familiar toy or photo from home can help a young child feel more at ease in the new setting. Finally, be sure to lend your child your adult perspective on what the future will bring ("At first it will be hard, but before you know it, you'll be so busy with new things, you won't even think about me.")
A 6- to 9-year-old's anxieties are likely to focus on her fears about competence and competition. Some practice ahead of time with writing, reading, and numbers will help your child enter first grade feeling more confident of her basic skills (computer reading-readiness programs, workbooks, and flashcards can give your beginning scholar a little boost). It's also important to give your older child plenty of time to talk about her anxieties before school starts ("Going to a new school will be hard for a while until you get used to everything"). Don't deny or dismiss her concerns ("Don't be such a baby; there's nothing to be afraid of"). Talking about your worst fears helps! (That's why people pay therapists.)