How to Prep Your Kids for the First Day of School

My daughter is starting kindergarten this year and, for the most part, she’s excited to leave preschool behind and finally join the world of “big kids.” But a few weeks ago, out of the blue, she asked, “What if nobody wants to be my friend?” I did my best to reassure her, although her question reminded me of how difficult those first few weeks can be for kids. Whether your child is going to school for the first time or switching schools in a later grade, the experience of meeting new people, adapting to a new routine, and getting used to an unfamiliar setting is a lot for them to handle all at once. I talked to grade-school teachers, parents, and some “big kids” who’ve been there to get their best tips for easing first-day jitters.

SCOPE OUT THE PLACE

Try to visit a new school before classes begin to allow your child to get used to their new surroundings. When my friend Devon Kerslake moved her three boys across the country last year, she spent a lot of time visiting the school near the end of the summer. “We found that going to play at the playground or having a picnic in the school yard really helped the boys get ready and excited,” she says.

Mike Patriquin, a grade-school teacher and dad, says it’s worth poking your head inside the week before classes begin, because “chances are the principal or a teacher will be there and happy to show you around and take the time to answer any questions, which can be harder to do during the busy first couple of weeks of school.”

STOCK UP (ONLY) ON THE ESSENTIALS

Although you may think your kid is better prepared with a pencil case full of new things, it’s best not to go overboard right away. “Just bring the minimum on the first day: a pencil or two and an eraser,” says Patriquin. “Teachers will usually let you know exactly what the kids need, and it can be overwhelming for young kids—not to mention expensive—when they’re given a bunch of new supplies all at once.”

MAKE MEALTIME A TREAT

If your child will be bringing their own lunch to school, grade-school teacher Sallie Byer recommends young children practice opening and closing their own containers; they can be slow eaters, so if they have to wait for teachers or lunchroom staff to come around to help them get started, they may not make it through all their food before the bell. Plus, opening their own lunch box is an instant confidence-booster.

As for what’s on the menu, Patriquin has his eight-year-old daughter Evelyne help him make her school lunches. “I put a list of the veggies and fruit options on the fridge and get her to choose two, then help me cut them,” he says, “I find kids are less likely to refuse to eat what they find in their lunchbox if they’re the ones who packed it!” Another way to get kids excited about lunch is to start off the school year with a cool new lunch box or water bottle, says Kerslake, who lets her boys help pick out their own gear every August.

PREP AHEAD = LESS STRESS LATER

Kim McNairn, a mom of three, likes to set out all her kids’ lunches, bags, clothes, and shoes the night before. “I do absolutely everything I can ahead of time so it’s easier for the kids to get themselves ready, and then I can focus on getting myself ready without being distracted by a bunch of last-minute frantic searches for socks.”

Both parents and teachers agree that it’s also essential to label, clothing, bags, lunchboxes, and other items with your child’s name. Kerslake likes to get bigger kids involved in decorating their own stuff: “That way they take more ownership of their things,” she explains. They can also get creative using fabric pens, stickers, and other art supplies.

SYNC SLEEP SCHEDULES

If you’ve gotten into the habit of letting the kids stay up late during the summer, start moving bedtimes a little earlier each night. “I’m a big proponent of normalizing bedtime at least one to two weeks before school begins,” says Patriquin, since children have an easier time managing stressful, challenging situations when they’re well rested. He suggests parents also try to find out what time the kids will be eating snacks and lunches at school and mirror this schedule for a few weeks at home to help littler ones adapt to their new routine.

FIND COMMON GROUND

When it comes to making friends, most kids don’t struggle for long. According to third grader Evelyne, it’s all about finding a shared interest: “You should look and see what other kids are doing and try to join in. At our school, skipping rope is the top thing, and if you’re good, or if you bring a rope to school, you’ll get a bunch of friends for sure.”

And McNairn’s seven-year-old son Jacob had this kind advice for my daughter: “Don’t worry, there is always someone else who feels the same way as you at school. So it’s okay to be a little nervous about making new friends.”