Helping Your Child Transition to Elementary School

She’s smiling big for her “first day” photo, but deep down, your kindergartner is probably feeling serious jitters. For most kids, the transition to elementary school means longer days, structured schedules, no naps and maybe even a big yellow bus. A good game plan can help you avoid anxiety and tears. (OK, maybe not the tears. Looking at you, mom and dad.)

Here’s how to ease the kindergarten transition and set your not-so-little one (sob) up for success.

mom hugging son at bus stop

A big part of anxiety is fear of the unknown, but you can help reduce that. “I love books—I think children’s books are a great way for a child to process transition,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN. There are plenty of fun tales about going to kindergarten, so head to the library over the summer.

Here are some more things you can do to help prepare for the first day of school:

  • If your school offers a day to meet the teachers and walk the halls (before school starts), go!
  • Show your child the bus stop and bus route he’ll be taking, and explain the process for getting on and off the bus.
  • Consider planning a play date over the summer if you know someone who will be in your child’s class. That way, he will have at least one familiar face on that intimidating first day.
  • Have fun picking out school supplies and packing your child’s backpack and lunchbox together. Be sure everything is packed and ready the night before to avoid having to rush in the morning.

father walking son out of school

To make the kindergarten transition smoother, ease your child into his new schedule a few weeks before school starts. Start going to bed and waking up according to school hours. If he's still napping but won’t get naptime at school, drop the nap and shift bedtime earlier.

Walk your child through his new routine. Many kids benefit from a visual display of their schedule, whether in words or pictures: wake, breakfast, bus, backpack in cubby, table time, circle time, music, afterschool activities and so on.

girl going to bed early before first day of school

A good night’s sleep is essential for being able to learn and focus. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a 5-year-old needs 10 to 13 hours of sleep a night, while a 6-year-old should get 9 to 12 hours. Stand firm on a bedtime to make sure your child is getting enough quality sleep.

Sleep supports both physical and emotional wellness, and sleep deprivation can mimic the symptoms of depression, anxiety or ADHD. “A lot of kids when overtired become hyperactive, which seems like the opposite of what you’d expect but is pretty normal,” says licensed therapist Kathleen Hill, LPC.

dad speaking to teacher after school

Your child will soon be spending the greater part of the day, 5 days a week, with her teacher. Parents often have the opportunity to share information about a child’s needs and personality on school forms, but don’t be shy about sending an email. “Most teachers appreciate that,” says Harlow-Parker. “If your child is dealing with some kindergarten anxiety, you can offer tips for soothing her and share that information with her teacher.”

mom walking daughters to school

Unless you’re a seasoned actor, your child is probably going to pick up on your emotions. There’s nothing wrong with being anxious, overwhelmed or excited about your child going into kindergarten (tears are normal!), but it’s still important to remain as calm and collected as you can when the big day arrives to help your child feel more confident and prepared.

As the first day approaches, talk to your child about how you are feeling and give her a chance to share her feelings as well. It’s really helpful for children to see that emotions are normal and OK and that you are human as well. And be sure to check in with your child after the first day too! Maybe you can start a new tradition at dinner of a game of high-low (also known as peaks and valleys or pows and wows) where everyone shares the best and least favorite parts of their day.