First Day of School: What Parents, Teachers Should Know

The first day of school is traditionally about creating routines and reestablishing the classroom community, but there is little that is routine or established about this year's start.

Many students and teachers nationwide spent the last year communicating via screen, rather than in a school setting. For children in early grades, it has been a long time since they have experienced the structure and interaction of in-person school. For younger children, this year may be the first time ever that they have been asked to spend hours in a classroom.

"The whole experience is very fraught because of the pandemic," Alissa Doobay, a psychologist and supervisor of psychological services at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education & Talent Development at the University of Iowa, wrote in an email.

How Parents Can Help

The fraught nature of the return to school is tied, in part, to the ongoing political conversation over the coronavirus pandemic. Doobay says students may feel "stuck in the middle" of an emotional debate among parents, teachers and policymakers about mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccines.

As families prepare children for school, they should have a conversation about what students may see -- some kids in face masks, some having trouble with their masks and some wearing none -- and how that makes them feel, she says. Districts with a mask mandate could "make things easier on children" by homogenizing the experience.

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"Without there being a choice for the kids, it might be less ambiguous," she says

Patience Is Important

The nature of academics will also be very different from the remote style of learning that students and teachers experienced in the last year. "Students will be expected to focus for longer periods than when they were doing remote school," Doobay says.

E.V. Downey, a Washington D.C.-based education consultant, agrees. "They have spent a good portion of their lives in environments in which they do not learn how to be in a group, how to follow group instructions and how to handle themselves socially and emotionally outside of their homes," she wrote in an email. "We are all underestimating how hard this will be for the students and teachers as the school year begins."

Doobay and Downey both warn that teachers and parents need to exercise patience when dealing with the first day of school this year. Kids may be more irritable and anxious. They may be scared of COVID-19, after a year of being told they are staying home to avoid getting sick or spreading the virus.

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Parents and teachers may want to emphasize the opportunities that come with the first day of school, and how, more than a year into the pandemic, schools are now far better prepared to keep students safe. But some caution against too much emphasis on pandemic matters beyond the essentials.

"While adults need to consider each child's unique needs and set of concerns going into the first day of school, generally, they should not make a bigger deal out of pandemic-related items than is necessary," Carey A. Heller, a licensed psychologist in Maryland who specializes in executive function issues, wrote in an email. "Trying to normalize the school year as much as possible, especially if your child does not seem to have any specific concerns, may be best."

First Day of School Tips for Parents

There are many things that parents can do to help children prepare for the first day of school. Here are some examples:

-- Involve children in preparations to help them get invested. Take them shopping for clothes and supplies.

-- Read books about the excitement that comes with being in a classroom, such as "Oh the Places You'll Go!" or "Miss Nelson is Missing." Doing so can help students imagine what to expect. Parents can also recall their own experiences.

-- Create a countdown activity that can help children get excited. One suggestion: Make a paper chain and tear a link off the chain each day, asking the child to name something he or she is looking forward to about school.

-- Start new morning, after-school and evening routines that facilitate school as early as possible. "This allows mornings to be calmer, so the child can be as relaxed as possible heading out to school," Heller says. "In addition, knowing their after-school schedule gives them a sense of certainty to offset all of the unknowns with the new school year. Furthermore, a good evening routine helps a child to wind down and get to bed in time to get sufficient sleep. This can lead to a better morning."

-- Meet the teacher before the first day of school, even if via email. Ask what the routine will be for the first week. Parents can also ask what they need to bring, such as health forms, immunization cards, snacks or extra clothes. Share the routine with the child, what the expectations will be and how he or she should behave.

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First Day of School Tips for Teachers

The first day of school is when teachers typically lay out classroom rules, schedules and expectations, but making sure children feel comfortable and safe as they reenter in-person learning is also important.

"It is definitely essential for teachers to put students at ease on the first day," Heller says. "Trying to do so as they would normally at the start of the school year is ideal. Some focus on pandemic-related items could be helpful, but picking a delicate balance in terms of how much to focus on these things is important so that it does not end up causing some students to experience greater anxiety."

Here are some suggestions:

-- Provide a seating chart with photos, so children know where they should be, and explain the classroom and how each area is used. Heller says that "a greater focus on helping students get to know each other" may also be helpful.

-- Post the schedule prominently and explain it. Providing basic information about how the day will unfold and what they will be doing can help reduce anxiety.

-- Be mindful that some students may still be learning from home and that activities should facilitate inclusion. For example, a scavenger hunt may be a great idea, but it would exclude a child who is forced to quarantine from participating. Try to keep remote learners connected to the classroom community

-- Question-and-answer time is always an important feature on the first day of school. Try to promote a more natural verbal volley than was possible in a virtual setting and to promote the spontaneous connections and relationships that come with in-person learning. A good discussion sparked by student curiosity will start the year off right.

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Holly Rosenkrantz is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and editor. She is a former White House correspondent and labor and workplace reporter and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, Bloomberg News and Reuters. Rosenkrantz holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.