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Ease Your Toddler Back to School

Hello <<First Name>>

Summer is winding down as we move into the start of school. Your child may be attending school for the first time, moving to a new school, or returning for another year. Whatever the case, school means new people and places and many unknowns. That brings up plenty of mixed feelings.
Many parents reach out to me during this back-to-school transition. An email from the parent of 5-year old expressed concerns that many of you might also have about your own child:
“Any time the topic of school comes up, my son firmly says, ‘I don't want to go to Kindergarten!’ I think he is feeling the general anxiety anyone does before starting something new… Do you have suggestions for how to ease this transition? I just don't want to take him to a new school kicking and screaming”
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: Re-establish routines, celebrate the transition and expect a few steps backward along with one big step forward.
Get back to routines: The best preparation for school is moving back into your daily routines.  It helps your child get organized and back to consistency. Sleep is particularly important, including getting enough of it. Summer may have meant later bedtimes, so start to move them earlier in the evening. Re-establish regular morning, meal and bath time rituals, too, so that easing back into the old routine feels natural.
Resist the urge to over-prepare: I often observe caring adults erring on the side of over-preparation and this inadvertently creates anxiety in our children. Young children have little sense of time, which means that too much preparation is too much. My advice is to refrain from talking about school until it’s about to happen. A discussion, a few days before, is enough. Then, visit the playground at the school, or drive by and show your little one their classroom. Meet one child from their class, and the teacher if you can. This is plenty of preparation for them.
Celebrate the changing season: Make the summer wind-down fun and celebratory by doing something special with your family-- a picnic, a special outing, or making something fun together. This will help your children through the transition, and remind your child that you will have fun activities together, even when summer is over.  
Recognize mixed feelings: Toddlers and young children express fears and worries. Rather than trying to placate their worries about school or minimizing them by focusing on all the good things (ex: “You will be happy. You will love school! No need to worry!”), listen to your child and address their concerns. You may say: “Are you worried about what school will be like? I remember feeling that way, too. Let’s think about what will happen at school. I know there are puzzles and blocks. There will be painting, too.” Orienting them and mirroring their feelings will validate them and also empower them to embrace the new changes and transitions ahead.
Good-byes and reunions matter: Your toddler’s greatest fear is of being left by you. Take time to help them adjust to the separation from being home with you throughout the summer and now being at school without you. The most effective way to do this is to be very clear when you are leaving (dropping them off or going to work, for example) and when you are returning. Whatever the age of your child, never sneak out! Every year when my kids started school they wanted to know who would be home to greet them after their first day (even in middle school!). This question reflects what all children feel; whether they openly express it or not, they want to know you are there for them and will always be there for them. Remind your child that, ‘mommy and daddy always come back.’ If a friend or babysitter will pick up your child then tell them when you will see them next, such as at dinner.
Acknowledge your own feelings: Your child going off to school for the first time, or to kindergarten can bring up an array of emotions in you. This is so clear to me as I prepare to take our oldest child to college this fall. Starting school- preschool or even college- is a big step for both you and your child. You may feel excited for them and filled with pride. But with every step our children take forward, we can feel a sense of loss. Be aware of your feelings, especially those of sadness. Connect to friends and go easy on yourself. The more reflective you are of your mixed emotions the better able you are to support your child. Similarly, know that your child has mixed feelings, too. They can be excited but worried at the same time. Provide extra reassurance and let them know you appreciate all that they’re feeling, too.
Expect some regression: I always find regressive behaviors easier to handle when I know to expect them. School is a big step for your child that includes being away from you, meeting new teachers and peers, learning to be in a larger group, following routines and rules, and knowing how to ask for help. Sound like a lot? It is! In order to master this tall order, young ones tend to regress (so do teens). Every child expresses regression in his or her own way. Yours may cling more or have toileting accidents. Night awakenings, prolonged bedtime or early awakenings are also normal during this phase. Other children are weepier than usual, more demanding or throw tantrums when they never did before. If any of these behaviors occur, know it is a reaction to the adjustments they are being asked to make, and that they are craving more attention and connection with you. This will ease and reassure them and before you know it, like me, you’ll be sending that clingy 4-year old with tears in his eyes off to college.
Celebrate the big step forward: Finally, take time to celebrate. I believe families should take as many occasions as possible to celebrate together. You can celebrate the first day, first week, first month, or all of these. Go to a new park or playground after the first day of school. Let them enjoy a favorite sweet or ice cream place after the first week. Go on a special outing at the end of the month. In other words, this is a big step and you all can acknowledge this in a fun way.
Do you have a way of preparing for school or celebrating the start? I’d love to know more about what you do. Share it with me on Facebook or Twitter.  
And finally, I am quoted in a piece in The Washington Post on “threenagers,” a 3-year-old spouting attitude like a spoiled teenager. Can you relate? Read it here.

For more toddler insight, visit HOW TODDLERS THRIVE and feel free to share what you've read here with other parents on the playground!

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