It was February of last year.
February 3rd, to be exact. I was looking at my son’s picture on my office wall it hit me – he’d be starting kindergarten in the fall. I began counting the months backward…hmmm…kindergarten will start in September, but the kids let out in June, so open houses will probably be sometime in May and registration will be March/April timeframe. Incredibly proud of myself, I picked up the phone to get the exact date in March that I’d need to register Conlan for school. I was more than a month early. I imagined they probably gave out awards for parents as organized as myself.
‘Hello, <school name>, how can I help you?’
‘Yes, my son will be starting kindergarten in the fall. I just wanted to know when registration will begin so I can be prepared.’
‘Oh, kindergarten registration started two weeks ago.’
That’s right, folks. Mid-January. I was already late.
Though I obviously had things to learn about how to navigate this new, unfamiliar system, I had zero concerns about my son actually starting school. After all, he had been in five-day-per-week preschool for two full years, received glowing reports from his teachers, passed the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment with flying colors, and absolutely loved school. The kid was good to go.
And then the school year began. My son hopped on that bus and came back home happy. It was just as I had expected.
Until the next day, when he came home grumpy. By the end of the first week he was complaining he was sick and wanted to stay home. By the second week he had faked a stomachache so he could sit in the nurse’s office instead of going outside to recess.
Things were not going well, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He couldn’t identify any specific reasons that he wasn’t happy. It was clear that Conlan needed our help, but neither of us could figure out what that help needed to look like.
After about a month of living with a forlorn little boy, he turned a corner. His happy little persona returned and things went back to normal. But the whole unexpected experience really rocked our little family, and I committed myself to sharing the surprises we encountered so other mamas might be more prepared for the transition.
My Top Kindergarten Surprises
- There are a lot of kids and it can be overwhelming. If you send your child to public school, there will be 24 little 5-year-olds and one teacher. The classroom is bustling, and for children that are a little more timid, introverted, or prefer slow and peaceful environments, figuring out where they “belong” in the flurry of activity can be exhausting and difficult. This is just something my son had to figure out on his own and I just made sure he had plenty of quiet and calm time at home.
- There is homework. For some reason I always thought that homework started in first grade. It doesn’t. Conlan has at least 30 minutes per night, if not more, so we needed to find ways to fit that into our family’s evening routine.
- Kids’ play time is greatly reduced. There’s a lot of academic stuff to do in kindergarten; to fit it all in there’s very little recess time. My son’s school doesn’t even have PE and the kindergarteners eat lunch in their classrooms so it’s easy to for them to get anxious, antsy and feel really confined. After the first week Conlan cried to me, “Mommy, I never get to PLAY anymore!” I’ve tried to be mindful of this and make sure I build in more free-play time during his week so he can just be a kid.
- The play time they do have is more crowded. Schools have a lot of kids these days, and while I knew that kindergarten was going to be different than preschool, I never thought of some of the details. Like this one: the little kids have recess with sixth graders and the playground is busy like you wouldn’t believe. At the beginning of the year, while he was still getting his bearings and meeting new friends, Conlan would complain that he’d play with friends on the playground but then he’d lose them because it was so crowded. I did a lot of coaching from home, trying to help him muster the courage to ask other kids to play.
- Your child will need to adjust to a different level of feedback. In preschool, with somewhere around ten other kids, Conlan got all the attention and praise he wanted. Then in kindergarten, because he’s a pretty good self-manager and rule-follower, when the teacher gave instructions or assignments, he did them. He didn’t need specific guidance so he didn’t get the individual attention he was accustomed to. For awhile, he felt lost and ignored – and a little invisible. We tried to compensate at home by making a big deal of the work he did and giving him lots of feedback until he adjusted.
- You’ll feel less connected to your child than ever. When Conlan was in preschool I knew his teachers well and I knew all his friends; I saw them twice every day. But in kindergarten, it’s different. I put my son on the bus and he goes off to a world that I learn about only by a curriculum night, one parent-teacher conference, and the occasional note that comes home.
- They might need you more. Honestly, I thought I was coasting into the easy school-age years, leaving the trenches of little-kid-ness and looking forward to the reprieve of parenting intensity until the teenage years that we all hear about. But after the new, busy, overwhelming, and intense experience that kindergarten was for him, my boy would come home and crawl into my lap and just sit. He needed to be close to something familiar; he needed an anchor. So even though I thought my son was heading off to the independence of kindergarten and needed me less, the opposite proved true. He needed me more.
None of these things are insurmountable or have anything to do with the quality of instruction. God bless her, my son’s teacher maintains order and somehow manages to teach 24 children all sorts of things. I don’t know how she does it. But no matter how amazing the teacher, it’s going to be a tough transition for some kids. Kindergarten is a big deal. Which brings me to my final point
8. It’s more academic than you think. My son is doing book reports and keeping a journal. Let that sink in. It’s kind of awesome when you realize just how much they learn.
Kindergarten has been eye-opening and it’s been so fun to watch my son’s reading and writing skills develop, but the beginning wasn’t easy. Find your support as you walk through the transition. For myself, I blogged about our experience, I ranted on Facebook, I talked to my friends, and I sobbed to my husband. But the one thing I never did was speak poorly of kindergarten in front of my son, or let him know how much his experience was breaking my heart. And aside from one polite email to his teacher (“From our end it looks like Conlan is struggling to adjust to kindergarten, but I know what we see at home isn’t always what really happens in the classroom. What are your impressions?”), I also never bothered her with my issues. I was determined not to be that mom and resolved to only bring things to her that were concrete; what we had were just normal transitional struggles.
Now, I’ve had plenty of friends whose kids started school without a hiccup, and my intention is not to scare you or tell you that your experience will mirror mine, but I just want to make you aware that the transition might be more challenging than you expect. And if you are faced with these challenges, knowing that your child isn’t the only one who’s gone through it might make it easier for you.
When looking ahead to kindergarten, there’s more to prepare than just your child. You need to prepare yourself.
Oh, and you need to call the school and register, because registration probably started last week.