Yesterday, I dropped off my 7-year-old at school. I held her hand as we wound around the school looking for her classroom and trying to make it before the bell signaled our tardiness. I tried to pass the one-year-old off to my husband so I could just focus on my daughter. Her little hand was squeezing mine just a little bit tighter than usual. I wanted to talk about it and make her feel okay. Her brother was having none of it and stretched his little body and yelled, "Hug mommy!"
We entered the classroom and my daughter tugged on the back of my shirt as I stood in line waiting to fill out some paperwork and introduce her to the teacher. The teacher told her to sit anywhere. My daughter, overwhelmed, stood still until my husband pointed out an empty seat near two girls.
I hadn't taken any first-day-of-school photos, so I asked her to smile and she did. What I saw when I snapped the photo was a tentative smile plastered overtop her actual emotion -- anxiety. My heart broke. She was worried, and I had to leave her as the teacher kindly, but assertively, let us know that it was time to go. I quickly gave my daughter a bunch of kisses and let her brother give some wet ones of his own until my husband cleared his throat (meaning, um, that's a bit much. Let's go).
We left and all I had remaining was a photo reminder that we could have done better to prepare her for this day. In our defense, she has always been comfortable on the first day of school. Okay, almost always. Our first experience with daycare, when she was 19 months old, was no picnic. I dropped her off at the ducky class and the teachers told me to hurry along -- "It just makes it worse when you prolong the goodbye," they said in harmony -- but her large eyes were scared, and I wanted her to know that I would be back, that I love her and not to be sad. She spent the next three hours (the entire nursery school day) banging her tiny hands against the door and screaming for mommy. It was terrible, but the next day wasn't and the day after that she skipped in and didn't even look behind her to say goodbye. Since then, the first day has been easy and she hasn't had trouble with a new classroom, new teacher or new classmates. Yesterday was different.
In retrospect, there is plenty that we could have done better but regardless of how much you try to help, anxiety will likely happen during the first week of school. In trying to figure out how to improve the rest of her week, I have talked to parents and teachers to see what advice they have for first week jitters. This is what they had to say.
Show Your Child the Bathrooms and Where to Get Picked Up
Most parents go with their kids to check out a new school or classroom but Julie Schwartzwald, a high school teacher, says what really helps is pointing out specific spots, like the cafeteria, where he/she will be picked up and where the bathrooms are located. It turns out that bathroom concerns are not uncommon. A parent recently told me that her daughter was worried to start middle school this year because she thought she wouldn't be allowed to use the bathroom, and one of my good friends, Daria Dzurik, says she had the same concern throughout elementary school. Dzurik, a musician and elementary school music instructor, says her students worry in the first week that their parents will forget to pick them up and panic if they misplace their backpacks.
The first week comes with a great deal of confusion and sometimes mistakes happen, even when you do your best to point out the important spots. For instance, yesterday my daughter misunderstood the principal and ended up going with the aftercare group instead of to the pick-up line. My cousin's daughter, Brielle, had two similar incidents. She accidentally took the bus instead of going to the pick-up line and another time she forgot to get off the bus at her stop. It was late in both instances and my cousin was worried so she called the bus garage manager who called the bus driver, who had already taken Brielle back to school. The driver then drove her home. It all worked out, but there were some panicked moments in between. This makes kids even further anxious and sometimes upset or embarrassed that they misunderstood.
Fortunately, teachers know that kids are apprehensive at the beginning of the school year and they have smart ways to get kids to open up and feel more comfortable. Gayle Perry-Johnson teaches first grade and says that she does a feelings graph every year. Her students take circular drawings of themselves and place them under the emotion they are feeling -- nervous, sad/upset, excited or happy. It allows the kids to express their emotions and see that they are not alone. Perry-Johnson also reads Wemberly Worried, a story about a little mouse who is a bit of a worrier and is concerned about her first day of school. "I also break the ice by telling them an extremely exaggerated story about how I too was worried about the first day of school," says Perry-Johnson.
The other key to helping decrease jitters, says Perry-Johnson, is to get the students to engage with one another in hopes that they make friendships and familiarize themselves with the school -- she does this through a school and classroom scavenger hunt.
