By Dr. Goldie Millar and Dr. Lisa A. Berger, coauthors of F Is for Feelings
As the lazy days of summer give way to the more routine-driven days of early autumn, parents and children inevitably think about getting ready to go back to school. This awakens feelings in all of us.
Children attending school for the first time can have a wide range of feelings about what is to come, from happiness and excitement to nervousness and fear—and everything in between. Young children display and sometimes talk about having mixed feelings as they anticipate the start of school. They may be interested in attending but also feel scared or concerned about the separation from their parents or caregivers. They may feel uncertain of what to expect from the teacher, the classroom environment, and the other children. Your child may say she doesn’t want to go to school at all and show no interest in the transition to kindergarten. At other times the same child may express interest and excitement.
Setting up children for success means providing a supportive emotional space that includes the time and the freedom for them to talk about or show all of what they are feeling. Young children, particularly at the kindergarten age, may not yet be able to use words to describe what they are feeling or have the capacity to sort out the multiple feelings they are likely experiencing. As parents, professionals, and caring adults, there are things we can do to help.
Begin the conversation about school early. Providing lots of time allows children to explore and move through all the different emotions they are experiencing. Each feeling is legitimate and does not negate other emotions the child may have. Children can be both excited and terrified. The more time kids have to talk about and express their feelings, the more emotionally prepared they will be.
Young children often have difficulty articulating what they are feeling, expressing it instead in various forms of behavior. We as parents and caring adults can make tentative suggestions about what a child might be feeling in relation to beginning kindergarten. In this way, we are helping them develop a feelings vocabulary and expand their understanding of what feelings are happening for them. We can also offer context by sharing that everyone has feelings about starting kindergarten and that it is common to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions. This normalizes the emotional experience and offers a sense of reassurance and validation.
Engaging with children in lots of different ways about the beginning of school is important. For example, you can engage by talking, drawing, playing, acting, modeling feeling words, and reading stories centered on the kindergarten experience. Young children in particular have limited use of feeling words and can really benefit from the opportunity to explore their experiences in diverse ways. As we support children in exploring and expressing their emotions, we help them move toward the new experience.
Actively listening for all the feelings our children are experiencing can provide useful information and ideas about how we might help them get ready for school. For example, if we find out that a big part of our child’s nervousness about school centers around the unknown of who their teacher will be or what the classroom will be like, we can plan a visit to the school in the week before classes begin. If we learn that the child is scared about the upcoming separation from parents, we can proactively address the concern by talking about it, validating their feelings, and arranging that they take a special stuffed animal in their backpack, or even a picture of a parent to look at when needed at school. The possibilities are endless! The more we know about and understand all of our kids’ emotional experiences, the more we will be able to help them develop coping strategies to deal with both the comfortable and uncomfortable emotions.
The transition to kindergarten is one of many new experiences children will face as they make their way in the world. Encouraging them to use and practice their feeling words can be the first step to setting them up for success in all the experiences to come. Let the learning begin!
Have you helped a child adjust to kindergarten? What strategies did you find useful with your child?
Goldie Millar, Ph.D., is a clinical and school psychologist. Since earning her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Toronto in 2003, she has worked with children in hospital, forensic, community, and educational settings. She has a deep interest in children’s mental health, emotional regulation, and evidence-based intervention strategies. Goldie lives in Ontario with her husband and their two young daughters.
Lisa Berger, Ph.D., is a clinical, counseling, and rehabilitation psychologist who works with adolescents and adults in a private practice. In 2003, Dr. Berger received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Toronto. She has practiced in hospitals, post-secondary institutions, and community-based settings. Lisa’s professional interests include emotional health and wellness, psychological trauma, and emotion-based therapy. She lives in Ontario with her husband and two daughters.
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Books to read with your child to help get ready for kindergarten:
F Is for Feelings by Goldie Millar and Lisa A. Berger
Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come by Nancy Carlson
The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing and Julie Durrel
Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff
The Berenstain Bears Go to School by Stan and Jan Berenstain
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
Brand-New Pencils, Brand-New Books by Diane deGroat