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As a parent, it’s easy to think of the first day of school through a filter of nostalgia because you’re old and your memory is going. But for your kids, the start of an elementary education is fraught with anxiety-inducing questions like, “What exactly am I supposed to do for the next six hours?” and “Holy crap, why is that kid so much bigger than me?” School might be intellectually stimulating; it might also be socially complex and emotionally exhausting. Here are some tips on getting them to open up about their experiences, and how to respond if they’re struggling, from psychologist Dr. Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and other Everyday Hurts.
Ask Kids The Right Questions About School
“The mistake most dads make is, they’ll just ask ‘How was school?’ That prompts a one-word answer, so phrase the question – and have follow-ups – that foster discussion. ‘Tell me about school’ doesn’t let them get off with just one word. ‘How did you like the teacher?’, ‘Who did you sit next to?’, ‘What was the most fun part or the least fun part?’ Ask leading questions and paint the landscape so you have a sense of what they’re experiencing.
School might be intellectually stimulating; it might also be socially complex and emotionally exhausting.
Watch Body Language Carefully
“Look at your kid’s body language and their face. If they’re overwhelmed or uncomfortable, they might feel the need to hide that, so these aren’t the best questions to ask over the phone. Wait until you’re home so you can see how your kid responds.”
Normalize School, Propose Ideas, And Comfort Kids
“If you get the sense that they’re having a hard time, your job is to elicit the real experience and normalize whatever that experience is. What you don’t want is for your kids to feel bad about how they’re feeling. That leads to shame, and shame leads to clamming up. You’ll know if they come home excited, but if they don’t – and if they’re not excited to go the next day – pay attention.
You want them to know that they’re not alone in trying to figure it out; they’re not abandoned.
What a father should say when his kid isn’t excited is something like, ‘Look, it can take a while before you’re comfortable in school, so here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to check in every day and we’ll talk about how it went. If it didn’t go well, we’ll figure out together how to make it go better.’ You want them to know that they’re not alone in trying to figure it out; they’re not abandoned. You haven’t sent them off to these teachers who aren’t their parents. You’re still looking out for them. That’s comforting.”