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9 Ways to Ease the Back-to-School Transition for Young Children

Transitioning from fun-in-the-sun vacation mode to a back-to-school mindset can be challenging for kids of any age. The process can be especially tricky for young children who are entering preschool, making the anxiety-provoking leap from preschool to kindergarten, or starting the year at a new school.

Fortunately, there are some practical things you can do to help lessen the worries of young learners who are entering a new classroom or experiencing a group learning environment for the first time. Best of all, the 9 tips and strategies presented in this article will also help alleviate any beginning-of-school-year stress that YOU might be feeling by laying the groundwork for a warm, trusting relationship with your students and their families.

1. Create a welcoming atmosphere

Try to learn the names of the children in your class and their parents or caregivers beforehand, and greet them as they arrive on the first day. Being able to say, “Good morning, Emma! And hello to you, Mrs. Jones,” will go a long way toward putting everyone at ease. School orientations and end-of-summer family meet-and-greets are ideal opportunities to start putting names to faces. To make all families feel welcome, set up a whiteboard near the entrance to your classroom and write “Hello” or “Welcome” in all the languages spoken by the families in your program. Before they leave on the first day, encourage parents to use the whiteboard to write a special message to their child.

2. Personalize the classroom

The classroom is only one environment of several that a young child is asked to navigate during a typical day. Your behavioral expectations may not align completely with the expectations placed on that child at home, the playground, and other familiar places that make up their world. That’s why it’s important to be as clear as possible when explaining and reinforcing what’s expected of a child as they transition between different settings and activities throughout the school day.A great way to give your young learners an emotional lift throughout the school day is to invite parents to provide personal photos—perhaps of their child’s loved ones or of a favorite place or toy—that can be posted around the room at children’s eye level or stored in their cubbies. Bring the photos out if a child’s feeling anxious or upset and sit with them, asking questions about the people or objects pictured.

3. Be specific about your schedule

Children are generally made uneasy by unfamiliar situations. The more specific you can be when talking to them about what’s going to happen during the school day, when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and what’s expected of them, the less stress they’re likely to feel during the first days of school. Act like you would if you were preparing them for a fire drill, and speak clearly, slowly, and gently, using simple words and phrases as you walk them through your daily schedule. Ask parents to help ease the process by going over with their child each evening what they can expect the next day in school.

4. Establish routines (but also be a little flexible)

Routines help calm children’s fears, so it’s important to establish your daily classroom rituals during the first few weeks: greeting children at the door, helping them put their backpacks and personal belongings in cubbies, saying goodbye to parents or caregivers, and then beginning the school day. Introduce one or two learning centers each week and carefully go over the materials and purpose of each center and what your expectations are. While consistency is key, it’s important to be patient and remain sensitive to your students’ needs. Children for whom English is not a first language may need longer to adjust to the classroom or group care. Don’t be afraid to temporarily switch things up early in the school year if some children are struggling with separation anxiety or transitioning from one activity to another.

5. Read children books that address fears

Stock your classroom library with picture books that address specific fears, anxieties, and difficult emotions that young children commonly experience at the start of a school year: social anxiety, uncertainty, anger, frustration, fears of abandonment. Children are often reassured when they hear about the adventures of characters who feel how they themselves are feeling. For example, reading about a dinosaur who is afraid to start school and how she overcomes that fear can be empowering for young children who are a little hesitant about embarking on their new school adventure. To get parents involved, suggest soothing books that they can read at home with children to calm their back-to-school fears.

6. Be mindful of sensory issues

Being exposed to a bustling classroom or group learning environment for the first time (or for the first time after summer break) can amplify sensory integration or processing issues in some young children. Some of your students may be sensitive to touch, scratchy clothing or certain textures, bright or flickering lights, loud noises, or even to lack of noise (and may compensate by creating as much of it as possible!). Subdued lighting from table lamps and alternative seating like cushions or bean bags are two good options for supporting children with light and touch sensitivities. (For more ideas, check out the Brookes Inclusion Lab blog post 10 Modifications for Learners with Sensory Issues)

7. Check in with families early and often

Maintaining a communicative relationship with parents and caregivers is mutually beneficial and a key component in achieving early academic success. Both sides possess invaluable information that—when shared regularly—acts as a supportive framework for a child’s social, emotional, and academic growth. Initiate contact within the first week or so and continue to check in regularly throughout the school year. The good news is that it’s never been easier to keep in touch with families! Emails, phone calls, video messaging, texts, and (of course) face-to-face meetings are all good ways to sustain a healthy feedback loop between classroom and home.

8. Encourage home learning activities

It’s never too early in a child’s school career to stress to parents and caregivers the importance of home-based learning activities. Provide parents with fun, play-based, skill-boosting activities (such as the ASQ®-3 Learning Activities) that they can weave into their regular family routines. One of the critical ways home learning activities help a child’s development is by increasing the amount of talk between children and their caregivers, resulting in healthier social, emotional, cognitive, and language development and stronger familial bonds. Another way to get parents and caregivers involved is by asking them to volunteer in the classroom or at school events when they’re able.

9. Connect families to community resources

Families in your program will occasionally need assistance linking up with appropriate community resources, especially if there’s an area of concern with their child. Whether it’s a referral for a behavioral specialist, speech therapist, affordable dental care or afterschool care, remember that you’re ideally positioned to help parents find the information and support they need to ensure their child has a successful start to their academic career.

The beginning of the school year can be daunting for children, families, and teachers alike, but it’s also an exciting time brimming with possibilities. Follow the steps outlined above and you’ll be on your way to building a nurturing classroom filled with confident, engaged students and supported by involved families.

Like this article? Check out the books and resources that inspired it!

Suggestions 1 and 2 adapted from “Welcome Children and Families to Your Classroom”, Teaching Young Children, Vol. 2, No. 5 retrieved on July 15, 2019.

Suggestions 3, 5, and 6 adapted from Little Kids, Big Worries. by Alice Sterling Honig.

Suggestion 4 adapted from Preschool Education in Today’s World by M. Susan Burns, Richard T. Johnson, and Mona M Assaf and “Advice for a New Preschool Teacher” by Susan Friedman, retrieved on July 15, 2019.

Suggestions 7, and, and 9 adapted from Successful Kindergarten Transition by Robert Pianta and Marcia Kraft-Sayre.