My child is having trouble getting used to first grade. What can I do to help?

First grade is very different from kindergarten and preschool, with new demands, expectations and experiences. Parents and children look forward to first grade because it’s the beginning of “real school” and a sign of growing up. They also feel anxious and uncertain, however, and in the case of parents, nostalgic about the passing of the preschool years.

Some children are better prepared than others for the increased demands of first grade. Age is an important factor, since children sometimes aren’t developmentally ready for first grade until they’ve almost turned seven. Children just turning six at the beginning of first grade may not adjust as well as those with earlier birthdays.

A child’s adjustment is also affected by his home situation. If he has a new sibling, if his family has just moved, or if there’s tension between his parents, he may enter first grade feeling insecure or fearful. Any negative experience outside of school—including a bad time at summer camp—can interfere with his school performance.

On the positive side, he will have an easier time adjusting to first grade if he has friends in his class and if he has a warm and attentive teacher. A caring teacher knows that first graders arrive with varying academic skills, social skills, and experiences. She will patiently help her students get over their fears and hesitations and offer them support and encouragement.

Most kids feel better about first grade if they’re familiar with the school and the classroom. Ideally, kindergartners should be invited to their future first-grade classrooms to meet the teachers. If this doesn’t happen, parents can prepare their child by talking about first grade and encouraging him to ask questions.

Once first grade starts, some kids say, “I love school!” and go off happily each day. Others have a hard time getting along. They may be unhappy and hesitant, or they may resist going. They may feel insecure if other students seem able to read and write. They’ll feel inferior if they’ve been placed in the low reading group. Although parents want to be sympathetic, many get angry and frustrated with their child’s complaints about going to school: “Why can’t he just be like the other kids?”

You may find yourself intolerant of your child’s attitude if you feel guilty or embarrassed. But if you lose patience and pressure your child to do well in school, such pressure puts him in a bind. He wants to please you, yet he can’t fully control his feelings and actions. Often, if you are understanding and supportive for the first few weeks of school, your first grader will get over his initial anxiety.

If your child is having trouble adjusting to first grade, there are many ways to help. First, stay in close contact with the teacher. She may give you a fuller picture of his behavior. While you see him go off hesitantly, she may see him joining in class activities and getting along with other children. Even the most reluctant first-graders have good periods during the day. They feel sad or lonely sometimes, but at other times they’re fine.

Help him connect with another child who rides the same school bus. Consider telling the bus driver or the parents you carpool with about your child’s reluctance to go to school. If you usually drive him yourself, consider asking another parent to give him a ride in the morning. Some kids have an easier time separating if they aren’t with their parents during the moments before school starts. Your child may be entertained or distracted if he goes to school with another family.

Try giving him a “love note” to carry in his pocket or offer a reward at the end of the day. It can be a small toy or sweet treat for entering school with a smile and not crying during the day.

If he’s having trouble making friends, encourage him to invite classmates to your house and talk about other ways of getting to know kids. Having him join a club or after-school activity will help him meet others and feel more connected to the school.

You may have success with role-playing games. Suggest that you and he play school – you’ll be the student and he’ll be the parent. Use real situations that come up in first grade. Have the “student” cry in class and ask the “parent” what to do. You may be surprised at the good suggestions your child comes up with. He may say, “Call your friend and ask him to go to school with you.” Role playing can be therapeutic for him, and it can offer you insights into his difficulties. If you’re having success with this approach, try it once a day for a week or so. For your story themes, choose adjustment to school, sadness about leaving home, schoolwork, and other topics that seem to bother him.

If after several weeks, you see no improvement in his attitude toward first grade, talk to the school counselor or principal and ask her to observe him in the classroom. Perhaps she can suggest some solutions. In addition, consider his readiness for first grade. Does his social and emotional development seem slower than that of his classmates? Does he seem too young for first grade? Is the classroom atmosphere appropriate for him? Are the teachers’ expectations realistic? Even if he’s not quite ready for the demands of first grade, it’s likely that he’ll adjust as long as you continue to be patient, offer help with his work, and seek support from the school.

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