As I write this article, I am on vacation with my family. We still have 15 more days left of summer. Glorious summer. I love summertime with my children. Sure, there are moments of stress, the kids fighting with one another, the kids saying, “Mommmmm, I’m booooooored”, and me feeling frazzled juggling kids home more in the summer with my workload. But overall, I honestly can say I love having my kids home with me and as our final summervacation reaches its half-way point and the transition back to school is feeling more real, I feel a lot of complex and contradictory emotions.
Perhaps you can relate to this? And especially if your child is going into kindergarten, you- and your child- may be feeling many emotions right now. My kids are going into the 7th and 3rd grades; but I remember their first days of Kindergarten like it was just yesterday. I work with many clients with children ages 4-6 years old, who are in kindergarten. As a sleep consultant and child development specialist, I hear from clients for one of three reasons: (1) their child’s sleep has reached a point of such challenge that the family is seeking professional guidance; (2) their child’s behavior and emotions are so intense/ overwhelming/ unexpected for the parents that they don’t know how to react or respond; and they are seeking strategies; and/or (3) their child is going through a major transition and the family is unsure of what is developmentally-appropriate in terms of what to expect or how to support their child’s developmental needs. In the case of a child in kindergarten, it’s usually a combination of all three.
In addition to supporting families 1:1 via consultations, I also teach a number of online interactive workshops. One such course is Transitioning to K: Preparing and Supporting Your Child and Family. I am going to share my top takeaways from that course in this article. I hope it helps many families!
Takeaway #1: This is probably going to come as a surprise here, but the first thing I want you to think more about is YOU.
WHY is this my first point to consider? “It is important to tune in to and manage our feelings, because how we react in these moments deeply affects our children’s ability for self-regulation, self-control, and overall emotional health far into the future. Research (and real life) shows that when parents react with emotional intensity and harshly, children’s distress tends to escalate, and whatever the problem at hand, it is less likely to get resolved.” Before you can begin to support your child during this transition, you need to be mindful of your needs, your emotions, your worries and concerns.
Takeaway #2: Don’t underestimate the importance of PLAY in young children! In my groups, we delve into the world of development of children. In the K group we specifically focus on ages 4-6, and we discuss their gross and fine motor skills, their social-emotional changes, their cognitive growth. Children at this age change drastically; but unlike development in their earlier years which was very obvious physically, this time the majority of the changes is all internal. It is their understanding of the world and all it entails- other people, places, things, concepts they never thought much of before- that goes under radical shift during the end of preschool, throughout the kindergarten year, and into first grade. So much change is on the horizon! And throughout it all PLAY is going to be so important for your child. Through play, they will test out all their new skills. They will make mistakes. They will try again. They will learn. They will grow. During play is also when and how they may demonstrate to you that they are struggling with something, or express an emotional unmet need. Through play, you can support your child and navigate many of the challenges that arise at this age.
Takeaway #3: Kindergarten starts an exciting time in your child’s life when s/he begins to learn skills in all the areas that help her/him become a self-sufficient person. However, it is important to remember that each child will develop at her/his own pace. There are generalities and ranges of expected development; but each child’s unique temperament, strengths, and interests will influence development and learning styles. Please, please, please (I am actually begging and pleading with you here, as a child development specialist) do NOT forget this. Your child is their own unique person. Much of modern day education, especially in many public schools in the United States, wants to standardized and test everything; don’t let this craze overshadow the individuality, creativeness, and uniqueness of your child.
Takeaway #4: Coming back to PLAY: It is important- essential I might even argue- for young children to move their bodies when awake! Children’s brains learn throughout movement. Physical activity actually impacts how neurons form and activity that occurs in the prefrontal cortex. Physical activity also plays a role in a child’s ability to fall and stay asleep. Many parents reach out to me at the end of September/ early October (usually 4-6 weeks post the school year starting) to seek my support around a child who is having a hard time falling asleep. Often, once we add in more time to play in the evening, sleep initiation starts to become easier (now, this isn’t magic. This isn’t usually the only factor at play- ha, yes, pun intended; but don’t overlook the power of play and movement when it comes to many things, including learning and including sleep.).
