Every year in kindergarten, from August to December, I am approached by worried parents, about the sudden changes they notice in their children’s behavior. And I always tell them same thing: It’s a really big deal for children to start kindergarten!
On a fundamental level, several dynamics change for children, that rearranges their entire life. Kindergarten for a student attending public school in Los Angeles, means a longer, much longer day. It also means a day full of academics with minimal playtime and time where they are self-directed. For small, five year-old children, to suddenly be a part of a larger classroom community, with a larger student to teacher ratio, the independence and self-regulation that is required of them, can be daunting. They are learning to navigate a much larger establishment, larger playgrounds, lunches with a large crowd of children, and less supervision. Building a classroom community that is safe and productive requires teachers to teach and enforce rules that requires children to be a accountable in a way that is very different from their home culture. They rise to the occasion, but a lot of tension is created, that is often let out, when children return home, to the safe zone.
The good news is, in my nine years of teaching kindergarten, children always rise to the occasion and make a successful transition to elementary school. Some sooner than others, but there are some things we can do, that can provide support and comfort to a young child, as they brave the demands and challenges of beginning elementary school.
- Expect changes in behavior – The changes do not indicate that something is wrong. They are a reflection of the growth the child is going through. Changes can range from irritability, tiredness, increase in activity, difficulty settling down, wanting to stay close to parents, crying and trouble with sleep. These are normal reactions to the change they are going through.
- Take note of the changes – Whenever my own children are being unusually fussy, I see if there is change that has taken place in their lives. Patience and more time together can help a child return to a familiar and predictable space, at the end of the day.
- Home is where you let your hair down – I find that kindergarten children are incredibly resilient and earnest. They do their best, to do their best, in the classroom, and when they go home, they let off steam. It can come in many forms, and the beginning of the kindergarten year is a time to talk about appropriate and acceptable ways to share our feelings, but it is also a time to support our children where they are at emotionally.
- Composure is key – One time, a mother came to my classroom door, with her son clinging to her and screaming that he did not want to come to school. The look on her face also told me that she agreed with him. I told her that considering the challenges of starting kindergarten, I would be afraid too! I also told her that students often mirror a parents anxiety and doubts. Reading an article about separation anxiety or kindergarten transitions might support a parent and map what they are experiencing. As a parent, who has an inside view of public schools, I know that children are safe at school and they have the resilience to take on the challenge.
- Communicate with the Teacher – Please do talk to the teacher! Send a note, an email, or ask them for a conference if there are issues that are concerning you. Kindergarten teachers understand the transition issue and can give you advice and support with your child. If your child comes home and shares a story with you that upsets them, please be sure that they have shared that with the teacher, and if they haven’t, please communicate with the teacher as soon as possible. Quick and honest communication between teachers and parents ensures a quality experience for the child.
When my own children began kindergarten, I knew what was ahead. I found my children sneaking into my bed at night for a cuddle. My children wanted extra attention, and if it was a particularly long day at school, only giving us three hours or so together, at the end of the day, I was sure to make that time meaningful, safe and comforting to them. The beginning of kindergarten is demanding, but children rise to the occasion. A supportive and loving home, goes a long way toward helping them make the transition.
Sáenz received the 2014 La Opinion Exceptional Woman Award for her work in education and was a finalist for the Commitment to Excellence Award as a Champion of Change with President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
She graduated from Occidental College in 1998, with a bachelor’s in theater and anthropology and and received her master’s in education in 2001 from Claremont Graduate University.
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