Easing Into Elementary School: Tips from a Principal
Routine, reassurance and relationships are the crucial three Rs, says Drew Elementary Principal Tracy Gaither.
The first day of school comes with all the emotions for students of any age, but elementary school can be particularly scary for little ones. For kindergartners, it may be their first time they’re in a classroom. Luckily, there are ways to prepare.
For tips on how students and their caregivers can navigate kindergarten through fifth grades (some elementary schools in Fairfax County continue through sixth), we spoke with Tracy Gaither, a 30-year veteran of elementary education and principal for three years at Arlington’s Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School.
Starting kindergarten is a big deal. How can parents and caregivers help kids feel great about their very first day of school?
It’s really important that we recognize there is a level of anxiety—there is a feeling that may come out in different ways. Confirm that their feelings are OK, that what they’re feeling is natural. Help them think about a time when they did something that was different and new and how it made them feel to get through it. They’re coming into a new space, learning new things, meeting new friends, and so it’s important to acknowledge that it is going to be an exciting time and they are going to experience a lot of growth this year. Maybe set one goal that they want to look forward to throughout the year. Maybe it’s “I just want to meet a friend” or “I want to learn how to count to 100” or “I want to learn all of my ABCs.” Set that goal and encourage them every day that things are going to get better, and it’s going to be a wonderful experience for them.
Any tips on how to prepare students on the home front?
Start stablishing routines. That’s really important. They may need some downtime to reflect on the day and decompress, so have a location where they know they can go to and relax. Establish routines as far as bedtime. That’s a big one for me. Make sure children are getting enough sleep so that they are not tired, because it is going to be a lot mentally for them—especially kindergarteners as they’re making the transition into kindergarten. I’m a big advocate of nutrition, too. I think having healthy snacks and meals available will also help with them making that transition. It has a positive effect on the body and how the body reacts to different types of stress that students may experience.
How can students in any grade transition from summer to school mindsets?
Before the first day of school, go school supply shopping. That to me was the end of summer and the beginning of the school year–getting my school supplies. For some of our older students who have homework, designate a place where they can go to really focus on their schoolwork. Have everything that they need there so that they can focus that structured time to be able to complete that work.
What books would you recommend to help with the transition?
- Mo Willems’ The Pigeon HAS to Go to School (Pre-K-1)
- Adam Rex’s newer book, School’s First Day of School (Grades K-2)
- Connie Schofield-Morrison’s I Got the School Spirit (Grades 2-5)
- Dan Gutman’s Back to School, Weird Kids Rule! (Grades 3-5)
I think literature is important. It’s a time when you are connecting with your child because you’re reading together. Use that story to prepare them for entering school and what it’s going to be like. Once they are in school, you can always go back to that story and use it as a reference as to how that character overcame the anxiety that they were feeling or those first-day jitters or what it’s like to be in a new learning environment.
In elementary school, there’s a lot of interaction between parents/caregivers and teachers. What are ways to foster that?
Arlington Public Schools will be having an open house. I recommend families attend, if possible, because that will allow students to come into the school environment with someone that they trust to see their classmates and new classroom. Definitely make that connection during that time. Also, I like when parents write letters to teachers to tell them about their child. It gives them insight into the child’s strengths and some areas of work. Make that connection with the teacher and let them know that they are partners in the child’s education.
What’s your main goal for students this year?
My main goal is for students to feel as though school is a place where they can be safe and that they belong. Once students feel safe and like they belong, they will achieve academically at high-performing rates. It’s important, especially in elementary school, because this is really the foundation. We want to make sure as elementary school educators that we are providing a safe, positive, rigorous learning environment for our students so they can do well in middle school, in high school and beyond.