Takeaway #5: The other #1 reason I see clients whose kindergartens are not sleeping as well as they once were, is related to the drastic change in the pace of their day once they are in kindergarten. Additionally, for many kids, this transition to school full time impacts the time they have with their parents. Young children seek connection. Relationships are evolving for children at this age. Sense of security is reliant on relationships with close adults. A child this age very much relies on "secure base" relationships with adults (parents, teachers) to feel secure and comfortable. Trust in these relationships is based on feeling understood and responded to in a regular and predictable way. The skills the child demonstrates in non-social areas (such as at school) often are dependent on feeling safe and secure with the adults present in that situation.
Takeaway #6: Your child at this age communicates needs and emotions to others under supportive and fairly positive situations; BUT may be explosive under stress or negative situations. I am going to share an image here to get my point across, because I think it is more powerful this way. You want to consider the 3 R’s (from the work of Bruce Perry) in how a child learns in school and learns to regulate emotions:
A child at this age can express feelings in some situations; although, she might need help and time to identify and talk about tricky emotions like frustration, anger, shame, or jealousy. So start first with “regulating” and then “relating”. You might see more patience, and your child might be open to reasoning with you once they feel emotionally heard and validated.
Takeaway #7: It is important to know that in order for our kindergartners to thrive academically at school and socially with their peers, they need emotional security with their caregivers. Part of the way we achieve emotional security is through supporting our child, not only in the good emotions, but the harder and negative ones as well. At this age, parents sometimes don’t know how to respond to crying. Know this: crying is often healthy and part of social and emotional development.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations and to handle frustration without an outburst. It is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings. Emotional self-regulation and cognitive self-regulation seem to have the same neural roots. This means as children grow older and their brains develop, they can increasingly take control of both their thinking and their feelings. As these neural roots are used again and again, the neural system will continue to develop, as with exercising a muscle. Conversely, if children do not systematically engage in self-regulatory behaviors at a young age, the corresponding brain areas may not develop to their full potential. The foundation created birth to age three will now become the groundwork for further development in the early elementary years.
Takeaway #8: Emotions drive behaviors. When a child is overwhelmed with emotions and/or in a deregulated state, behaviors tend to be more challenging or intense. The areas I find to be impacted the most are (1) nutrition/ picky eating (at school and at home), (2) concerns like hitting/ biting/ physical aggression and (3) sleep. I’ll dive in a little on each topic next; but please know, this is just an overview. There’s a lot I could say on each topic.
Takeaway #9: In terms of eating, it is common, especially at the beginning of the school year, for your child to be so distracted or on sensory-overload by the cafeteria environment that he may not eat a lot at lunch. For some of your children, this is the first time they are exposed to eating with other children. This can be beneficial, as they’ll be exposed to people eating different types of food; but sometimes habits you wish your child did not have, are picked up (playing with food, talking while eating, not staying in their seat, etc). For children buying lunch in K, they may be overwhelmed with the choices and end up not eating the foods you’d like them to. It is also common in many schools for lunch periods to unfortunately just not be long enough. Often children have less than 25 minutes for the entire lunch period- which developmentally isn’t an appropriate expectation for eating a meal for young children. But, it is what it is in most schools.
Takeaway #10: Some aggressive behavior is a normal part of emotional and behavioral development, and almost every child hits, kicks, and yells when he's overwhelmed by strong emotions. All young children occasionally have moments of aggression. But a child who has a more serious problem with aggression typically behaves in these ways:
Frequently loses his temper, getting intensely angry.
Is extremely irritable or impulsive.
Is frustrated easily and has a short attention span.
Physically attacks and fights other children or adults.
Is frequently disruptive, argumentative, or sullen.
Performs poorly in school or can't participate in organized group activities.
Has trouble taking part in social situations and making friends.
