School Adaptation: How to Prepare Kids and Parents
Updated: Jun 19, 2023
Many things we go through during our childhood mark our memories, and the first day of school can be one of them, to the kids as well as to the parents.
The school adaptation stage involves not only knowledge related to education and relationship building but also lots of learning and development for the kids.
Everything is new and, to many families, their kids’ going to school means the experience of living in a context different from before, which used to be formed only by the small nuclear family and friends.
Considering all this transformation, it’s not just the kids that go through the process of adaptation. Parents also face emotions they hadn’t experienced before.
In this article, we are going to share a few essential tips on how to prepare for the first time going to school. Keep reading!
The pedagogue Paula Strano, one of the founders of the platform Read the World (freely translated from “Ler o Mundo”), talked about the importance of also understanding the adult side of school adaptation (more specifically the mother’s) in an article published by the magazine IstoÉ.
“The process brings great expectations, mainly because of the mothers, who we should strive to understand and be welcoming so that it all runs smoothly, in the best possible way. I mean the best possible way because each adaptation process is unique, each child has their own time and this is the first important issue of this reflection.”
Family therapist and co-owner of Blueprint Mental Health, Michele Levin, in an interview to Healthline, also explained this process for the parents.
“It’s normal for parents to have a tough time transitioning themselves when their kids begin kindergarten. For a lot of families, this is the first time experiencing losing some control.”
Therefore, the difficulties may be relative to their worries about their kids facing this new reality or to their insecurities about how this process is going to be. The therapist explains that some parents may need more support than others to adjust to the change. In this sense, if you’re a parent or caretaker who’s experiencing this situation and relates to it, the first and foremost thing to do is talk about this subject before anything else.
Talking to other parents who are going through the same thing and understanding how the school dynamics work are some measures that can make parents feel safer and calmer at this moment.
School Adaptation for Younger Kids
With young kids, it’s worth taking them to the school before the first day of class so that you can participate by showing them around the place, playing with them and getting to know some of the school employees without the pressure of having other kids around and classes about to begin.
When classes in fact start, keep in mind that your kids may still not have developed their notion of time completely. Sentences like “mommy is right here, we’ll see each other later” may mean nothing to little kids, due to the simple fact that they don’t understand the meaning of “later”. They can only understand that their parents aren’t with them, and that scares them.
According to Luiza Elena L. Ribeiro do Valle, who is a psychologist and Master in School and Educational Psychology, “early childhood education is a stage of great learning skills development because, in this period, the emergence of neural connections speeds up a lot, creating the personality that is going to ineradicably keep impressions… Which can be good, right? Little kids absorb changes easily and repeat behaviors like social mirrors. We hope they see humanism, collaboration and mutual support, including between parents and the school,” she explains.
We must also remember that children only start to understand the sequence of week days clearly between the ages of 4 and 5. Therefore, if your kids are younger than that, it’s not worth talking to them about school before it happens, because they probably won’t understand it. It could cause unnecessary anxiety and do more harm than good.
Going to school is a big change in younger children's routines. New relationships are created with their classmates, teachers and other school employees, relationships that didn’t exist before.
Kids also start living in a new environment with very different rules from the ones they were used to and this transition can be different according to each child.
Cisele Ortiz, psychologist and coordinator of the Avisa Lá Institute, in São Paulo, in an interview to the Portal Nova Escola (freely translated to “New School Portal”), suggested that there isn’t a set amount of time for this transition. “Overall, the initial period of adaptation lasts between one or two weeks, but it depends on the kid, the family and their previous experiences related to the separations we face in life.”
Saying Goodbye During School Adaptation
Saying goodbye in school is usually hard, both for the kids and the parents. Many adults wait for the kid to be distracted before leaving the place, but this can cause the little ones a lot of discomfort.
Cisele even explains that saying goodbye is fundamental to the adaptation:
“As hard and painful as it is for both, building a relationship with your children based on trust and honesty is always better. The clarity of saying goodbye is healthy and necessary.”
The younger kids’ adaptation to school varies according to each one, but parents need to know that, at first, it may be necessary for them to stay with their kids in the classroom. It could be the whole day or just half of it: this need is going to be determined by the child. You let your presence peter out as your kid starts to feel more and more confident.
“In preschool, children are eager to make friends, they can communicate well and have more autonomy,” explains Cisele. Their adaptation is usually smoother and it can be done in small groups of two to three kids to make their integration easier. All the same, the presence of their families shouldn’t be dismissed. On the first few days, they can help the little ones acquaint themselves with the place and with the pace of the activities.
Time to Say Goodbye
The ideal is finding the middle ground between saying goodbye like it’s a big event and sneaking out during the adaptation period.
Marcia Tosin is a psychologist who specializes in behavioral psychotherapy and the founder of the “Neuro-compatible” Movement, an activist movement for child development that gathers parents and professionals interested in the ideal conditions for the human brains to develop and function.
It’s based on science: Evolutionary Psychology, Anthropology and Neurobiology. In her Instagram, which has more than 800 thousand followers, Márcia says we don’t need to trick kids, but it’s also not necessary to perform a farewell ritual.
“… The helplessness reaction felt by the children is due to a really old brain’s answer which destabilizes without the reference figure, and not because they weren’t “warned” that you would leave.”
