Navigating the first day of school: tips for calm goodbyes and happy hellos

by Anna-Bet Stemmet
Navigating the first day of school
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Weathering tears and smiles: Starting nursery school, creche, or grade 1 is a monumental step in your child’s life, and it’s entirely normal for both parents and kids to experience a whirlwind of emotions during this transition. The mixture of excitement, nervousness, and inevitable separation anxiety can tug at the heartstrings says Anna-Bet Stemmet.

“As parents, it’s only natural to want to make this transition as smooth as possible for your little one and for yourself. The good news is that there are a few very practical things you can do to navigate your child, and yourself, through the first day blues and lay the groundwork a positive experience for everyone involved,” says Jeanmarie De Villiers, veteran educator, and headmistress of Tjokkerland Creche in Malmesbury.

Here are her top tips:

  • Gradual introduction

One effective way to ease your child into the idea of separation is by gradually introducing them to the new environment. Spend some quality time together at the school or creche before the official start date.

“This prelude allows your child to explore the surroundings, meet the teachers, and play in the new space. Familiarity is a powerful antidote to anxiety, and the more comfortable your child feels in their new setting, the less daunting the first day will be,” says Jeanmarie.

  • Establish a routine

Children thrive on routine, and having a predictable schedule can provide a sense of security. Start establishing a routine at home that mirrors the one they will have at school. This can include regular mealtimes, playtime, and bedtime.

Predictability helps children feel more in control of their surroundings, reducing anxiety and contributing to a smoother transition into the new routine.

  • Communicate positively

Speak positively about the upcoming school experience to your child. Highlight the exciting aspects, such as the new friends they’ll make and the fun activities they’ll get to do. Frame the experience as an adventure and avoid projecting your own anxieties onto them.

Children are highly perceptive and tend to mirror the emotions of those around them, so maintaining a positive attitude will go a long way in helping your child embrace this new chapter with enthusiasm.

Clinical psychologist Lindie Santilli says that parents of younger babies can already start to foster clear emotional signals even before they are able to communicate in words.

“From 6 months onward, babies start to learn facial expressions that are linked to interpersonal relationships with their caregivers. This happens through sensory input. From 7 months onwards, babies are able to focus on particular objects and interaction will become more frequent. They will start to smile with intent, and gurgling and cooing noises will pave the way for babbling that closely approximates the sounds of the speech of the people around them,” explains Mrs Santilli.

She recommends keeping the above dynamics in mind and providing your baby with plenty of reassurance that their needs will be met so they don’t go out into the world with high levels of anxiety and fear.

“The child needs to know that the loved one is there to comfort when tired, to sooth the bumps and bruises, and to intervene when there is danger. And through these actions, emotional development is encouraged,” she explains.

Read: How to help your stressed and anxious child

Here is her guide:

  • Create a goodbye ritual

Establishing a special goodbye ritual can make parting more manageable for both you and your child. This could be a secret handshake, a special hug, or a cheerful phrase you say every time you leave.

“Knowing what to expect during farewells can provide a sense of security for your child and make the separation process a little easier. Reassure them that you’ll be back to pick them up, creating a positive expectation around the reunion,” says Jeanmarie.

  • Stay calm & confident

Children take cues from their parents. If you exude confidence and calmness, your child is more likely to feel secure. Smile, reassure them, and let them know you’ll be back. It’s crucial to keep goodbyes short and sweet. Lingering can increase anxiety for both you and your child. Show them that the drop-off is a routine part of the day and that you trust their teachers and the school for the first day of school

  • Familiar comfort items

Consider sending your child to school with a familiar comfort item, such as a favourite toy or a small blanket. Even a special stone to keep in their pocket as a talisman or a special gift for them to keep in their pocket and touch when they are anxious can help. Having something from home can provide a sense of security in an unfamiliar environment and act as a source of comfort during moments of separation anxiety.

“Discuss with the teachers whether your child can have this comfort item with them during the day, as it can serve as a reassuring link to home,” advises Jeanmarie.

Click for: Bedwetting advice

Other tips for parents:

  • Build a support network

“Connect with other parents who are going through the same experience. Share stories, tips, and support one another. Knowing that you’re not alone in this journey can be incredibly reassuring. Attend parent-teacher meetings and get involved in school activities to build a sense of community. Having a network of parents going through similar experiences can provide valuable insights and emotional support,” Lindie encourages.

  • Validate feelings

It’s essential to validate both your child’s and your own feelings during this transition. It’s okay for both of you to feel a mix of emotions.

“Acknowledge your child’s feelings of anxiety or nervousness and reassure them that it’s a normal part of the process. By validating their emotions, you create a safe space for open communication, allowing your child to express themselves and feel understood,” says Lindie.

In short, the transition to nursery school, creche, or grade 1 is a significant milestone for both parents and children. By gradually introducing your child to the new environment, establishing routines, communicating positively, creating goodbye rituals, staying calm, and building a support network, you can help ease separation anxiety.

Remember, every child is unique, and the key is to be patient, understanding, and supportive throughout this exciting journey. Embrace the adventure together and watch as your child flourishes in their new learning environment.

Also read: Causes of separation anxiety in babies
Click for: Why children worry about being separated from their parents

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