For the mom sending her child to school for the first time, I want to start by validating what you may be feeling. You might be excited, anxious, scared, ready—or feeling all these at once. Rest assured: It’s completely normal to have mixed feelings about launching your child into the world.
As a clinical psychologist and executive director of Momentous Institute, I have worked alongside many families navigating transitional periods, such as the milestone of sending their children off to school for the first time. From holding space for your own feelings about this moment to helping gently prepare your child for their life at school, here’s what I typically share with parents about this big change.
4 tips for a smooth starting-school transition
1. Take time for self-reflection
During this time of transition and change, I first want to encourage you to recognize what feelings come to the surface as you prepare for your child to leave the nest. Take a moment to reflect on what this experience was like for you when you were a child and sit with these feelings. It is possible that your own experience may be influencing the one your child is having.
When you have self-awareness of your own feelings, you can work through it and address any issues that may arise. But when you avoid your internal conflict, you might unintentionally send the wrong message to your child. It’s important for parents to reflect confidence in their child’s ability to navigate transitions, as children look to their parents to help them contain and regulate their own emotions.
2. Consider your family values
Before delving into more practical steps to prepare you for your child’s first school experience, it’s important to discuss the foundational aspect of values. Allow me to elaborate: What messages do you wish to impart to your child regarding their self-worth and the principles cherished by your family?
Family values encompass a wide spectrum, including virtues such as respect, kindness, empathy, diligence, and integrity, among others. These values can greatly vary from one family to another. They are often ingrained within our interactions, subtly reflecting how we relate to one another.
A child’s perception of their inherent value is profoundly influenced by how their caregivers treat them. Equally significant is their observation of how family members interact with each other, which forms a foundational blueprint for their interactions outside the home. Therefore, the process of implicitly and explicitly expressing these values proves to be of great importance.
3. Gently present expectations
After helping parents and caregivers manage their own feelings and outline their family values, we talk about expectations. It is critical to talk to your child about what to expect from school and everything that it entails. This includes having a routine, classmates, teachers, pick-up, drop-off, childcare, lunchtime, and an array of other details that come along with going to school. It may feel like a lot for your child. While it is important to present these expectations in a positive way, it’s good to remember that this may sound more scary than exciting to your child.
It is also important to have clear expectations for yourself as a parent. Parents often must juggle several diverse roles and responsibilities in their life. A transition like this one affects the entire family system and takes careful preparation, effective communication, and thoughtful planning. Planning and practice are most needed for younger children because they often need to have the behavior modeled before they can manage it independently.
4. Be your child’s safety net
Following expectations, I lean into freedom and autonomy. Children must feel safe and confident enough to navigate new experiences and environments. This starts from the moment they enter the world and rely on parents or caregivers to survive and learn. Were needs met when they cried? Were they comforted and encouraged when learning to walk? All these milestones help a child to develop confidence in their ability to navigate the world. Let them know that you are there for them if they fall and will support them as they manage new experiences. When giving them that last glance at drop-off, you may be worried on the inside, but that glance can communicate, “You can do this, and I will be here for you.”
The relationship and communication you nurture with your child will be key in navigating going to school for the first time, but also set you up long-term. Relationships require attention, communication, nurturing, and quality time. Investing in your relationship with your child does not have to rely solely on quantity, but rather on the quality of your interactions. Nurturing the relationship is like a safety net for when the small and big stuff happens. You want your child to feel safe coming to you with their thoughts, worries, and challenges. This will often require managing your own reactions so that they continue to feel safe coming to you.
A note on fostering social-emotional skills
All of these tips I’ve shared to help you successfully send your child to school for the first time are called social-emotional health skills. At Momentous Institute, we define social-emotional health as the ability to navigate your emotions, reactions and relationships. Research supports the idea that social-emotional health not only helps children develop positive mental health, but also improves academic outcomes, fosters a sense of safety and security, builds healthy relationships, and helps to buffer stress.
I believe that social-emotional health and the process of learning these skills, known as social emotional learning, are life skills that will serve our children on the first day of school—and for a lifetime beyond.
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