Transitioning Back to School

Children standing on a play structure.
Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash

By Megan McQueen

As an early childhood educator, I supported many families transitioning to school for the first time. Families can help their children shift to school gently with helpful conversations and routines. Even if your child attended school last year, your family’s habits might benefit from a fresh look. Imagine starting most of your days connected and seeing your child excited for school. Simple tweaks to your schedule can help make this a reality. 

Consider some of these ideas when you are ready to begin thinking about heading back to school.

Build excitement: Talk together with your child about the many aspects of school they are anticipating. Some kids look forward to riding the school bus, and others can’t wait to play on the big playground. As you chat about this, share other things they might love about school: painting, new friends, stories, and singing together. Allow space in the conversation for questions and reassure them that many grown-ups at school will help them.

My children enjoyed co-creating a list with pictures of what they would do to get ready in the mornings – eat breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, etc. They could refer to their list to help them stay on track during a busy morning. Try creating a picture schedule with our own child based on your family routine. Visual schedules like this can help children feel centered and in control of their day.

Transition objects: Many students attending school for the first time benefit from bringing something special from home. I recommend finding a small meaningful item that will not be devastating if it is lost. Some children have family pictures in their backpacks or a small stuffed animal that looks like their pet. Most children leave these in their bags, but the thought of having something special from home close by helps them transition. Kids might visit their backpacks for a quick squeeze hug to boost their confidence. My students and I would often take breaks together during our first school days to send our families love. We would put our hands on our hearts, close our eyes, picture our family, and feel the love. You can do this at home too. Practice together at home and tell your child that you will be sending them love when they are at school. 

Bedtime rituals: We all function better in the mornings with a full night’s sleep. Late summer is an excellent opportunity to create bedtime rituals. Use some of the following ideas to help your child wind down for the evening: an outdoor walk to burn off any extra energy, choose clothes and a snack for tomorrow, a warm bath, a back rub, quiet music, snuggles, and book reading. Choose a couple of these suggestions and try them out for a few weeks to see what will work best with your family and child’s personality: daily routines and rituals calm children (and adults). We know what is coming next and have fewer decisions to make. 

Visit school: Some schools offer a time to visit the classroom and meet the teachers before school begins. As you register your child for school, you can ask if this is an option. If you and your child have things you want the teacher to know, write a letter together. Your child can tell their teacher about the animals they love or ask questions about the school year. Your child can also use this as an opportunity to get out some anxieties that might be helpful for the teacher to know about, such as, “Will you show me where the bathroom is?” “How will I find my Grandma after school?” You may also want to visit the playground before school starts to build excitement and boost familiarity. You can practice the route that you’ll take to school to help ease that transition as well. “Let’s ride our bikes just like we will when school starts! I’ll show you where we’ll park your bike and how we’ll lock it. Then we’ll go play on the playground.” 

Goodbye Ritual: Practice saying goodbye together. Create a loving, connecting ritual to send your child off to school. You can start this when you go to the store or drop your child off at a friend’s house. Saying the same words and a hug or other gentle touch will be a touchstone for your child and may ease the separation. Goodbye rituals can be a sweet memory-making time for you as well. If your child cries or holds on tight when saying goodbye, trust that the teachers have lots of experience handling separation. Stay positive, say a quick goodbye and head out, knowing your child will most likely calm down quickly. Give yourself time and space to notice your feelings. Many parents grieve their child growing older as well as enjoying some freedom in their schedule. Be gentle with yourself as well! 

Simple routines can help your child feel more comfortable with this big transition. By focusing on excitement, you are modeling for your child that school is something to look forward to, and together you can embrace the changes.

Picture Books:

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.

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