From kindergarten to first and from elementary to middle school: What to watch for and how to make a smooth transition

by Jenny Mathews


Transition anxiety is common in all ages, but presents differently in children and teens. Learning how to manage these transitions can be tricky. When my eldest child began kindergarten, he had some mild separation anxiety that lessened as the weeks went on and he became lost in the wonderland of playmates, arts and crafts, recess and story time. Kindergarten is a place where children dip their chubby little toes into the lukewarm waters of the education system that some day may feel less like a romp in the splash pool and more like a long distance swim! The transition from kinder to first grade was another matter. All of a sudden he had tummy aches every day and wanted to stop riding the bus. It was a similar situation with my second son. Last year my oldest started middle school and we saw new symptoms of anxiety like perspiration, headaches and poor sleep.

Here are a few tips for dealing with tough school transitions:

  1.  Prepare for it. Even if you don’t anticipate any issues with your “absolutely perfect” child, prepare for the worst. Make sure he/she is aware of some of the differences between what they’re used to and what they’re about to experience. For example, for soon-to-be first grader, play “lunch room” with them. Give them a tray and a pretend lunch card. Wear a good old’ fashioned hair net and smile widely at them as they pick their milk flavor and receive your delicious casserole! If your school’s lunchroom rule is No Talking, help them practice eating quietly while you explain why the rule is in place. For a middle school-er, go over their schedule with them and make sure they know between which classes they may have to hurry a little in order to avoid tardiness. Help them memorize and practice using their locker combination. There’s a whole new set of expectations for a middle school-er. Without causing more anxiety than is necessary, prepare your child by explaining that they will need to be more grown up in middle school- taking accountability for managing their time and the higher expectations for self motivation. Let them know you will be there for them with whatever help they may need.
  2. Routine. For a child, knowing what to expect next is half the battle. Create predictability in their life by sticking to a routine. Knowing who will help with breakfast, take them to school and pick them up is a great beginning. Consider an after school routine of snacks and snuggles. Practicing psychologist Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD in “Psychology Today” explains that “cuddles stimulate oxytocin (which) soothes the anxiety system.” A nightly routine of going over homework, and looking at the menu or preparing the next day’s lunch can also help a child or adolescent rest assured they are prepared for the coming school day. Give yourself enough time in the mornings to see them off right and ready for the day’s adventures.
  3.  Recognize and Respond appropriately to the symptoms. Especially at the beginning of the school year, recognize that certain problems or behaviors may be symptoms of transition anxiety. Tantrums, fatigue, chest pain, tummy aches, headaches, distraction, even whining and uncooperativeness are all common symptoms. You know your child best. If he/she is an active child, perhaps arranging for some physical activity after or before school would help- like walking the dog, mowing the lawn, jumping on the trampoline or riding their bike. Exercise has been a proven way to reduce stress and anxiety. If your child is more introverted, allow them 30 minutes of reading, TV or video game time after school. Be sure and set a timer and stick to the time limit so as to avoid wasting too much time. Fatigue can be caused by poor sleep habits, and diet as well as anxiety. Adjusting your child’s bedtime and diet may also help a lot.
  4.  Stay positive and Involved. One way to encourage a positive attitude is to develop a positive outlook. Each day, have your child recount at least one great thing that happened that day.   Julia Layton from, says that, “One of the best ways to help your child succeed –in any grade- is to communicate with the teacher, staying aware of what’s going on in class and how your child is progressing.”

Even just reading this article means you’re invested in your child’s success. Continue to be involved in helping your child navigate their unique challenges and they’ll know where to turn if despite all our best efforts, they may need some additional help via the school counselor or a child psychologist.