Marcia proposes an exercise to better understand how our brain works: imagine that you, an adult, is going to have an invasive surgery. Despite knowing that only 0,9% of the people who undergo this surgery die, your brain says that you are going to be a part of this statistic. This happens because our brain’s compass is always pointing at risks. Your doctor may flood you with useful information and tell you many things to try to calm you down, but the limbic system works alone and leads you towards the worst result.
Another example is when we are alone at home and hear a noise. It may be completely riskless, but our brains warn us that it could be a predator.
“It prepares you for the worst: it takes blood away from the extremities so that if the predator rips out your hand you don’t bleed to death; it raises your hairs so that you look bigger; it increases your blood flow in the regions that you need it to fight or flight; it secretes sweat so that you’re more slippery and in order to stabilize your temperature; you’ll get more breathless to increase your oxygen disposal. We have a body that acts before you think.
The first couple of times kids stay in the school alone, this system is triggered – therefore they cry. This system works regardless of what parents say. School adaptation exists to calm this state of response. There isn’t only one model of school adaptation, but it’s necessary to know that this system exists. It’s not “whining” or lack of frustration.”
In terms of the parents’ nerves or anxiety being a hindrance to their kids’ adaptation to school, Marcia explains that it does not in fact get in the way – quite on the contrary, it protects it. “We have to believe that parents suffer from leaving their kids and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Mind the Signs During School Adaptation
If kids cry constantly when it’s time to go to school, or if there are other signs of extreme anguish, parents need to be cautious. Marcia Tosin used her Instagram account to talk about this issue.
“You shouldn’t attribute ‘problem’ causes to these behaviors. It would increase parents’ guilt. They are simply little people who need more time to form attachment and feel safe in this transition.”
Pedagogue Ana Paula Yazbek, writer of UOL’s Portal Papo de Mãe column, also wrote about the subject.
“Each kid and family experience this period in their own way. There are children who get very excited on the first few days and that, as they realize that being in school means being away from home, start to refuse to go and feel strange. Others may seem unaware of their surroundings, as if they’re only waiting for the time to go home. There are also kids who display an eagerness for new experiences and who pay very little attention to their family when they have to say goodbye.
Dubiousness is inherent to the adaptation process. On the same day there could be progress and setbacks in the safety felt by both the kids and their parents; it’s up to the institutions to offer support so that the trust bond is established progressively.”
When it comes to bigger kids, the adaptation may also require some care since they feel insecure and miss their parents the same as the younger ones.
Reminding children that you can go back to school to pick them up or call them so they hear your voice are measures that can be reassuring and calming for them during this adaptation period. Bringing an object to school that smells like their parents for when kids are missing them can also be helpful.
When questioning about your kids’ school day, pay attention to the answer, because they may point towards issues your children are facing during the adaptation.
The period of school adaptation is laden with challenges since it’s extremely important for kids’ learning and development. Both the parents and the school are fundamental to this process and, in this sense, must be aligned with each other and in constant conversation.
The Importance of Communication
Kids can be both extremely excited and anxious at the beginning of school. To help the little ones handle these emotions, our main tip is a lot of conversations (for children older than 4) about the new routine.
These talks may arise in spontaneous moments such as during parent-child play times, for example.
Another tip is that parents visit the school before the first day of class to get to know the environment and which activities and timetables will be planned for the first day. It’s also important to meet the school’s team and not just the teachers, since many employees will be able to offer support to the kids during the adaptation process.
And about communicating with your kids, the Ministry of Education Portal shared some tips for parents to deal with the experience of the first few days of school:
What family members can check with their kids about the care they received in kindergarten:
• Ask the names of the teachers and other employees;
• Ask the names of their closest friends;
• Ask them what they enjoyed doing the most that day;
• Encourage them to tell and narrate some situations they went through there;
• Which songs did they sing or listen to;
• What did they do on the play time;
• Which paintings, drawings, sculptures did they make;
• Which book did the teacher read;
• Which story did the teacher tell;
• What are they learning, among others.
What family members can observe directly in the child about the care they received in kindergarten:
• Note the kids’ behavior when they arrive at the institution (joy, shyness, crying).
• Note daily and carefully while you’re talking to the kids – their looks, their gestures, their speaking and their reactions may help to evaluate their physical and emotional states.
• Note the kids’ reactions to seeing their classmates, this may show how they’re getting along with their class.
• Note the productions and the materials they bring from the institution.
Give Your Kids Comfort During School Adaptation
Talking about school and how important this childhood experience is may help kids feel more comfortable on the first day of school. Try telling them how your first time going to school was, talk about other kids who are close to them and have lived through this moment.
If possible, take your kids to get to know the school before the first day of class, because that way your kids will already know a little of the new environment. Explain that feeling insecure and fearful before going to school is common.
Allowing the kids to be a part of the process involved in going to school, such as taking them to buy school supplies, may also be useful in order for the little ones to have a pleasurable moment that’s related to school.
Arriving early on the first day of school and taking the kids to the classroom conveys security. Also, reassure them that within a few hours you are going to be together again.
Many things can happen throughout the adaptation process or even after that. And that’s okay, it’s normal! Something very common is for the kids to start crying and screaming by the school entrance, refusing to go to class, when they were already adapted. If this happens, talk to the teachers and, if necessary, restart the school adaptation process. This gives your kids more confidence.
Text: Débora Nazário
Translation: Mariana Gruber