My friend Laura Wysocki has an ingenious way to help prepare her children for school. This technique can be used before or even during the beginning of the school year. (Meaning, you can still do it even if school has already started.) She uses a large piece of drawing paper, dry erase board or chalkboard and draws a simple schematic of the new situation. It can be a drawing of just the classroom or you can include how to get to the nearest bathroom, how to get from drop-off to the classroom, from the classroom to pick-up and any other important spots. She says it's important that the drawing is basic and in one color. Then with colored markers or crayons she sits with her child and fills in the rest of the picture. "I may start by drawing something in the classroom like the reading corner and then invite my child to add some items too," says Wysocki.
Some parts should be more exact, like the door to the bathroom, but other areas can be more subjective -- like where friends will sit. "I might say, 'Isabella will be in your class this year, where do you want to draw her sitting.' " If he hasn't done so already, Wysocki then invites her son to draw himself in the classroom.
Sometimes fears or worries may show up in an obvious way, says Wysocki, such as the child may draw a time-out corner in jagged scribbles or draw himself apart from the other children. Other times the child doesn't draw anything out of the ordinary. Drawing, she says, is one way to let the child know what to expect and to give him/her an opportunity to express how he/she is feeling. "It doesn't mean that you will suddenly have all the answers, but the process is helpful."
Once we pick up our children, we are often eager to get the play-by-play of their entire day -- from the moment we drop them off until we reunite with them. I tend to bombard my daughter with "What did you do?" "Did you have fun?" "What was your favorite part of the day?" "Did you have a good day?"
Talking about feelings isn't always easy, and much like me as a child, my daughter doesn't do well with direct prompting. I recall my mom asking me daily through grade school, "How was your day?" I usually responded with one-word answers like fine or okay. So why I think my daughter would respond differently to the same prompt I rejected is beyond me.
Yesterday, I tried something different. We came home and she ate a snack. Then when she approached me for a hug and curled her tiny body into mine, I asked her what I could have done to make her day better. I told her that I could tell that she was nervous and it made me think that maybe I could have done something differently.
She told me that I should have given her a hug when I left. I did (and lots of kisses) but she didn't remember that. She also told me that she needs more real food for lunch. I asked what that meant and she said, "Delicious Mexican beans and rice." It made me realize that it could be comforting to plan out the food she will eat during the first week of school. I'm not a planner (I am generally in survival mode), so this is a good reminder that she needs me to try to be a couple of steps ahead.
Scent and Massage
My friend Melissa Pearson, a licensed massage therapist, says that when she was a child she couldn't sleep the night before the first day of school. Remembering this has helped Pearson to recognize her children's own apprehension and has triggered her to create a game plan that begins a few days prior to the first day of school. She starts by adjusting their sleep schedules to mimic a school day and uses lavender essential oil on the bottom of their feet and a drop or two on their pillows before bed. "When they wake up, I rub a dab of peppermint oil on their temples to help them become alert."
The general rule for massaging small children, says Pearson, is less is more. They don't need -- and get overstimulated by -- long massage sessions and heavy pressure. She suggests keeping massage strokes light and long, but not so light that they tickle.
Pearson recommends gently taking your child's ear between your thumb and forefinger and roll and tug from top to bottom. The slower you go, the more it has a relaxing effect. Then use your fingers where the hairline meets the nape of your child's neck and gently make small circles across the back of his/her neck. "This may increase blood flow to the brain by releasing tension in the Suboccipital muscles," says Pearson.
It's also important, says Pearson, to teach your children how to help themselves relax. An easy-to-do self-relaxation technique is to have the child slightly pinch the bridge of his/her nose with the thumb and forefinger, and work up to the center of his/her forehead, gently squeezing along the way. "They can also hook their fingers under their brow bone and pull up."
The goal of using massage or pressure points, says Pearson, is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system -- the "rest and digest" relaxation response. "Slow deep breathing also helps the process."
Using a handmade journal, says Dzurik, is what helped her work through her school jitters -- often fears about her parents not picking her up. She says she experienced anxiety throughout elementary school and her parents helped her talk through her concerns and come up with solutions to potential problems. They then had her write about it -- on one side of the page she wrote the potential problem and on the back she listed the potential solutions.
It was also fun, she says, to make the journal. She stapled the blank pages together and drew on the cover. This helped to turn a stressful situation into a creative one and reassured her that her parents cared about how she was feeling.
Sometimes just trying -- and your kids seeing that you are trying -- can be enough. Asking my daughter what I could have done better helped her to voice her thoughts on how the day could have been improved. It also allowed her to express that while she was nervous at first, and there was a rough patch at the end, overall she had a really wonderful first day. In the end, despite the not so great start, she finished her day with a real smile.
Photo credit: Sergio Lubezky
This post originally appeared on The Good Blog.