Back to Preschool Jitters - Overcoming back to school jitters, fears and anxieties

Back to Preschool Jitters
by Rebecca Walsh

“I was scared, but I actually loved it.” This, a direct quote from my 4-year old after starting his first day in a new preschool classroom on Tuesday. He was only moving up from one classroom to the next, and most of his friends were going with him, but still it was a big shift in his little world. Moving from three teachers that he adored to three brand new teachers, changing classrooms from the one he had grown so familiar with, meeting brand new friends, and going through the preschool identity shift of being “a Penguin” to becoming a “Prairie Dog.” 

These don’t seem like huge things from an adult perspective, and some children just seem to roll with the punches right through these kinds of shifts, but for some children this change can be a pretty big deal. My son happens to be one of these children. When the teachers told the children about the upcoming shift back in July, my son spent weeks telling us he was not going to leave the Penguin Room.

We created a calendar for him at home, and marked off days so he could see how many days he had left to enjoy being a Penguin. He was somewhat calmed by this, and occasionally engaged in conversations about fun things he might to do as a Prairie Dog. But as the big day on the calendar got closer and closer he became more and more nervous. The weekend before school started he went back to telling us he wasn’t leaving the Penguin Room. On the first day of school, he woke up and announced decisively, “I’m not going to school today. I’m going to skip it.” I could honestly relate. I’ve had those thoughts myself when about to do something totally out of my comfort zone.

In fact, not to long ago, I was booked to speak at a conference for educators and parents and I remember waking up that morning and thinking, “Maybe I could just call in sick?” Of course I got out of bed, pumped myself up a bit, and ended up having a lot fun delivering a couple of workshops to a bigger crowd than I’d been in front of in a while. So when Patrick woke up and made this announcement, I thought about how I could support him to move through and ultimately overcome this fear of the unfamiliar.
But that wasn’t my first thought. As a parent, we often feel first and think later and my first feeling was “This is so sad, my poor little guy.” Irrational thoughts raced through my head like "Maybe he could skip just the first day" and even that "Maybe this whole preschool thing was too much for him." This from the woman who taught preschool for nearly 20 years and had dedicated her career to early childhood education! These weren’t rational thoughts, and of course I didn’t act on them, but they were real, and excellent reminders about just how hard it is to be a parent.

Parenting requires actually a lot of standing back and looking at the big picture, making decisions that you know will not just help your child in that moment, but will help them become successful adults. It requires a lot of objectivity actually, and yet it is one of the most subjective experiences of our lives. Well, we managed to get dressed, collect our stuffies, and get out the door. The car ride, however, was even worse. The closer we got to school, the more anxious he became, and eventually the tears started to stream as he said “I’m scared mommy, I’m really scared, I don’t want to be a Prairie Dog.” So we talked about times when I had been scared too-I told him the story about the conference, and his older brother who was in the car told him the story of his first day in a new school. He seemed to feel a little better knowing that sometimes things you’re scared of could turn out OK. Then, we made up a song. “Oh I’m gonna rock this Prairie Dog day. Feeling a little scared, but that’s OK, cuz I’m gonna rock it anyway!” We sung it over and over and by the time we got to school, Patrick walked into the classroom, shoulders back, confident and looking like he was ready to take on anything life would throw his way. But the best part, was on the way home. I asked him how his first day as a Prairie Dog went and he said, without skipping a beat, “I was really scared, but I actually loved it.”

Wow. Imagine if I had swooped in to protect him, and in the meantime had protected him from learning this incredibly valuable life lesson about resiliency. Things can be tough, they can even be scary, but I can get through, and I might even end up loving it.

I hope your first few weeks of school are off to a great start. Don’t worry if the “turn around time” from worried to loving it isn’t quite as fast, especially for a brand new school or a younger child, it will of course take some more time. But try to look at the big picture and remain as positive as possible as your child moves through the range of emotions and ultimately learns that she can overcome her anxieties and fears, and end up having a really good time in the process!

See a few more pro-tips below from our instructors on easing into the transition back to school!

From Alexis Buckley:
When kids start a new school or classroom, it’s good to not over schedule after school activities. Plan lots of down time for your child to unwind after a long day of keeping it all together for their teachers. Also expect lots of meltdowns and emotional release at home. As hard as it is, try to create some space for this, and know that it will pass as their little bodies and minds get used to the new schedule. And remember, if you yourself are feeling anxious about the school transition, make sure not to discuss it in front of the child. Children are always listening so even when we think we are just talking to our partner or a friend on the phone, it’s very easy for children to overhear and take on our worry. You really have to fake it until you make it and exude confidence you might not even have (then run to the bathroom and cry alone!) One final tip I often tell parents is to make sure to bring a healthy snack to pick-up. Kids often do not eat lunch well as they adjust to a new school/class and are often starving at pick up!

From Evelyn Nichols: As parents we are often eager (maybe a tad anxious) to know about what went on at school and how our kids are feeling about all the new things. However, coming in hot with too many questions about the day can be overwhelming, particularly because young children live more in the moment then we do as adults. I suggest at pick up time focusing on how glad you are to see your child. I find I learn more about the day from my kids through random songs they start to sing, or memories that they recall when we’re playing or even just sitting near each other. And that’s the best time to listen and ask questions. Here's a link to some great questions to get children talking about their day!

Another thing to keep in mind: transitions are hard on the whole family, not just kids. At our house when we’re getting used to a new schedule. I find in the first few weeks of school it really helps if I get lunch packed the night before, have my kids pick out their clothes the night before (or even better wear their school clothes to bed), and wake up a bit early to make sure I’ve had my needs met before the rush of getting ready and out the door for school. That way I have time to be more playful and patient, rather than rushed. Things go much smoother when I’m not adding my own anxiety about getting places on time to the already big feelings that my children are having.

One more pro tip from our team: The Octopus Watch. (Pictured above on Patrick) This brilliant back to school time saver allows you to program visual schedule cues to pop up for your child to follow on their own (non radio-frequency emitting) watch. I've never seen my children get dressed, brush their teeth, and move through their morning routine with more ease! Even my husband commented the other day, "These watches are really working for our family! Get yours here - it might just change your mornings forever! Please use this code LITTLEDRAGONECM for FREE SHIPPING and to support Early Childhood Matters!