Learning to Say "Goodbye": Bridging the Gap Between Home and School

September is a time for new beginnings: new teachers, new classrooms, new friends, and a year filled with new experiences. Each of us, parents, children, and teachers alike, brings our own set of expectations, excitement, and sometimes worries, to the new year. As the school year approaches, parents of young children all share common concerns – Will she be happy? Will the teachers like her and will she make new friends? Will she feel safe and secure, be able to spread her wings, and continue to develop without me by her side? Will I be able to let go and trust the teachers to nurture her and meet her needs?

The first days of school can range from smooth sailing to an emotional roller coaster. As teachers know well, each child enters his new “home away from home” in a unique way. We all have our own style, or temperament, and this determines how actively we seek out or avoid new experiences.

Some will bound enthusiastically into school, taking ownership of the room immediately. Others will approach in a more cautious and hesitant style, assessing the newness before they delve in. Teachers know how important it is to respect and nurture each child, being attentive to his or her own personality style. They also know the importance of gently challenging children with new experiences to help them reach their potential.

Children like it when they know what to expect; predictability enables them to feel a sense of control over their world. Parents can bridge the gap between home and school by establishing reassuring morning routines. It is not easy to have your child ready for school on time. Creating a picture timeline of what a child needs to accomplish before leaving home can help both child and parent get ready with fewer arguments.

Some children make the adjustment to school with remarkable ease, but many take a little longer to feel totally settled. Photographs of family members, or a special object from home, provide a child with comfort and familiarity in his new setting.

Your positive attitude will be contagious to your child. Even if you are ambivalent, this is the time to put a smile on your face and enter the room with confidence. If your child believes you are uncomfortable about leaving, he may want to please you rather than getting involved in play, and could show signs of discomfort and ambivalence. Try these approaches:

Let your child know where you will be while she is at school and who will pick her up at the end of the day. Children will have an easier time saying goodbye and will be calmer and more secure during the school day knowing when you will return--whether it be at the end of the school day or when you come home from work.

Always say a firm and loving goodbye that your child acknowledges – never sneak out while he is busy playing. You may believe this is easier in the short run, but in the long run it destroys the trusting relationship you want to develop. Learning to cope with stress and gaining mastery over uncomfortable feelings are elements of maturing. Children learn that teachers are there to help them feel secure and loved.

Rely on teachers to help you leave successfully if your child protests. Teachers are there to help you, too! Prolonging the goodbyes only results in a power struggle which makes both children and parents anxious. Although leaving a child in tears is a painful experience for any parent, teachers are equipped to help children work through their angry or sad feelings and develop the competence that allows them not only to say goodbye, but to try new things.

Pick up at school on time, especially during the early days of school. Children feel more confident when they can count on parents or caregivers to return as promised. Some children bounce into their parents’ arms at dismissal, while others may ignore them and refuse to leave the class. No matter how your child reacts, “going-home” routines should be as consistent and firm as arrival routines.

Prepare your child for changes in routines. Children learn to recognize patterns and feel more in control when they can predict what will happen. If you will be late picking your child up, remember to call school so that the teachers can reassure him that you will be there soon.

Play at home with dolls, puppets, cars and trucks, or action figures and evolve stories of grownups and children leaving and returning. This activity will allow children to feel in greater control of the separation process and the reuniting that always follows. This fantasy play will help them master their feelings, anxieties, and fears.

Most parents like to know what their child did during the school day. Some children are full of information about their day while others seem to have little to say. Helping your child become a good reporter is not always easy. When you bring your child into the classroom, spend some time exploring the room with her. Look at the bulletin boards, experience charts, and materials. These will give you a starting place to engage your child in a conversation about school. Try asking open ended “Tell me about ….” questions, share stories about your day, and be a good listener.

And finally, believe in your child’s strengths and trust in the teachers’ ability to help make the transition a smooth and successful one for both you and your child.

Books to read to young children on separation: 

Getting Ready for the Next Step

Siblings: Joys and Challenges