Starting School: Get A Head Start

Your baby's all grown up and ready to start school. And you're ready for the next 20 so years of supporting your child emotionally and financially through school, from kindergarten to college graduation. But is your child really ready for the stress associated with starting school these days?

'Stress?' you say. That's right; an overwhelming amount of children today are experiencing stress that can lead to anxiety problems. Perhaps the increasing number of stressed-out kids stems from too many extracurricular engagements and too little unstructured play-time. Or maybe it's just that going to school is a big change for a kid; for many children, big change equals big stress.

Whatever the cause of your child's stress, there are little things you can do that will help prepare him for whatever lies ahead.

Preparation is Key
Before the big first day of school, it's a good idea to make your child comfortable with the idea of school. There are several ways you can accomplish this:

  • just visiting: two weeks before the official day of school, a casual drive by the school to show off the building can be great. The idea is to slowly introduce school into your preschooler's life; the next step is taking a visiting tour so that your child can explore the environs and be ahead of the game.
  • drop-off play dates: one of the issues with school may be that your preschooler spends four hours away from you, potentially causing some serious separation anxiety. Get your child used to these gaps in your presence by arranging a long play-date at a friend's home. If your child is having fun while you're away, chances are his separation anxiety will be lessened. You can also agree to take your child's friend on an extended play date from her parents.
  • keep it real: it's a natural tendency for parents to hype their kids up about going to school, but this well-intentioned act can actually turn a lot of kids off of school. The idea is that if you make a lot of promises over which neither you nor your child have control over (such as 'you'll have fun and you'll make lots of friends'), your child may begin to see school as an unpredictable, unstable place. Do remain positive, but don't go overboard.
  • already friends: most kids go to neighborhood schools, which means they're likely to know some of the faces they see the first day. It's probably a good idea to get a copy of the class list and arrange some play dates, so that your child will feel socially comfortable on his first day.
  • getting in gear: shopping for a new backpack or new school clothes supplies can be a great way to prepare your child and get him excited. You can even bring him along when you buy supplies for your older children. It'll be engaging and educational for him to find out what all the supplies are for and, chances are, he can't wait to start using them!
  • early bird: mornings before school can be hectic and demanding. To make the commotion less stressful, get your child used to waking up earlier. Try setting back your child's wake up time by 15 minutes each day. Plan to rise and shine a bit over an hour before school starts. You don't want to rush in the morning. Mornings are an important time for your child; breakfast needs to be slowly eaten and digested and your child needs to prepare mentally for the day ahead.

The Importance of Being Playful
Last but not least, provide your child with lots of unstructured play time! Playing is how kids learn; it allows them to learn about the world, themselves and about cause and effect relationships! It seems symptomatic of our times to enroll kids in lots of extracurricular activities, under the presumption that being enrolled in lots of activities imparts valuable communication skills, a competitive edge, problem solving talents, etc. And the truth is that extracurricular activities, such as sports, music lessons or clubs, are very beneficial to a child's development-but only if these activities are balanced and the child has lots of free time to ponder life, make forts or dig around in the dirt.

How do you keep the competitive edge to a healthy minimum and use play time to teach invaluable life lessons to your child? Here are some ideas:

  • catchy ideas: instead of enrolling your kid in cutthroat peewee baseball leagues, take your child out for a good ol' game of catch or monkey in the middle. Sports with a social basis help your child regulate their emotions.
  • variety: maybe you've enrolled your child in several sports without a backward glance to cello lessons or a nature walk club. Providing variety in activities allows your child to decide for himself what he's good at. If, after a while, your child discovers that he wants to become a pianist, likes to play soccer with the neighborhood kids and that he thoroughly dislikes hiking, then plan his schedule accordingly.
  • make room: whatever you decide to do, be sure that your child has free time! Having lots of activities in his life means nothing if he can't sit back every once in a while and take in the big picture. Play dates are the perfect way you learn about the social world out there.

Play is the perfect kind of learning to prepare your child for the rigors of the school system. It helps your child develop into a well-rounded character who can rough those turbulent preschool waters.