January 2010

Aaaah – December break, that long awaited hiatus when we finally give ourselves over to family, celebrations and general catching up. Everyday routines become looser, more fluid and spontaneous. Unpredictability is in the air, and our children’s schedules, whether by necessity or design, grow considerably more relaxed.

If we travel, their meal and nap times are shaped by flight schedules and service area stops. When we visit, mealtimes vary. A strange bed takes getting used to, as do unfamiliar sounds and scents. Our tots likely to have an easier time of it if we do the hosting and they stick to their home turf. Though we ourselves may be pulled in several directions: quality kid moments bumping up against trips to the supermarket, meal making, gift wrapping and visiting.

On the plus side, we are certainly able to spend time with our children in ways not possible during the work week: cuddling on the couch, walking the dog, lingering in a library, even sharing that trip to the supermarket. These are the real joys – for us and for our children. And just as they seem truly to get the hang of this less structured, surprise-filled rhythm, it comes to an abrupt halt signaled by an early bath and bedtime on Sunday evening. Time to get ready for school!

A return to school marks the end of easy, intimate, go-with-the-flow rhythms, of leisurely mornings, and days filled with mom and dad. Our kids somehow sense what they’ll be missing as well as the challenges that lie ahead – a readjustment to group life and tightly scheduled days. Less vivid to them may be all the fun, nurturance and learning that a school day holds. Framed by these rekindled fears and longings for home, January truly is the new September for most toddlers.

As their parents, we can’t hope to assuage all flickers of resistance and apprehension, but we can take steps to make our child’s re-entry a smoother, even esteem-building experience. For example:

  • A few days before school is to begin, move gradually toward more consistent, school-friendly routines for bedtime, meals and start of day.
  • Allow these days to take on a calm, predictable rhythm. No big surprises or patience-taxing visits. Even a little boredom isn’t the worst thing.
  • Talk easily about the changes ahead, placing them within a family context. Office and school, for example. Point out what will change and what will stay the same.
  • Arrange a playdate with someone from your child’s class or a meeting on the playground.
  • Stroll by school with your child and say hello to the door person or security guard.
  • If your youngster is old enough, help them chart the number of “sleeps” until school begins, building in predictability and concertizing it with beans or cubes moved from one box to another.
  • Talk through the start of the schoolday. “After we have breakfast, we’ll get you into your jacket, into the stroller, and we’ll zip down the street. When we get to school, Mommy will take off your jacket and we’ll go in and chat with Jane. Maybe Harry and Carlos will be there too.”
  • Create a guessing game around teachers’ or children’s names. “Who says ‘Good Morning, William!’ when you walk in the room?” “Who always holds a little car when he comes into class?” “Who lives right here in our building?”
  • If your household includes more than one child, encourage older sibs to talk about what they’re looking forward to: seeing their friends, taking a class trip or beginning a new after school class.
  • During quiet moments, maybe at bedtime, help your child remember back to activities and people they enjoy. “Remember how much fun you have in that gym class?” “I was thinking about that painting you brought home before vacation – the one where you mixed all that green. What an amazing job you did!”
  • Even a few of these very gentle supports can remind children that school is a welcoming, supportive and growth-promoting place to be. Their place to be.

Finally, a few thoughts for that First Day Back: If at all possible, make arrangements to accompany your son or daughter into school. Allow an extra half an hour or so to explore the classroom together and share a story. Build in some additional flexibility should s/he need you to stay a little longer. When you do leave, make your good-byes short and light-hearted. If your child is upset, phone the school a short while later for an update. Afterward, at the end of this first day back, find a way to celebrate with a special story or treat. Let your baby know that warm, loving family connections are steadfast. Although we go our separate ways in the morning, we always come back together again…

… in January, just as we did in September.