The Emotional Impact of Transitioning to Kindergarten

how to cope with this important milestone
Transitioning to kindergarten: Parent holding hands with small child wearing backpack viewed from behind
© Shutterstock / nadezhda

It doesn’t matter how much you feel like you have prepared your little one (or yourself) for starting kindergarten, it still feels like your baby is growing up too fast! This can start a whole new cascade of emotions that may impact you and your child in ways you didn't anticipate!

Starting school is an adjustment for everyone. Whether your child has been in daycare every day for the last three years or home with you, this new chapter is huge. It’s a strange environment, new teachers, and friends you have no control over. It’s the start of many first days, but this is one of the hardest for everyone.

How to prepare a child for kindergarten

Certainly some children have the type of personality where big changes have little effect on them. They walk right into school on their first day and never look back. It can be a great relief when your child is so confident that they can walk in and be totally comfortable, but it can also be a little sad for parents as it can feel like they aren’t missing us at all!

For some children though, starting school can be traumatic. It’s scary, it’s big, there are tons of children running everywhere, and everyone seems to know exactly what they are supposed to do. It can feel overwhelming and very stressful. Even if your child has been in care leading up to the start of school, starting kindergarten can still cause some upset and worry.

Before the big day, you can help them to feel more confident about going into unfamiliar situations by teaching them self-reliance skills that will serve them well. Things as simple as self-care skills like wiping themselves after using the bathroom, tying their shoes, and managing zippers and buttons go a long way in building their sense of capability and reducing anxiety. And don’t forget to have their eyesight checked! Encouraging them to master independent play and to feel comfortable exploring new territory will help them to feel less “lost” in this big, strange place.

Parents feel it too!

Whether it’s your first or fourth child starting school, it’s still an emotional rollercoaster. Your baby is getting on the bus, driving away without you, and making new friends whose parents you don’t know. They will spend their day colouring, playing, learning and you’ll have very little say in their day-to-day. This can all trigger a lot of mixed feelings.

If you are used to having your children home with you, starting kindergarten can create some anxiety over the fact that you are no longer in control of them every minute. Not knowing who they are playing with, the conversations they are having, and even the little things like bathroom breaks and wondering how they are feeling can preoccupy your mind.

If they have been in daycare, you are probably used to getting daily reports, having smaller class sizes, and knowing all their teachers and little friends. School can feel bigger and scarier when you do not have the same rapport as you did with your previous caregivers. Getting involved in the school, attending orientation events, volunteering when possible, and being part of a parent committee can help you get to know the school and staff so much better and alleviate a great deal of your worry.

The immediate aftermath

Starting school can be so overwhelming for some children that you may see behaviours you thought you were done with. Some children will regress in skills at which they are already proficient. Some may withdraw and seem to become a shell of their former selves. Others may become aggressive or exhibit more outbursts than usual. Temper tantrums, bathroom accidents, hitting, biting, appearing sullen, or being quick to cry are all behaviours that are driven by the underlying turmoil.

Allowing your child the time to talk, whether on the ride home right after school or once they’re safe in bed will be key. We always want to take their lead and not force the conversation — this might only cause them to shut down. Some children may not want to talk right after school while others will talk your ear off from the moment they get off the bus until they fall asleep. Some will need extra time in their bedtime routine to snuggle and chat. Having dinner planned for the first few weeks will really allow you to focus on having some good quality downtime together to connect before bed. Expressing their feelings and having the opportunity to talk without interruption or limitations, and with your full attention, will help your child more than you can imagine.

Adjusting for the long haul

We always want our children to adjust quickly to changes and excel at everything they do but it just isn’t realistic. It is completely normal for children to need time. Helping them through by patiently providing the emotional support they need is always the first and foremost remedy. There are many things you can do to reduce their stress like ensuring they always get plenty of sleep, healthy meals, unscheduled play time, time in nature, and a good morning routine. There are also many simple things you can do to help them through their day when you are not around.

One of our favourite tips is to cut out little heart shapes and write “I love you” on them. Put them in their pocket in the morning so that when they are missing you, they can rub the heart between their fingers. Put special notes or stickers in their lunchboxes or send them with a picture of you so that they can look at it when they miss you. Being engaged by learning some of the other children’s names from their class and helping with some of the new concepts they are learning will give them the sense that you are still connected even when you’re not around.

They are going to be exhausted their first few weeks! Even if your child was in care previously, this is a whole new ballgame. Making sure they are still getting 11 to 12 hours of sleep every night can really ensure they are ready to learn and can help them cope with their emotions. A child who is well rested, well fed, and who knows that you are always standing behind them will be much more ready to take on the challenges of their new adventures in kindergarten.

Starting school can be filled with more emotions than we realize. It’s exciting and stressful and scary. It can also be so much fun! The lifelong friends they will make, the teachers they will love, and the fun they will have will more than make up for the anxiety of the first few weeks.

*Originally published August 15, 2016