The start of the school year can be an exciting and challenging time for children and parents alike. Children starting school will experience academic, social, and emotional challenges and growth. While it can be difficult to watch your children navigate these moments, it is a crucial developmental milestone for children to start school and an opportunity for parents to grow in their parenting skills. Early childhood education can make the transition to formal schooling less stressful and ensure that your child is set up for success socially and academically. Additionally, early education allows for both parents and children to experience and explore the shift in schedule and transition between home and school.
When children start school they experience frequent and extended contact with many peers. While this is important for building social skills, it can lead to a multitude of challenges with both emotional regulation and peer relationships. Children starting school will find themselves surrounded by new people. Around unfamiliar people it is not uncommon to feel shy or anxious. With the addition of a larger peer group and a new setting, children will experience growth in their social skills as they begin to develop new friendships and acclimate to emerging group dynamics with peers and teachers. In the early years, this can be an opportunity for children to engage in social interactions and build up their ability to share and cooperate with agemates and engage in conflict resolution. Different forms of play such as individual, parallel, and group play may be observed during this time. Children may express strong emotions towards peers and need assistance resolving conflicts from adults in their lives. Socialization with peers not only builds up social skills but can also be good practice for children to work on emotional regulation skills as well. This can be an area of growth for many children as they adapt to being around additional peers and away from familiar people in their lives.
In addition to social challenges, children starting school (and their parents) can also be faced with emotional growth areas. Up to this point, children have spent the majority of their time with family caregivers or smaller care settings such as daycare. Separation from caregivers can be difficult for all members of the family. Parents need to work through their anxieties and worries when separating from their children for school to ensure that they can provide support and meet the emotional needs of their children. This may look like telling children to not feel scared or worried rather than listening to their concerns and fears. When faced with emotional dysregulation and stress, it can be useful for parents to work with their children on processing and coping with different feelings as well as engaging in problem-solving common issues. This may look like creating a routine with your child to alleviate stress and develop consistency. Talking about your child’s day and modeling how to make decisions and work with others can be helpful for your child’s social and emotional development. This can help build up a sense of safety that children starting school can use to feel comfortable as they navigate their day, and aid in emotional regulation.
Learning to adjust to new people in an unfamiliar environment can test socialization skills and emotional regulation. As a result, different behaviors may be noticed during this period. When children start school they are placed in a position where they are expected to conform to a class routine and follow instructions given by their teacher. If your child has not had exposure to following a structured schedule, it may be a challenge for them to understand and modify their expectations. While routine is an essential tool for building up comfort and understanding for children, it can be difficult for children to grow accustomed to. In addition to learning a new routine, they are also expected to follow the instructions and guidance of their teacher and other adults in the school. A crucial part of learning is developing the attention muscle. In the classroom, there are plenty of opportunities for distractions and it is important for children starting school to get into the habit of learning to focus their attention, especially when it comes to the teacher giving out instructions or tasks. Another component of focus is attending to the body. Children will need assistance to work on regulating their bodies to maintain focus and reduce restlessness. Teaching children appropriate ways to move their bodies, such as exploring ways they can make small movements from their seats during the school day can be a helpful tool as they get acquainted with these expectations.
On top of the social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that come with children starting school, the shift of focus onto academics can be another consideration when factoring in areas of potential stress. School may be a child’s first experience of academic rigor. One thing that parents can do to assist in this transition is to work with their children on foundational skills. Working with your child on early literacy skills, number recognition, and color and shape identification can ensure that they are set up for success when they go into the classroom. Reading to children is another way to make sure that they are getting exposure to vocabulary and it can be a nice way to connect with them. At school, children will be tasked with balancing attention between social and learning time. Depending on age, children may even have homework to complete or studying that needs to be done to make sure that they are obtaining the knowledge and skills that the teacher sets. Working with your child to develop a study routine or homework time can make the transition into the academic environment of school less stressful.
While there are a lot of unknowns about how your children will respond to starting school, parents may have some questions as well about appropriate levels of involvement and how to navigate the school environment with their children. Effective communication with teachers is always a great place to start. If your child has specific needs or challenges that you are aware of, letting their teacher know can ensure that your child is getting the resources and support that they need to thrive. Another consideration for parents is to explore the balance between parental involvement and the level of independence given to children. Look for developmentally appropriate tasks that children can successfully complete, and model how to work through other tasks and challenges that children may need additional support with. When children feel that they can complete tasks well, their self-esteem can flourish.
Strategies to Overcome Challenges
Below are some general parenting tips that may be helpful as families navigate children starting school:
- Establish a routine with your child so they know what to expect throughout their day
- Model appropriate behavior, interactions with others, and family values
- Teach your child about different emotions and how to express them in appropriate ways
- Create a warm environment where children feel that they can talk about what is on their mind
- Find tasks that children can complete successfully and work with them to complete more challenging tasks
- Seek professional help if needed
Children starting school and their families will have many different opportunities for growth and success in addition to challenges and stress. Adults may feel their parenting skills being stretched and put to the test. Overcoming the transition to school can build up a child’s self-esteem and instill confidence that they can carry throughout their life. Parents, teachers, and the community at large can help children as they make this pivotal transition into a formal learning environment. Offering support, kindness, and encouragement goes a long way for a child in a new situation. If your child or family is struggling during this transition back to school, Heritage can help support children and their families in navigating this transition. Call Heritage Counseling at 214-363-2345 for more information about child, adolescent, or family counseling.