High River United Church of High River, Alberta


Dealing with First Day of School Jitters

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The first day of school is coming soon.  For some children and parents, it is an exciting time.  For others, the anticipation of the first day creates anxiety and fears.   Even for a child who has been to school before, the first day can create anxiety because they are having to be away from home and all that is familiar again, and because they aren’t quite sure about who their teacher will be and who will be in their class. Being separated from those we love is a huge thing, whether we are 5 years old, 15 years old, or 50 years old.  So the first thing to say is that feeling anxious about the first day is quite normal, no matter your age.  It is not something for parents to panic about.


Each child, even in the same family, will handle the return to school differently.  And a child who had no anxiety or fears going to school last year might suddenly have anxiety this year.  That too is normal.  The key things that you need to do as a parent are:


- keep your own anxieties and fears away from your children.  Share your feelings with a partner or friends, but don’t let your child know that you are feeling anxious.  You are their solid rock!


- let your child know that it is normal to feel nervous or anxious when we are going into something new.  We all have that happen.  But also let them know that you believe in them, and that there are ways to handle it, which you’ll help them with.  They are going to be okay, even if they feel nervous.


-if they have tears before they go to school or when they get home from school, just hold them and let them have their tears.  Crying about something helps us adapt to the new situation.  They won’t likely cry at school, because it won’t feel safe to do so.  That means that they really need to cry at home with you!  Don’t be afraid of the tears or shut down the tears.  The tears are nature’s way of helping each of us adapt.  Hip, hip, hooray for tears!!!!!


- let your child know what will happen the first day of school, at home before you go, and at school.  Keep the routine at home as stable as possible (knowing that sometimes life is just crazy). If they have never been to the school before, see if you can go one day ahead of time to check things out and meet the staff.  Make sure they know that they can ask you any question they have about school (no question is a stupid question!) either before the first day or any day after.


- bridge the separation of going to school.  When you are saying, “Good-bye” in the morning, talk about what you are going to do when you see each other after school/work.  Examples:  “I can’t wait to hear your stories about what you did in school today.”  or “Remember that we are going to make spaghetti together for supper when you get home from school.”  It is better to say, “I love you,” rather than “I’ll miss you.”  Always focus on the next time of being together rather than on the time of separation. 


Here are some other ideas for bridging the separation:


-put a note in the child’s lunch box each day.  It doesn’t have to be much.  It could be a heart or an “I love you.”  or a happy face (or sometimes a crazy face) signed “Mom/Dad/Gramma”  This reminds the child of your love when they have a hard time holding on to that love when they are away from you.   Or, as some friends were sharing with me today, cut your child’s sandwich with a cookie cutter into a favourite shape, or put in a favourite treat with a note, “I know you love (rice krispie squares)!” 


-let the child carry something of yours with them in their backpack – a scarf, a sweater, a stuffie, or a  special little gift you have given them,-- or wear a necklace of yours or a scarf or necktie or socks.  They can touch this or even hold on to it during the day when they need the reminder of their connection to you.


-use the book “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn to set up a special ritual between you and your child.  The book is about a mother racoon and her baby racoon who is nervous about going to school.  So mamma racoon gives the baby racoon a kiss in their palm in the morning.  This is a special kiss which won’t go away, even if they wash their hands at school.  When they are missing home and mom/dad, they can remember that kiss in their hand that is always there. Give a kiss every morning to last for that day.


-create a little “handshake” ritual and maybe a rhyme to send the child off with (maybe each child in the family can have a unique one, or maybe there is a family handshake ritual).  High 5, low 5, turn around, bump a bum, double high 5, hug!    Then do the same handshake ritual when you first see each other after school/work.   After shaking the ritual in the morning, make sure to focus on “I can’t wait ‘til we do this after school.”   This is playful time – it might be done at home or at school, as feels safe and appropriate.  And keep adding to it and adapting it.


-learn to say “I love you” in sign language or create your own special sign language to say “I love you.”  Use this just as you say good-bye at school and then immediately when you see your child after school/work.


- give the child a little note book that they can use to draw pictures for you or make notes of things they want to tell you during the day, and then take time to check the notebook at the end of the day.


-as people of faith, one of the greatest gifts we have is knowing that God is with us, no matter what is happening.  Studies show that children and teens who have a sense of God’s presence as well as the unconditional love of their parents are buffered from so many of the wounding things at school and in our world. At church, this is what we take time to instil in the children and youth.  So, take time each evening to say good-night prayers or to say, “Thank you to God,” for all for which you are thankful today.   As the child goes to school, remind them that whenever they need to, they can close their eyes for a moment and say, “God, I need you right now.”  or “God, I’m missing mommy/daddy/home.”  The wonderful thing is that each and every one of us are connected to each other through God’s love.  Tell the child that during the day, you are going to pause and close your eyes at different times and say a prayer for them and, through God, send your love to them.  (Then, if need be, set an alert on your phone to remind you to do it so you can tell them you did.)


-plan for something special to celebrate at the end of the first day of school, and then at the end of the first week (or ten days) of school, and then at the end of the first month of school.  It doesn’t need to be big, but it needs to be something that your child(ren) will look forward to.  This is not a pass or fail thing.  It will happen whether or not your child has found it easy to go to school or not.  It might be making a favourite meal together, watching a favourite movie, having a board game night, going on a hike or to a new playground, or going to the bookstore to buy a book by a favourite author.  This is all about playfulness and connection.


Growing up is scary sometimes.  Suddenly one day the world seems bigger and more alarming to the child.  The first day of school might be one of those times.  As the child’s parent/grandparent, showing your confidence that they can handle it, normalizing first day jitters, and offering your unconditional acceptance of their tears and fears will help them embrace and adapt to this new step in life. 

August 26, 2019                                   ©Susan Lukey 2019

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