The Backs of Their Heads: Saying Goodbye in Elementary
By the time your children have hit the Elementary years, the transition back to school is usually old-hat. Their more excited now to see friends old and new. Their confidence is higher. Their comfort with the routines of school and the expectations on them is secure. While you might encounter some last-minute jitters (especially for the those who are finishing up summers that they loved or starting in a new classroom,) the bravado that is so common for Elementary learners is more likely to lead to a smooth first day of school. You might be wondering why they haven't lingered longer in the car.
Keep in mind, though, that while Elementary learners are more focused on their peer groups than younger children and often show more outward confidence about school, they still need to know that you're ready for the transitions you're asking of them. This is a time to establish new communication norms and to model candor about your emotions and thinking. While younger children may be unsettled by your own fears (fears that, more often than not, are resolved quickly in healthy school communities,) older children are ready to talk about the full range of emotions that you are both feeling as you begin another school year.
So, first, make sure you've done all those things to get ready for school. Then, as the first day of school approaches, introduce conversations with your child, at times when you're likely to have their attention. Ask open ended questions about what they're feeling or thinking. Offer your own experience, not necessarily in the form of advice but as another person who is experiencing this transition with them. "One of the things I'm excited about for you for this year is..." or "Something I'm still a little anxious about is..." Then, ask them for their thoughts on the same. You're modeling for them the kinds of problem-solving, group-centered conversations that they are likely to have more of in Elementary classrooms.
On the first day itself, be sure to be on time. Because the attention to peers and groups is so much higher now, your Elementary child will want to be there from the start. Arriving on time allows children to get the social time they need with their friends, undirected, before they get into the intellectual work of the day.
Then, follow your child's lead. They may want you to walk in with them, but don't be surprised if they ask you to do this one on their own. If you're invited to go in by the teachers, certainly do so. But if your child seems ready for you to skedaddle, honor that. This is a time of exploration and separation from their parents. They will want to know where you are, but they probably won't want it to be at their side the whole time.
Finally, be prepared for the physical changes that often accompany life in Elementary. Make sure the fridge is stocked, because they're likely to be hungry from the minute thy get home at night. Indeed, because Elementary students are often so busy socializing, they may not notice their own bodies' cues about water, food and rest. Make sure you've got food and water for them when you pick them up from school, and check the pantry to make sur healthy choices are available easily as they may need to graze when they get home. If they are too tired to talk about their day when you first pick them up, make sure you circle back to it over dinner or in the evening, asking open ended questions. Avoid, "How was your day?" which is likely to lead to, "Fine," or "Good." Instead, offer prompts like, "Tell me something that surprised you today." or "What was new in your classroom from last year and what was the same?" Use those prompts to practice listening carefully to the answers so you can offer relevant follow-up questions and - voila! - you're actually having a conversation with your child.
And while you and your child may be so familiar with the start of school that going back feels like just the kind of thing you're going to do on a Monday, remember that every Monday is an important day in the life of your child. .While we spend energy focused on these benchmarks, your child deserves the same attention, energy and celebration every other day of the year. A little bit of planning before they arrive and eye contact and your attention once they're there, and you'll remind them that you're just as interested, as invested and as available to them throughout the year as you are that morning when you're taking the first day of school pictures, even if you're reminding it to the back of their head as they rush off without you.