No other milestone provides a snapshot of a child’s life like
the first day of school. It’s a tangible reflection of the child
moving away from the parent and into the adult he or she will
No other milestone provides a snapshot of a child’s life like the first day of school. It’s a tangible reflection of the child moving away from the parent and into the adult he or she will become.
Unlike graduation, where success is celebrated and emotions are welcomed, starting a new school requires a tougher face. Before the little fish can swim in the big pond, there is work to be done and decisions to be made: what to bring to school, how to get there and who will become a friend.
Evan Fuoss, Amanda Clark and Hannah Wilson can feel the big day inching closer. In mid-August, Evan will start kindergarten in Oak Park, Ill., Amanda will start high school in Chicago and Hannah will fly to Ithaca, N.Y., to begin orientation at Cornell University.
Experts say personality is the biggest predictor of whether the first day of school will be met with glee or angst.
Yet there are ways to prepare the child, whether they are anxious, confident or a mixture of the two.
We talked to the three students and their mothers preparing for that first day and then asked experts to weigh in on what to expect and how to make that first day go a little smoother.
Even at 5 1/2, Evan Fuoss, of Oak Park, knows he starts Mann Elementary School Tuesday. The planning and preparation are pretty much in mom’s hands, but he’s already thinking about what he’ll bring: his favorite books (in case he gets bored), a pencil and …
“And maybe if my mom could make a photo of my mom and dad in case I got lonely, then I would need to pack that too,” Evan said.
“You can have that, sweetie,” said his mother, Ann Alexander. “Just like I have photos of you when I think about you.”
It’s a little after 7 p.m. and Evan has just gotten home from a full day of play in day care. He has emptied his favorite “not-story books” about space, dinosaurs and wolves onto the coffee table. An adorable jumble of stop-and-go emotions, he is jumping between the arm of the couch and his mother’s lap, sometimes kicking and sometimes cuddling.
Alexander expects her son’s positive experience in day care to ease the transition into kindergarten. He has been leaving home four days a week since he was 2 years old, and has made great friends in his class.
Experts say: Graduated exposure is a great defense against the fear of the first day, according to Bernadette Lecza, a cognitive behavioral therapist at Yale Parenting Center. She tells parents of anxious children to prepare ahead of time by visiting the bus stop, getting a sense of how long they’ll be riding the bus and playing on the school playground.
Of course, not all children need that level of care. Lecza tells parents that they know their children best and they should take note of behavioral changes that may be masking anxiety.
Parents can tell “if they’re tearier than usual, acting out, less cooperative or less patient,” Lecza said.
Mom says: Evan recently started asking, “What if I don’t have any friends in kindergarten?” Alexander knows her son’s best friends are going to kindergarten at different schools, so she doesn’t call his question silly. Instead she tells him that his fear is real and that the other children are probably feeling the same way.
About a month before the big day, Alexander started noticing her own reaction to Evan starting kindergarten. She and Evan’s dad will still be dropping him off and picking him up on the way to and from their jobs in the city. But kindergarten is the start of formal education, which makes it a major milestone no matter what has happened before.
“It’s the awareness of the passing of time,” Alexander said. “I mean, he was a baby, and I blinked, and he’s in kindergarten. I’ll blink again, and he’ll be in sixth grade. And so it goes.”
THE HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN
Amanda Clark of Lakeview, Ill., finished eighth grade at Sacred Heart School at the top of the heap. She was a star on the soccer and basketball teams, a straight-A student and a volunteer at a local day camp for the hearing-impaired and deaf.
She had her pick of high schools – her mother narrowed it to three based on their proximity to home – and Amanda chose St. Ignatius College Prep. The school has small class sizes, plenty of faces she’ll recognize and, the deciding factor, a greater chance for playing time on the soccer field and basketball court.
But just because Amanda is transitioning from one Catholic school to another doesn’t mean high school won’t bring unfamiliar experiences. She’ll be navigating public transit by herself, learning new subjects like physics and Spanish, and adjusting to a new distraction in the classroom: boys.
“It’s going to be a different experience for me because I haven’t been in a mixed class since kindergarten,” Amanda said. “But there’s boys in my (summer school) class, and it’s not that bad because they’re all smart, I guess. And you don’t feel extra smart if you say something smart.”
Experts say: Lecza tells parents of teenagers that the greatest obstacles can and should be addressed long before the first day of high school. Those obstacles usually fall into two categories: social and academic.
“If you anticipate problems with academics, this could be the time to start working on organizational skills,” Lecza said.
If a child is making bad social decisions, parents should remember to “guide and lead, not restrict and punish.”
“Parents have a temptation to get rigid and make rules about who (their children) can hang out with,” Lecza said. “They should just help guide and lead new avenues to different friends.”
Mom says: Linda Clark said she has never had to worry about Amanda’s grades or friends. She can count on Amanda to come straight home after practice and start her homework right away. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t heavily involved in Amanda’s life.
Three weeks before the big day, Amanda is sitting at the dining room table showing her mother her class schedule – which does not repeat until the ninth day. Clark suggests that she keep several copies in every notebook.
It has also been decided that Amanda will communicate with her parents through each step of her journey on the CTA.
“The big thing is public transit,” Clark said. “She’ll try to find someone to ride home with, but there won’t always be someone. She’ll text dad to say she’s close to his work, then maybe call mom to say that she should meet at Roosevelt.”
THE COLLEGE FRESHMAN
Hannah Wilson, of Wilmette, has been zipping from Taste of Chicago to Pitchfork Music Festival to Six Flags Great America amusement park with her closest friends from New Trier High School, soaking up the precious moments of her last summer at home.
Hannah may love the comforts of home, but she is not a homebody. She chose to go to school on the East Coast to follow her passion for the sport of crew. Recruited by four schools, she chose Cornell because “it felt right.”
She’s confident she’ll build new relationships with time, but expects the first few weeks (not just the first day) to be lonely. None of her best friends is going to school near her, but she likes it that way.
“I don’t think you would experience college to the fullest,” Hannah said. “It’s just that you would be so comfortable and part of it is feeling uncomfortable.”
Experts say: It’s important to recognize how your child’s personality type will adapt to leaving home and starting college. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, said a child’s tendency to be attached to a parent or fearful of change is biological and obvious to the parent from a very young age. Parents of children with what Kazdin called “inhibited temperaments” should be ready to offer concrete solutions to fears rather than feeding them.
“If your child has been more sensitive throughout life, hold back on the kind of preparation that emphasizes worry,” Kazdin said. “Say, ‘When you get there, why don’t you see if you can have lunch with your suite mates?’ rather than, ‘You’re going to be alone at meals.'”
Mom says: Hannah is the middle child in a very close-knit, emotionally open family. Both mom and dad will fly to Ithaca to move Hannah into Cornell.
“Just thinking about it right now, I could start crying,” Elissa Morgante said. “There’s no chance of not sharing how upset I’ll be. But I’m so incredibly happy for her.”
Morgante said Hannah has always been very grounded and mature. She’s not worried about her meeting new friends or remembering to call home, but she knows their relationship is about to change.
“That’s the biggest challenge for parents. If you’ve had a close relationship and you realize that that relationship is going to change. It won’t necessarily be worse or better, but it will be different,” Morgante said. “She’s no longer under my wing.”