Argues or fights constantly with family members and inevitably resists parental authority.
Additionally, the child will act this way in more than one arena, such as home, school, and social events or athletic activities. Sometimes aggression can be a sign that there is something “more” and “deeper” going on. If your gut tells you that your child is struggling with more than communicating and regulating their emotions, read here.
Takeaway #11: The National Sleep Foundation recommends that school age children (ages 6-12) should get between 9-11 hours of nighttime sleep. Some children in this age range need 12 hours, and some (this is more rare) only need 7-8 hours. Children ages 4-5 need more sleep. NSF recommends 10-13 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. For some 4-5 year olds, this includes naps. For others, they get it all at night. Children ages 4-5 sometimes need 14-15 hours of sleep in a day; and on the other end of the spectrum (and more rare) is only needing 8-9 hours.
What can often be tricky in the Kindergarten year are the following:
You have a younger child (4-5) who still needs a nap and a nap isn’t an option at school;
Your child (no matter the age) needs more sleep than seems possible with the time you need to wake your child up in the morning to get to school on time, and/or the time you’re able to get him to bed at night.
Your child, due to emotional reasons/ anxiety/ fears, is having a really hard time falling asleep at bedtime, which shortens their nights;
Your child is an early riser, which shortens their nights;
Your child is experiencing night terrors or nightmares, which is leading to fragmented nighttime sleep.
Takeaway #12: You’re about to trust your child to a new school and teacher. This can feel really daunting, especially if your child is also taking public school transportation or is going to extended care before/ after school. There’s a lot of moving pieces and many other adults who are now a part of your child’s (almost daily) life. Positive parent- teacher interactions help everyone: parents, teachers, administrators, and most of all, our children! Good parent-school partnerships are one of the best ways to support children’s learning, development and wellbeing; and these partnerships have benefits for an educator and for parents too. Think back again to the first take-away I shared with you; and spend some time really reflecting on what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling about your child’s transition to kindergarten. Before you can establish positive relationships with the teachers and other caregivers in your child’s K life, and before you can support your child during this significant transition, it’s necessary to self-reflect.
I encourage you to do three things: (1) be informed on what to expect with this transition (hopefully this article has helped!); (2) make a plan for embedding unstructured, child-led play time and connection time with you in your child’s day; and (3) importantly, figure out what types of self-care, stress management, and support you need.
If my writing and recommendations resonate with you and you’d like to work with me further, you can reach me via the forms on my website. I also have a kindergarten workshop starting on August 27th if you’d like to join and dive deeper into all of these topics ad strategies to implement.
Teresa has nearly 20 years experience supporting parents prenatally through their child’s adolescence. She holds a MS in Child Development, a MPH in Maternal and Child Health, and various post-grad certificates and studies in the areas of postpartum moods, birth psychology, trauma-informed care, and adolescent sleep medicine. She is additionally trained as a sleep consultant, childbirth educator, and CPR instructor. Teresa has been a member of the APSC since 2014, and was a member of the leadership team as Director of Continuing Education from 2015-2018. She continues to mentor fellow sleep consultants and other professionals, as well as provide parent education and support through her practice Teresa Stewart: Family Solutions. Through her work, she also presents nationally at conferences. She is passionate about helping families support their children’s sleep in an integrative and holistic manner that also supports their emotional development and overall health. In addition to the sleep and development work she does, Teresa is passionate about education and also for advocacy for mental health needs. She currently serves on her town’s school committee as Chair, is a steering committee member of a local substance-abuse prevention coalition, is a founding coalition member of a mental health coalition, and is a member of a social-emotional learning task force for her school district. She is always reading, always writing, always learning. Compassion and integrity are critically important to her and she aims to instill these values in her two children as well. Her children are ages 8 and almost-thirteen. They are her motivation and significant reasons behind her career evolution over the years. Teresa strives to support, educate, and empower other parents. Parenting is hard work. She wants you to know you don’t need to do it alone.