With the new school year here, parents and caregivers of young children may be experiencing heightened emotions and anxieties about starting kindergarten.
Under typical circumstances, the transition to kindergarten evokes a multitude of emotions for parents and caregivers. Amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns, transitioning into a new school year may prompt a unique set of emotions and anxieties for both parents and children.
Whether or not children entering kindergarten have experienced learning interruptions due to closures — for example, through interruptions to stable early learning and child care settings — children’s early social development continues to be at the forefront of many parents’ concerns.
Considering the unparalleled experiences of the pandemic, and in acknowledgement of any anxieties about the upcoming school year, the list below contains some evidence-based tips on how parents or caregivers can attend to the social and emotional needs of young children as they transition into kindergarten programs.
1. Give yourself credit for positive family interactions
Although the pandemic decreased opportunities for social interactions, positive family interactions still contribute heavily to children’s early social development. Recent research suggests the presence of nurturing parents and caregivers is enough to mitigate the pandemic’s negative effects on infants’ social development.
The establishment of a secure attachment to a primary caregiver in the first few years of life facilitates a child’s drive to explore and experiment and is related to their later socio-emotional and physical health outcomes.
In the kindergarten classroom, this secure attachment encourages children to confidently seek out new experiences and form positive relationships with others. Parents or caregivers can rest assured that your efforts to promote positive early family interactions indeed make a difference.
2. Nurture social skills
Social skills, such as sharing and listening, are the tools we use to communicate and interact with others in order to develop positive relationships. Social skill competence in kindergarten has been linked to key young adult outcomes in education, employment and mental health.
Concerns over missed socialization opportunities caused by pandemic-related restrictions have been a key focus of early childhood research. Reinforcing the social skills that children have opportunities to develop through play-based learning in the classroom may assist your child with the initiation of such skills in different contexts.
In addition to supporting opportunities for hands-on play with other children, social skills can be nurtured by making time for conversations with children that facilitate learning about various social interactions, through coaching children through social situations and explicit instruction.
Modelling positive interactions of listening and sharing and reinforcing these and other important skills also matters.
3. Help your child learn to identify their feelings
Social skills are interdependent with emotional skills. Social-emotional learning skills, taught in different ways like educators’ support for a child’s self-regulation in the classroom, are critical to children’s mental health, academic and social development.
These critical skills can be nurtured at home by encouraging conversations about your child’s emotions, helping your child label how they are feeling, and modelling various positive coping mechanisms to alleviate stress and anxiety, such as breathing techniques and/or mindfulness. Parents can also turn to children’s literature to help their child identify and manage their feelings.
4. Acknowledge your own emotions and model positivity
Acknowledging your emotions about your child’s transition to kindergarten may alleviate stress and anxiety by decreasing the cognitive and emotional burden of denying such emotions. Since children are particularly attuned to the stress and anxieties of their immediate caregivers, managing your own stress and anxiety is an effective contributor to keeping your child’s anxieties at bay. Discussing the positive aspects of kindergarten may also help your child look forward to the many exciting moments they will experience this school year.
5. Establish school-year routines
Establishing an age-appropriate bedtime routine and schedule can help children throughout the school year by facilitating predictable and clear expectations. Using a visual schedule to support routines for kindergarten-aged children can foster independence, increase flexibility and support literacy development. Establishing a daily routine also provides children with a sense of security, stability and decreases separation anxiety.
6. Know that positive family-educator partnerships are essential
Positive family-educator partnerships are critical for children’s social, emotional and academic success and for maintaining equitable family engagement. It is educators’ / schools’ responsibility to honour custodial parent or caregiver efforts to communicate concerns, and schools should be bolstering engagement with school communities in culturally sensitive ways.
Parents and caregivers must be included by educators and schools as equal advocates for their child’s education. This is particularly critical for racialized parents and caregivers whose voices have been historically marginalized by the education system.
Reciprocity in communication builds community and belonging and sees parents or kin with custodial responsibilities as equal advocates in the education process. Additionally, if parents or caregivers notice an increase in their child’s level of anxiety, this should be brought to the educator’s attention so that they can discuss school-based and/or community-based resources and support options available.
Parents and caregivers are vital partners in education, and together, families and educators can ease back-to-school jitters and help make this an exciting and positive transition for children.
Kimberly Hillier receives funding from WE-SPARK Health Institute.