“We have to go back every day?!” exclaims five-year-old Simon incredulously in the first week of kindergarten. I was reminded of when the nurse told me “only 20 more minutes of pushing and the baby should be out,” during drugless labor. It felt like a lifetime and I had no clue how I would survive a minute longer more or less 20 minutes! This is how a typical kindergartner feels. They are nervous and scared about the many new faces, places, and expectations. They are sad missing play time at home with you and a much shorter day with far fewer responsibilities. They feel guilty because they know they should be “big” and act “big” but deep inside, they want to snuggle back under the covers.
The transition from preschool to kindergarten can feel like a gigantic leap for many children. And unfortunately, parents get the brunt of their raw emotions when they come home from school. Whereas they may have remained brave and strong on their first day, the second and third and fourth may lead to utter exhaustion and crankiness. If you are a parent of a kindergartner, you’ll recognize some or all of the following signs and symptoms. It helps with our own patience to understand how, at times, the circumstances of their transition may conflict with their developmental urges and create tension. For us, it can be frustrating not knowing what we can do to help. So I am also sharing some ideas of ways you can support your young child.
It’s likely that for the very first time, your child will be required to sit at a desk quietly with minimal movement and heightened attention. The movement they are typically asked to make will focus on their fine motor skills with activities like writing, drawing and cutting. Considering that the agenda prior to this moment has been play with large, free movements most of the day all his young life, this change takes an enormous amount of self-discipline. Young children have physical energy to spend but at the end of a school day, they are mentally and emotionally worn out.
Children recognize and have the desire to move as their play guides them. And this wise developmental urging exists because deep learning occurs best when play and movement are involved. Fives are just becoming adept at large movements like running and jumping and want to use those newfound skills. Thank goodness for recess! They struggle still with fine motor skills like writing and cutting. In addition, five-year-olds are eager to be “good” and learn rules and routines. They want to please their teachers and other adult authorities but also, test limits as they attempt to figure out their new boundaries.
Ways You Can Offer Support:
Your young child may need free, physical exertion after school. Is there a playground on the school grounds or a park nearby? And in fact, a home backyard will serve the need just fine. Encourage your child to run around and play if you can see and feel that he needs it. Include a high protein snack (cheese stick, peanut butter crackers?) in your after school routine to provide the necessary fuel after a long afternoon at school. Be sure to avoid sugary snacks which offer a quick jolt of energy but can turn quickly into a meltdown as the energy sinks just as rapidly.
You are likely to experience emotional overload at the end of the school day when your child is with you. She has worked hard to bottle up any emotions throughout the day. Some may struggle to do this especially in these beginning weeks and may have the added humiliation of “losing it” at school. But for the most part, your child will be doing her best to hold back her feelings just to get through the long day. When she sees you, she may just feel an overwhelming sense of safety and let it all out. That can be challenging for a concerned parent who is trying to support this major transition. Rest assured though that the rush of feelings you see her dealing with are normal. And as she progresses and becomes more comfortable with what is expected of her at school, she will have less and less reason to meltdown.
Young children are learning to identify and communicate their feelings at this age. Meltdowns will become shorter and less frequent as they feel capable of describing their feelings and see that the adults around them understand and empathize with those emotions.
Ways You Can Offer Support: Make sure that you are using feeling words and reflecting on your own and your child’s feelings frequently to offer regular practice. You might say, “It seemed like you felt tired and frustrated earlier, is that right?” That practice will become invaluable for both in-school and after-school self-management. Also, you can work together on creating a cool down spot that becomes a safe haven for your child. Place a pillow, a favorite stuffed friend and a calming book in the corner of a room with your child’s help. Offer it up if she needs some time to self-soothe. For more ideas on how to create a safe haven for cooling down, read Home Base. Lastly, work on your daily routines - morning, after school, dinner, bedtime - and stick to them consistently. That consistency will offer safety and security and enable her to focus on resting and recovering for the next day.
Lack of Self-Control
You may be noticing an uptick in boundary-pushing. She may be swiping away a sibling’s toys or pushing household rules that have not been in question prior to now. Research confirms that we have the greatest capacity for self-control in the morning when we are rested and refreshed. 1 As the day wears on, we use up our daily store and it becomes more challenging to exercise self-control. This is true for both adults and children.
Along with the learning of rules and routines in school, children must learn the skill of self-control. In these early weeks of kindergarten, children are working that muscle regularly. And just like when you begin a new exercise regime at the gym, those muscles are sore and worn at the end of the day. The good news is that it’s time-limited and it's also critical for the cultivation of this skill that will contribute to their school success. In addition, they are feeling unsure about the expectations of their teacher. But at home, they are aware of your expectations and can push boundaries because they feel safe with you.
Ways You Can Offer Support:
As with the meltdowns, keeping routines and rules consistent while at home will help as your child as he adjusts to his new reality. Having a cool down spot, practicing deep breathing, and offering quiet time can help him cope with the stimulus overload he may feel and offer a break from using that self-control muscle.
Ruminating on the Tough Stuff
Part of this transition and your child’s ability to cope may include her ruminating (circling the worry wagon over and over) on the challenges she faces at school. “It’s too hard.” “I can’t go back!” and “I just can’t do it.” may be some of these expressions of frustration.
Fives will focus on their learning goals and that may involve anxiety about making friends, understanding the teacher, and performing academic tasks.
Ways You Can Offer Support:
Listening with an open mind and heart and with empathy for all that is new in their world can be a real asset to a young child. But when worries spin out into repetitive and defeatist messages - “I hate school!” - they can ultimately subvert a child’s endurance and persistence in working toward figuring it out. If you have listened but witness repetitive worries, distract! Find an old, familiar toy or game and take solace together in simple joys. Then after calming down, talk about times he’s persisted, times he’s stayed strong. These will bolster his feelings of competence as he tackles another day at school. In addition, spend some time talking about the positive aspects of school. Has she made new friends? Does she like her teacher? Is she learning something interesting? Ruminate a bit on some of the positives of school to help reframe the sense that because it's new, it must be bad.
Separation Anxiety or Regression
You may have thought that separation anxiety would end with preschool. But if you can think back to the time when you left home in your late teens or twenties, perhaps you remember feeling a surge of homesickness? Separation anxiety is healthy and normal at multiple ages and stages but can be stressful for parents.
In times when insecurity strikes (which is often when everything seems new), fives will desire the safety of home and time with you. This attachment is a positive sign that you have cultivated a secure bond. Fives will also tend to regress and show behaviors or interests they may have long left behind. This too is normal and time-limited.
Ways You Can Offer Support:
Show your trust in a child’s teacher. Remind him of when you’ll return and see him. Express your love for him and confidence in his new circumstances. Then, leave him in the school’s capable hands trying not to linger. If it continues, you can offer a small trinket or scarf to go in his backyard that represents you so that he can have a “piece” of you during the school day if he needs it. Also, if your child desires getting out old toys at home, get them out and let him relish in the days past to bolster him for the trials of his new surroundings.
You can also make certain that your child is getting enough sleep at night. That required rest will contribute to his ability to hone his self-control during the day. Begin earlier than usual if you need more settling down time for your bedtime routine. Fives require between 10-13 hours a night depending upon the child.
Because kindergartener exhaustion leads to parental exhaustion, this time of transition can test your patience. Be sure and plan for your own heated emotions. How will you calm down when tested? Now is a good time to double down on your own self-care, with the knowledge that you are educating yourself, supporting your child as best you can and managing this major life change with confidence.
- Hagger, M.S., Wood, C., Stiff, C. & Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. ( 2010). Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis. National Institute of Education, Singapore: In Press, Psychological Bulletin.