Preparing for the First Day of School: 3-6
Maybe you're getting ready to bring your child for their first day in Montessori. Maybe your child is an experienced third-year student ready to take charge of their classroom. Whether it's the first day of your child's first year, their second or their third, it's wise to take some time beforehand to think through how to make the transition most smoothly.
1. Read the packet. Especially if you've done this before, but for all families. Unless it's a brand new school, your child's school and teachers have had more first-days-of-school than you have, and they've likely offered you all the details you need before that special day. If you haven't received details from your school, take a moment to email or call to ask what to expect. If you have received that iconic summer packet of health forms, welcome letters and checklists, make sure to sit down and read through it carefully, at a time when you're not going to be distracted, and with your calendar in hand. Is there a map for cars moving through campus? Are there details about what to bring (and what not to bring) to school? Are there limits to what kinds of lunches to prepare or requests for communal supplies to contribute? If you have questions, email or call before that first day of school. The first day will be exciting and a little overwhelming for everyone: it's not a great time to chat with your child's teacher about a question you have. Instead, think of the time you'll have with your child's teacher and your child as a chance to model excitement and confidence about the classroom, and, knowing that your child's teacher will be doing that for twenty or more other children, get your individual questions answered before you go.
2. Include your child in the preparations. Children in Early Childhood are ready to participate in the checklists and plans for their first day of school. Indeed, they will likely find comfort in it. After you've read through the school details, sit down with your child to create a list of things they need to bring with them on the first day of school. Pack for the first day together. If there are items from home that are going to stay at school, be sure to pack those up a few days early, so your child is able to experience what it feels like to have some of their comforts away from them. That special cuddly that might seem like the right one to send for nap time may actually be better cared for at home. Remember: children at this age experience the world concretely. They need to see and touch what's going in their bags for school. Prepare for school four or five days before the first day- enough time to experience what's unavailable at home but not so long that the idea of "going to school soon," becomes too abstract.
3. Take a test run: If your child is used to the pace of summer, that first day may feel like a harsh awakening. Plan for a test run a day or two before the first day, getting up, making breakfast and getting dressed as though you are going to school. Pack the bag and test out the commute. Let your child see what door they'll enter and talk through how the arrival process might feel. If you've been asked to bring communal supplies to school, take them over on this run, decreasing the commotion of extra boxes of tissues or table wipes on the first day of school. Check with your school office to see if it's ok to walk to the playground together, but don't plan for a classroom visit unless you've been invited to do so. You'd be surprised to see how much magic happens in the prepared environments in the last hours before the children arrive, and your child deserves to see their classroom prepared for their arrival.
4. Only make the promises you're going to keep. If your child is anxious, you are better to calmly and confidently describe what you will do than to make assurances you can't keep. For example, don't tell your child that you'll be waiting outside in your car for them during their first day unless you actually plan to do that (and don't plan to do that!) Instead, if your child asks if you will stay at school with them, remind them that their classroom is a special place that has been designed just for them. Assure them calmly and in simple terms that you know they're feeling anxious, and that feeling that way is a way many children feel on the first day of school. Remind them that their teachers care about them and that you will be back promptly at the end of the day to hear all about how it went. Acknowledge the worry, but don't dwell on it. Your child will take their cues from you- demonstrating that you feel safe and sure about your choice of school for them will help them to feel that way, too.
5. Label everything, but prepare for loss. For real. If you want it back, label it. That special sweater your father knitted? Label it. Those sweet socks from your trip up north? Label them. Even when items are important to your child, there are endless other distractions during the day at school. It's unreasonable to expect your 3 or 4 or 5 year old to remember everything they brought with them every day- they might not even remember that something is theirs when it's offered! If you want it back, label it. At the same time, remember why you're sending your child to school. You want them to have engaged, active experiences that absorb their attention. You want them to be courageous in their choices. You want them to challenge themselves and to accept the challenges of the classroom. They can't do that in an heirloom dress and patent leather shoes. Save the special outfits for picture day and send your child in comfortable, washable clothes. Make sure your child can manage their own buckles and snaps or, if not, opt for pull on, elastic-waisted clothes. Even a child who is confidently toileting may be distracted in these first days of school. Most of all, remember that you're sending your child to be a part of a community that needs who they really are, comfortable in their own skin and ready to engage. Help them to dress for that contribution.
Finally, know that the emotional lives of children between 3 and 6 are every bit as complex and difficult to describe as ours are as adults. If your child hops out of the car and races to their classroom, it doesn't actually mean that they were ready to be rid of you. In the same way, if they are anxious on the first days of school, it doesn't mean they're not ready. Slow down. One of the most important gifts you can give your child is the time and space and eye contact to know that, even in curious times, they are loved and secure. A child who is excited can simultaneously be scared. A child who is scared can simultaneously be overwhelmed. A child who is overwhelmed can look quiet and peaceful. Keep the communication open with the other people you have trusted to do this work with you. If you have questions, ask. If you need companionship, introduce yourself to other parents and invite them for coffee after dismissal. Together, as teachers, parents, and Montessorians, we are working to unwrap the extraordinary mystery each child brings. Ask for the help you need, and know that the other adults around you are likely just as (anxious, excited, nervous, optimistic, wobbly) as you might feel yourself. You're going to be ok. Your child will be, too. But it's much nicer to be ok as a part of a community that acknowledges all of those feelings than to think you're supposed to have it all together already.
And, goodness, if you're one of those parents who has already done this, who already knows what Montessori offers, and who has already gone through all of the emotions of the firsttimeforthefirstday, reach out to the ones who look a little more lost. We're in this together.