Without exception, the day one of our kids started school for the first time was harder on me than it was on the kid. This parenting gig is a rough one: you start letting go at birth and from that moment on they are moving away from you step by step if you're doing your job right. School is a big milestone for both of you.
If you have a child who's getting ready to take this step – whether it's preschool, kindergarten or first grade – it will be easier on him if the first day of school is not his first day in the classroom. Go to the Kindergarten Roundups and the preschool Open House so he can get a peek inside The Room and meet The Teacher. I always took it one step further (which is kind of my trademark, come to think of it) and set up a casual appointment with the teacher-to-be.
Teachers go “back to school” at least a week before students, to set up their classrooms and attend endless mind-numbing meetings. Call the school during this week, ask who your child's teacher will be if you don't already know and arrange for you and your child to “drop in” on her for 15-20 minutes during this week if she's agreeable. (It's polite to offer to help her while you're there – she may need someone to run some copies, cut out bulletin board letters or arrange information packets.)
Talk to your child ahead of time to find out what (if anything) he's worrying about, and when you're meeting the teacher you can ask the questions. What happens if someone needs to go to the bathroom? What if I don't know the answers? What if someone gets hungry or bored or homesick? This is not the time to launch into your “my child has very special needs” speech; save that for an adults-only meeting or the Parent-Teacher Conferences. This time is for the child to gain some familiarity with the teacher and the room.
It's also a time for you to begin to gauge the interaction between the teacher and your child. Is she kind or commanding, patient or authoritative, creative or regimented? None of these traits are necessarily bad (though keep in mind teachers, like other people, may behave differently when there are no other grownups around); each of them is something you can work into conversation with your child to help him process his new environment. “At home I only let you paint outside, but I notice your teacher has a protected area in the corner with an easel,” or “Did you notice how your teacher has a shelf for every different kind of book in her library? I'll bet you will learn a lot about organization from her!”
Note: saying something like, “Wow, she was really anal-retentive, wasn't she?” would probably not be helpful, even if true.
Some kids have terrible separation anxiety at first, no matter how well you prepare them. Some parents bridge the gap by staying in or near the classroom for a while until their child calms down, and some give a quick kiss and scoot. Many schools have the teacher collect the students at the building entrance rather than have the parents walk down to the classroom, but the theory is the same – either you stay for a while as a sort of “security blanket” until your child feels stronger, or you drop, hug and run. Which way you choose depends in a large part on how much you trust the teacher; definitely, if the anxiety continues, the two of you should talk about how to deal with it. Ask for a meeting, though; don't try to discuss it just before or just after school.
One thing that we tend to forget is this: preschool and kindergarten are OPTIONAL. Your child doesn't have to go, and if he isn't ready, he shouldn't go. There's no reason to force a three-year-old to play dress-up and make paste-and-glitter pictures in a community-center classroom if he hates it. Try again in 6 months or a year.
If you are home-schooling you may not have to deal with the separation anxiety, but a little preparation is still a good idea. Mom and Dad the Teachers may be a little different than Mom and Dad the Parents, and the transition between “playing all day” and “now we're learning math” can be a bit of a bump. Yes, you've been teaching math by measuring flour into cookies for years; but now you know that eventually they're going to be sitting in a room being tested on how well they know their fractions, and your attitude shifts a bit!
Not many homeschoolers have the luxury of a whole separate classroom, but most do have at least a bookshelf or filing cabinet that is dedicated solely to home-schooling materials. Let your child help you sort through these materials, adding fresh paper and sharpening pencils or whatever it is you do to prepare for a new year. Talk about your learning plans and ask him for a few ideas of his own. You may decide (as we did) to have a special “school uniform” for your child to wear on your learning outings to forestall those “shouldn't you be in school?” questions that can take up so much of your time.
Older homeschooled children may be entirely self-directed, but very young children often find at least a little structure to be exciting as well as comforting. Brainstorm together to find something that signals the beginning and end of your school day, whether it's putting on a special shirt, sitting in a particular spot or ringing a bell. You know and I know that learning goes on all the time, whether or not you're in a classroom – but showing them that you take it seriously will make them take it seriously, too.
Finally, there's something we all need to remember: most young children love the idea of school and are eager (at least on some level) to start. They can't wait to do what the Big Kids are doing . . . so don't be surprised if your baby walks into that building without a backward glance.
If he does, and you shed a briny tear or two, don't worry, Mama; he still needs you.