08/27/2013 03:22 EDT | Updated 10/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Practising tasks, discussing routines help ease first-day jitters for young kids

TORONTO - Before her eldest son, Aidan, started kindergarten, Gwen Floyd made an extra effort to help the youngster adjust to his new surroundings prior to setting foot in class.

"I brought him to the school to play on their playground equipment a few times before we went, just to get him used to the school grounds," recalled the Vancouver mother behind the blog Left Coast Mama.

"I also tried to have him in a couple of full-day camps at the local community centre so that he was used to having a longer day. Both of those things really helped."

Now starting Grade 3, eight-year-old Aidan will have familiar company at his French immersion school when classes resume as his younger brother, Quinlan, enters kindergarten.

Floyd has employed similar techniques to help her four-year-old make the transition, like having him attend full-day camp in July. She's also having Quinlan practise the correct pencil grip and ensuring he can complete certain tasks independently, like zipping up his jacket.

"We spend a lot of time talking about what kindergarten expectations are," said Floyd. "He'll have to make sure he can stay still just a little bit longer than he did in pre-school because there's not quite as much outside time."

Andrea Firmani is also working to help her four-year-old son Ben cement his skills in completing key tasks on his own ahead of starting full-day school.

"I started packing a lunch in the lunchbox that's going to kindergarten and all the containers," said Firmani, a Vancouver-based labour and delivery nurse.

"We've been sitting outside and just having lunch like a picnic and him practising how to open everything. So then I can see what he can do, what he can't do and try, and try to get him to be able to be more independent."

Practising lunchtime routines and getting dressed independently are among the tips for kindergarten readiness shared by her sister, Sarah McGregor, also highlighted in a guest post on Firmani's blog, Mama in the City.

"Even just things like hanging up their own coat and being able to find their name on their cubby ... it builds their independence and it just makes things run smoothly for the classroom and helps the teacher," said Victoria-based McGregor, entering her third year teaching full-day kindergarten.

While many children may be primed to start elementary school, some may feel jitters about parting ways with their parents or facing longer stretches in class among unfamiliar faces.

Introducing the child to their teacher or the classroom before the first day may be helpful for kids feeling apprehensive, said Rachel Langford, director of the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Parents may also consider verbalizing new school routines in detail to their child, like the route they'll be taking and what will happen when they arrive, she added.

Another strategy to help ease anxiety is to give the child something of value as a keepsake while at school, such as a family photograph.

"Sometimes that's the fear — that they're going to be left there," Langford said. "An opportunity to have something that they hold onto and they give back at the end of the day is sometimes very reassuring for children.

"I think sometimes preparing them with the step-by-step routine and taking their concerns seriously, not ever minimizing it, being extremely encouraging that they will be able to adapt."

McGregor said her son, now five, was loving kindergarten by the time October came around. But in the summer leading up to starting school, he had started showing signs of anxiety. To help soothe his nerves, they would read a lot of books, practised "playing school" and would go visit the school itself.

"We would just talk about how great it was going to be," McGregor recalled. "The teacher was great the first day... but tears would come a little bit later. More about leaving me."

While there were some "hard mornings" in the early days as he settled in, McGregor said knowing the teacher had the situation under control was a great comfort. But from her own first-hand experience as an educator, she acknowledged the transition can be more challenging for some kids than others.

"This is supposed to be a good experience, so if there is a child that is just melting down on the floor, and the parent is just thinking 'Oh, my God.' If that means that maybe that child is just going to have to try again tomorrow, that's fine," said McGregor, who has been a teacher for more than a decade.

"For most parents that see their child in tears, just reassuring (them): 'They will be fine.' And it's true. For the majority of children, they will be fine."

As kids prepare to immerse themselves in a new environment, McGregor said it's important parents ensure stability in existing routines, such as family dinners and bedtimes. And while adults may want to try out a new entree at dinnertime, it's best to steer clear of experimentation with school lunches and instead stick to simple meals and foods they know kids will enjoy, she added.

"I really recommend to parents — and really depending on their kids — this isn't the time to put them in three different sport teams and after-school piano lessons," McGregor said. "You might just want to hold off, especially the first six weeks. Those are the hardest."



Left Coast Mama:

Mama in the City:

Sarah McGregor's Top 10 List for Getting Ready for Kindergarten: