This is the longest two weeks of my entire life!" my daughter, Elisabeth, groaned last December while flopping onto the sofa. At age 4, she was experiencing her first winter break from school -- and she wasn't happy about it. She missed her teacher, her friends, her school routine. But the more she sighed, the more I celebrated. What better evidence that her first school experience was going well?
And now it's September. How can I ensure that Elisabeth's love of school stays with her as she adjusts to kindergarten, with a new classroom, teacher, and expectations? The key, say educators and parents who've been there, will be for me to stay involved in her school life, but not to focus on academics -- yet.
"There's a wide range of readiness among young children for reading, writing, and adding. These skills will come in time. Meanwhile, your job is to help your kids view school as a happy place to be," says Carissa Olivi, a former preschool teacher who's now on the board of education in Orange, NJ.
For some children, a positive attitude about school may require coaxing, since school presents a lot of new challenges -- being away from Mom, making new friends, taking turns. Here's how to help your child meet those challenges -- whether he's starting kindergarten, preschool, or a two-mornings-a-week nursery program.
1. BE PUNCTUAL
It's not always easy to get anywhere on time with little kids, but it's worth making an extra effort to be prompt on school days. "A child may feel like an outsider if the others are already there, engaged in activities," says Marilyn Gootman, author of The Loving Parent's Guide to Discipline.
Diane Max, a mother of three in New York City, finds it can be hard for her son, Jonah, now in kindergarten, to cross the threshold if the classroom is already bustling. "It's much easier for him if we get there a bit early," she says -- especially on "high-risk" shyness days, such as the beginning of the school year and the first days back after vacation or illness.
Being on time at the end of the day is just as important. Standing alone while the other kids are happily reuniting with loved ones can cause a young child to worry that by going to school, she risks losing you -- or getting lost.
A main part of the "curriculum" for children starting school is learning to feel secure in the classroom even though they're away from Mom, Dad, or babysitter. You can help by trying to keep your own anxiety in check, as a child's fear is often fueled by his parents'. If you seem worried, he may decide school isn't a safe or nice place to be.
If school doesn't go smoothly for a child, it's human nature to blame the teacher. But accusations are sure to backfire, even if the teacher really is part of the problem. If you accuse him, you put him on the defensive, which is counterproductive. "Instead, say in a nonthreatening way that you're concerned for your child, and ask how you can work together to solve the problem," says Gootman. "Teachers feel positive when they see that a parent cares and is interested and concerned but not breathing down their necks or telling them how to teach." They also find it helpful if parents alert them to any information they have about how children are feeling at school. For instance, some kids may be stoic if someone hits or teases them, but cry about it when they get home. It helps to keep the teacher in the loop.
To the degree that your schedule permits, help out in the classroom, participate in fund-raising, join the PTA, read the school newsletter. Your involvement lets your child know that his school is a part of your world, too. More than that, volunteering helps you watch out for your child's interests.
To build strong connections between home and school, you need to have a sense of what's going on in your child's classroom. Natalie Cull, a mother of three in Wildwood, MS, always sits her two oldest daughters, ages 10 and 7, down at the kitchen table in the afternoon and gives them 15 minutes of her undivided attention.
Whether your child's class studies butterflies, your hometown, baby animals, or holiday traditions, the topic is a way to train kids to think, remember, make connections, and theorize, all of which are foundations for future learning. You can help by stoking your child's curiosity and enthusiasm about whatever subject is being covered at school.
For example, Schwartz is planning a trip to the local science museum now that her 6-year-old son, Jeff, is studying rain forests in kindergarten. The night after an animal handler came to his class, he excitedly recounted to her how the lizard used its tail to defend itself. "His world had suddenly expanded. He was fascinated," says Schwartz.
Children don't really need a slew of extracurricular activities; even a half day of school can be stimulation enough. Exhausted, stressed-out kids have a harder time adjusting to school. So don't sign up your child for anything unless she's wildly enthusiastic and begging to go. And if she changes her mind, let her quit.
Schwartz says she made a mistake when she paid for an entire year's worth of dance lessons for her son when he was 5. "He really wanted to do it, but when it was time to go to class, he'd be playing with his brothers and I'd practically have to rip him away," she explains. "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't pay for the whole year in advance."