Harvard Health Publications

12 ways to help a child make the transition to kindergarten

Posted By Anne Densmore, Ed.D. On August 16, 2013

During the summer, I take much of my speech-language therapy practice out of the classroom and office and move it to summer camp. It can be a treat to help preschoolers develop language and social skills with their peers outside on warm summer days.

Around late July, my preschoolers who are heading to kindergarten often need some extra attention. Kids are pretty smart about these transitions and sense the unpredictability of going to a new classroom. They wonder about making new friends and getting used to a new teacher—will they be able to find the bathroom, where will they eat snack, how will they fit in?

Some children, like 5-year-old Kara, are very direct about expressing their fears. One day she climbed out of her kayak and dashed across the dock to greet me. She crossed her arms across her chest, stood in front of me with a wide stance, and said, “Ann, I’m so scared. I have to go to kindergarten soon!” (You can read the entire conversation with Kara below.)

Other children aren’t quite as direct about their worries. Another one of my rising kindergartners dumped a bucket of water on my head (I was not dressed for swimming). I knew his behavior wasn’t because he was in the mood for a good prank, but rather because he had something he wanted to talk about and wanted my full attention. The topic was going to kindergarten.

If you have a child headed to kindergarten in September, here are some ways you can help ease the transition.

  1. Try to do some play therapy at home. Small figures, stuffed animals, or puppets will do. Have your “actors” experience a transition to a new place. Don’t forget to “act out” coping strategies, for example, “Mr. Elephant feels scared. So what can he do? Maybe he could tell his teacher!”
  2. Talk about the transition to your child in a positive way and try not to let your own anxiety about the change show too much.
  3. Visit the school as soon as you can this summer. If your school offers visiting days, do your best to have your child attend. If your child’s kindergarten provides a daily schedule of activities ahead of time, go over it with your son or daughter. Take photos of the school, the classroom, and the new teacher, if possible.
  4. See if you can find out some of your child’s new classmates, and set up a play date. Some schools offer late summer playground dates for incoming kindergarteners.
  5. Role play as much as you can (dramatic play is very important to help preschoolers learn how to accept change and how to begin new roles).
  6. Tell your child how you felt when you had to go to kindergarten—and what made you feel better and how it turned out okay (that is if you can remember!)
  7. Ask your child’s siblings to tell her/him about their experience.
  8. Remind your child “It’s okay to be afraid. But, you’ll feel better each day that you’re there. Lots of kids feel just like you do.” It can be tempting to try to brush off a child’s fear (after all, you know it will be okay). Instead try to acknowledge your child’s fear as real and appropriate while offering reassurance.
  9. Preschoolers need to feel that their parents believe how they feel is true.
  10. Give your child time to talk to you about their fears.
  11. With your child, write a story about his or her first day at kindergarten (with your child as the main character!) Include logistics, feelings, etc.
  12. Read to your child about starting kindergarten. Some good choices are The Night Before Kindergarten (Reading Railroad Books) Paperback, by illustrators Natasha Wing and Julie Durrel; Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, written by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff; Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis; Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come! by Nancy Carlson; and I Am Too Absolutely Small for School (Charlie and Lola), by Lauren Child.

Talking with Kara about starting kindergarten

One of the camps I work with is in a large wooded area with tall trees, a lake and a boat dock. Kara, a 5-year-old, climbed out of her kayak, and dashed across the dock to greet me. She crossed her arms across her chest, stood in front of me with a wide stance, and said, “Ann, I’m so scared. I have to go to kindergarten soon!”

I told her, “I know it’s so hard at first, but it gets better!”

She looked down at the ground and then around at her camp friends, looking for support. One friend offered an idea, “Why don’t we have a longer summer?”

I said, “Well, I’d love to spend more time swimming at the pond, but in the fall we all have to go to work to learn.”

Kara, spun around and said, “Ann, I just can’t go. I won’t have my friends there. I miss my preschool teacher!”

I responded, “Have you met your new teacher, yet?”

Kara, looking down again answered in a small voice, “No.”

I asked, “Why don’t you ask your mom if you can visit your new school and meet that teacher before school starts? Some schools let kindergarteners do that.”

Kara, “Okay. Maybe. But, I’m still scared.”

I asked, “What scares you the most?”

Kara whispered, “I don’t know what it’s like. Will I get to play a lot? Do I have to do a lot of work? What if I can’t do the work? I can’t read yet, and a ton of my friends can read!”

I asked, “Kindergarten is a place where lots of kids learn to read. It’s okay.”

Kara snapped back, “Oh, yeah, but they’ll know I can’t read. Well, I can read a little, a few words, like “cat” and “bat”, but I can’t REALLY read, like a whole book!”

I suggested, “What if your mom got some of the classroom books to read to you at the end of summer?”

Kara, “Yes. That would be good.”

I asked, “Have you seen your classroom, yet? That will help you think about what your new school will be like.”

Kara whispered again, “Okay. I’ll ask my mom. But, what if the school says no?”

I responded, “They might, but you can at least try!”

Kara paused, looked at me, and announced, “Okay, but I might cry!”

I answered, “It’s okay to cry and feel lost at first. It’s okay.”

Kara snapped again, “No! It’s not. I have to be ‘grown up’ now and I don’t want to.”

I tapped her shoulder and said, “I think you are a little grown up already. You can talk about how you feel. That’s good. You can tell your teachers and parents how you feel.”

Kara crouched down to the dock and sat “criss-cross, applesauce.” She rested her arms on her kayak paddle. I sat down near her and put my hand on the paddle. We looked at the water and watched the boats move and bump the dock. When they hit, we moved a little, too. I waited until she spoke.

She whispered, “Will you visit me in kindergarten?”

“Yes and I can’t wait to hear all about it!” I answered.

Kara smiled.

Related Information: Your Successful Preschooler

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