Voices in Education

Managing Feelings in the First Week of School

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It’s back to school for most kids around the country, but for some, it’s time to go to school for the first time ever. Even if they have been in daycare or preschool, starting “big school” is a BIG deal for new kindergarteners. The beginning of formal schooling comes with a myriad of change and responsibility. In many states, it is the first time that school is compulsory, and there’s no staying home because you just aren’t feeling it today. It is also the time when more serious work seems to overtake the work/play balance. Regardless of the structure of the kindergarten or rigor of the standards, it’s safe to say kindergarten is hard work for our littles.

Things to remember during this transition  

  • Remember every week won’t be like the first few weeks.  The first weeks of kindergarten are an emotional rollercoaster for everyone.  Kids are crying, parents are crying, and sometimes after school, you can even find teachers crying if they aren’t falling asleep from exhaustion!  The first week of school is about survival. Don’t try to predict the whole year based on the first week.
  • Remember they are little.  Kindergarteners are not little adults.  They may not adjust quickly and they really aren’t designed to.  A little understanding can go a long way in the first few weeks of school.  After the first few weeks are in the books,, we will have had the opportunity to teach some simple coping skills and inch every child closer to adjusting  to their new environment and situation.
  • Remember their purpose.  They are coming to kindergarten to learn.  Many will learn to count, read, and write this year.  But they are also (and more importantly, in my opinion) coming to school to learn how to be part of a community.  They will learn to share, be kind to others, wait their turn, clean up after themselves, open their own food packages, and  wash their hands after they go to the bathroom (we hope, right?!). If we get bogged down in emotions and problems, we might lose sight of why these sweet little people are at school in the first place.

 Even when we know it won’t always be like this, what can we do in the meantime?  There are still small people with big emotions in our rooms.

What we can do to help them navigate the new waters

  • Welcome them as soon as you can.  Maybe that’s in the hallway or maybe at the classroom door.  Just get to them early! This will help set the tone before they get into the full swing of the overwhelming day.  Sometimes it is easier to separate from parents before they get in the thick of things, too.  
  • Separate quickly.  One teacher in my school doesn’t agree with me on this one, so you will have to decide for yourself.  You could let parents linger for the first few days if it helps, but in my experience, separating from parents quickly shortens emotions and lets a kid learn to gain some independence, control, and confidence.  Just rip off that Band-Aid. You can always call the parent later and tell them how well their child is doing (if they haven’t already called to check). 
  • Communicate with parents.  For many parents, this is their first school experience too.  They want to know what is happening during the day, how their child is doing both academically and emotionally, and how to support their children in this new experience.  The more a teacher is expertly communicating, the more confidence parents have in the whole organization and process. And, the more confidence a parent has in an organization, the more likely they are to convince their children that they should like it too!  
  • There are choices of apps to communicate with parents that keep you from having to run to the phone and even include the ability to send pictures to parents. I usually over-communicate and go overboard on pictures the first few weeks to assure parents that all is well and that their children are enjoying themselves. Sometimes, without those pictures, the only thing the parent sees about their child at school is the crying part when they are having to leave.
    • Good apps for communicating with parents include:
      • ClassDojo
      • Remind
      • Blooms
      • Seesaw
      • Appletree
      • Class123 
      • SimplyCircle
  • Build routines. Teach the children an arrival routine that is simple enough to be completed independently.  They are, after all, in big school now. This gives them immediate expectations that aren’t too difficult and builds confidence and independence.  Each day you can add to the last day’s routine to help them grow those independence skills. It might look like this:
    • Day 1,2,3 – hang up your backpack and choose a toy
    • Day 4,5,6 – hang up your backpack and choose a book or puzzle that I have taught you how to use
    • Day 7,8,9 – hang up your backpack, get your take-home folder out and put it where it goes, and choose a book or puzzle that you are good at using now
    • Day 10, 11, 12 – hang up your backpack, put your folder away, and complete an academic task that you can put away and move back to a book or puzzle
    • Just keep going!  Adding more expectations will lead to more confidence and independence, especially if there is an encouraging teacher pointing out all the accomplishments each child has achieved.
  • Build confidence and independence.  Point out everything!  “I see you have hung up your backpack!  What a big boy you are! What’s next? I know you remember!”  “Look at you playing with that toy so responsibly! We are going to clean up in one minute and I know you will be able to get every piece back in the bucket!” “Look at Joseph walking to the carpet.  He is staying so safe and being considerate of the others around him! Thank you, Joseph!” The best way to get kids to do what you want is to point out what you want! The goal for the first few weeks is to get children to WANT to come to school, and confidence will get them coming back for more.  Almost every child I have ever met will come back for more encouragement. It’s tiring on a teacher to constantly find things to point out that are going like they already should be, but it will pay off in the end.

 These strategies are designed to help make the time with the whole group go smoothly, but what about the one who is still struggling with the transition after the first few weeks?  

Next steps for individual situations where kids need a little more help

  • Talk with the child.  Why are they having such a hard time coming to school?  Usually the answer I hear is, “I just want my Mommy! I don’t want to come here!”  My next question is, “What do you think would make you want to come here?” What does the child like and not like?  Can you come up with a plan to bargain things he wants with things you need him to do? Could she do something different to come in?  Remember, all weeks don’t have to be like the first weeks. This plan will be designed to phase out as the child becomes more comfortable.  
  • Talk with the parents. Is there something that they notice that just isn’t working the way they or their child expected?  Why do they think their child is struggling with the transition? Can they think of something to try to help in this transition?  Parents aren’t usually child experts, but they are experts on their child!
  • Talk with school personnel.  Can the team create a plan to greet the child somewhere differently, take them to another location first, have something that they like ready for them, or make some other accommodation?  Our principal, educational assistant, and Title I coordinator are fantastic at helping me troubleshoot new transitions. Again, remember that all weeks don’t have to be like the first weeks.  These strategies will be designed to phase out as the child becomes more comfortable. 

Back to school time is exhausting for everyone involved. There’s no avoiding it! What we can try to avoid is overwhelmed children and overwhelmed parents. Try to enjoy yourself as you welcome a new class of tiny humans who just want to have fun and be loved.  They will come to kindergarten to play and meet new friends but will leave ready to read, write, count, add, and subtract. You’re a miracle worker! Don’t forget it!

Natalie Beach

Natalie Beach Kindergarten Teacher and Early Learning Champion

Natalie Beach teaches kindergarten at Prescott South Elementary School, a Tennessee State Department STEM-designated school. With 14 years of experience teaching both general and special education, she is always eager to share her expertise with other educators, particularly around creative and effective technology uses. Thanks to Natalie’s experience and her own three-year old’s interest, she most recently started using PBS KIDS Playtime Pads as learning tools. Students are highly engaged with the Playtime Pads and Natalie is excited to explore their uses even more. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Early Childhood and Special Education and a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership from Tennessee Tech University. Natalie was the Professional Educators of Tennessee Teacher of the year in 2018 and Prescott South Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2017.

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