Monday, August 28, 2017

Back to School: Ready or Not

I have been involved in education since forever, in many roles:  student, parent, teacher, and administrator.  Every year, regardless of role, the anticipation of the new school year comes as a combination of butterflies and high hopes.  Students get a fresh start and resolve that this year they will take better notes, participate more in class, stay on top of assignments.  Parents outfit their children with supplies, line up carpools, make after-school arrangements and think about workable routines.  Teachers set up classrooms,  prepare syllabi, lessons and materials, attend professional development meetings and determine to reach and teach every child to his/her highest potential.  Administrators finish schedules and class lists, plan new programs, orient students, faculty, and parents.  We all put so much energy into preparing for this auspicious beginning.  And time moves quickly.  Each year, when asked if I were ready for school, my answer was always, "Ready or not, here we go!"

Preparing for school is somewhat different for very young children and their parents.  A child entering an early childhood program for the first time may be anxious about separating from his/her parents.  One of the best ways to help him/her prepare is to discuss routines.  "You will play with toys, read books, eat snack, and then mommy/daddy/babysitter will pick you up".  Knowing what to expect calms children; they gain a sense of control by following routines.  In time, when they see that they are consistently picked up at the same time each day, they can relax and enjoy the class activities.  

Most programs for young children will have some sort of orientation program before the first day of school.  This will give the children a picture of where they will be spending their time, as well as an opportunity to meet their teachers.  A brief, individualized exchange with the teacher is an important first step in making a connection and establishing trust.  In addition, many programs offer a staggered schedule for the first few days to ease children away from their parents and into their new routines.  And if your school permits, bringing a special toy from home may help provide an "anchor" while exploring new territory.

For children who are returning to early childhood programs, the preparations are much easier.  They are already familiar with school routines and with a certain amount of independence from home. Living in the present as they do, they are highly unlikely to worry about the new school year.  Getting these children ready for school is more about establishing healthy routines at home. They need regular bedtimes and lots of sleep, and regular, healthy meals and snacks. Their time on electronics should be limited. Unstructured playtime, outdoors and inside, interacting with friends and family, and being read to daily fully prepare a child to absorb any lessons offered in school.

Your own attitude about the upcoming school year is another major factor in your child's ability to transition well.  Children are fine-tuned to our feelings.  If we are confident and enthusiastic about their school placement, they will be more comfortable about entering a new environment.  On the other hand, if we are uneasy or ambivalent, even without telling them in words, they will be too.

These tips may seem overly-simplified, but they are incredibly powerful, and their importance should not be minimized.  A child who lacks sleep loses focus and sometimes control of his/her emotions.  A child who lives on junk food will lose energy and can be irritable.  A child who spends most of his/her time on electronic devices cannot think for himself.  He looks to be entertained or directed.  His play is shallow and unimaginative.  And his fine motor skills are underdeveloped.  And a child who is solitary, with few communicative interactions and unstructured play, may lag in language skills.  A well cared for child follows healthy routines at home, and is equipped to learn.  A child whose parents are confident about his school placement is ready for a smooth transition from home to school.

Preparing for a new school year takes a lot of thought and energy.  School can be a very exciting place, rich in meaningful experiences that make a real difference in our lives.  Get ready...and have some fun.

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