Supporting Children through School Transitions

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Episode 61│Supporting Children through School Transitions

Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2022

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Show Notes

Deborah Farmer Kris

School transitions can be hard—and not just for the kids, but for parents, too! Our guest, child development expert and author, Deborah Farmer-Kris, has tips for making school transitions a little smoother. Whether your child is struggling to get out the door in the morning, experiencing anxiety in the classroom or melting down when they get home, Deborah has advice to ease your back-to-school transition.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I am Helen Westmoreland. Your co-host flying solo today, but very excited to introduce you to our new co-host soon. Today, we're talking about a topic I know is close to many people's hearts, navigating school transitions. So, this is personally important to me, because last month my daughter started pre-K and we are finally in a good groove, but last summer, when we tried to transition her to daycare, the first time, things did not go so well, navigating school transitions is also a timely topic to folks, as we head back to school. Starting a new school, or even just a new grade can be challenging, not just for kids, but for parents too. I am so glad that we have child development expert Deborah Farmer-Kris, to talk with us today.

Deborah is not only a child development expert, she is also the founder of Parenthood 365 and is a parenting columnist for PBS kids. She is also the author of the “All the Time” picture book series. Her work has also been featured in the Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine and Oprah Daily. Deborah has taught almost every grade and been a school administrator and she and her husband live in Massachusetts with their two children.

Welcome, Deborah. Thank you for joining us.

Deborah Farmer-Kris: Thank you so much for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: It is wonderful to be here with you. So, we'd love to just start off by hearing a little bit more about yourself and what got you interested in this line of work?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: I became a teacher right out of college. I had majored in elementary education, but my first job was actually teaching middle school. And you wanna talk about school transitions, there's nothing like the middle school. Every transition is happening. I end up being an administrator for a while at a K-8 school. I have taught middle and high school helped with college admissions and I've been doing my book tour in preschool.

So I’ve seen the range, and what I love about that is if there's anything I know about parenting, it's the long game. And one of the things I love about having taught every age is that you can see this growth and the things that feel like crises. It's that reminder that if you go up to 30,000 feet every single thing we throw into kids isn't wasted and every stage does pass, eventually. So if you're in the midst of either potty training or really moody tweens, no stage last forever.

Helen Westmoreland: That is the best advice. So let's dive in, obviously at the top of the episode you heard I've got a four year old, so I'd love to start actually with the little ones. What tips do you have for children that are starting school for the very first time and what should parents do to prepare them for that?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: I always go back to Fred Rogers, who really is kind of my parenting guru and what he was so brilliant at doing was breaking down kids' worries into small bite size bits. And one of the things that he said was that when children know ahead of time, what's going to happen, they can prepare themselves and get used to their feelings about it. So one of the things before kids start school, this is good for four-year-olds or even 14-year-olds, is to just make sure in really concrete terms, you're talking about what to expect the names of their teachers. How they're going to get to school, what the lunch line looks like, if they're having a lunch line, who's picking them up. It's those little details. Sometimes we are worried globally about will they make friends and what will they learn? But often the thing that's worrying, our kids is really like, where do I sit on the bus?

What do those things look like? And so the more you can pull those books from the library. Every public library right now has their display of back to school books, grab a couple of them, read it through, see what their questions are and just start talking through what the morning routine's going to look like, because the more they know, the more that they can prepare themselves, because there will be unexpected things at school.

So if they know that, oh, my teacher's name is blank. That's one less thing they have to worry about when they're entering in, because change is inherently stressful, even really good change because stress is our body's defense mechanism when things are novel or challenging. And so we go on alert, it's designed actually to protect us. So when kids are entering a new environment, It is going to trigger stress. That doesn't mean that it's a negative, or if they come home crying, that they've had the worst day in the world, it's that their body may be letting down from the stress response. So it does take time to acclimate. One of the best things I've ever heard was from a kindergarten teacher that I just love, who always tells parents that it takes about six weeks for kids to fully adjust to being in school.

Some may do it faster, some a little bit longer, but she's been doing this for 30 years and she knows they're gonna be a lot of tantrums when they get home those first six weeks, because they've been trying so hard to get everything right and hold it together. And you're their safe space and they're gonna come home and melt down and our mama bears and papa bears are gonna come out and say, oh no, what's happening at school, but school may be doing great. But they may come home and just be exhausted and hangry and ready for that afternoon nap, they didn't get and ready for that downtime. So be prepared for some extra emotions initially and if you are prepared, then you can stay calm and be that calm in their storm.

Helen Westmoreland: Hmm. Oh, that's great advice. Especially the part about like breaking it down into their worries. I found out with my daughter, what she was really worried about was being the first one and the only kid in class, like before everybody else got there, that was like her thing. And you're right. like if you can ask them, what is it that you're worried about? How can we talk about it? It helps.

Deborah Farmer-Kris: Yeah. I was subbing years ago in a kindergarten class and I put the schedule on the board and I was all ready to go. And two kids walked into class and burst into tears. And they were looking at the schedule and I realized, I'd forgot to put lunch on the schedule. So they just assumed they wouldn't be eating lunch that day. And it was just this amazing reminder to me that our kids really crave predictability and routine. But it takes a while for our brains to acclimate to new routines. And so that's why all those little things, even if you have a new one starting the bedtime a week before, even practice packing the backpack the day before, so it's not the morning of. anything that can help that first day be a little bit smoother is just a gift to our kids, and to us, obviously.

Helen Westmoreland: Yes. Well, is there anything that you would advise? I mean, obviously we're talking a little bit about the little ones. As kids get older, is there anything you do differently as a parent? Like when you're talking about middle high school, in terms of preparing for that transition or is the same advice hold?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: I mean, it's the same advice, but it's leveled up for them. They may not wanna hear it necessarily from us. So sometimes getting them in touch with a neighbor who's already been a ninth grader, right. Who can talk to them or an older sibling, an older cousin or somebody who they can ask their questions about, okay, what is it really like in the hallways in high school? Because you may not know as a parent. There's a little bit less available to you. So if you can link them up with somebody who's been through it before or if you can connect with a parent who's been with them before, who can talk to you about what the ninth grade or the seventh grade experience is like. That's really helpful background knowledge for us.

I remember before I started high school, I sat with my sister in the hammock, right. She's five years older than me and I just grilled her on all the teachers and what lunch was like, and where are people sat and things I didn't wanna ask my mom and she probably wouldn't be able to tell me, but I had an older sister. And you may not have that built in, in your family, but this is where you rely on your village a little bit, and you wanna make sure that they're able to get some of those questions out, but the other thing you want to be sure is that they know that you're paying attention too. So, get to know what their class schedule is. You don't need to hover. You don't need to be that hovering parent, but it's helpful to say, oh, you have so and so for English, I've heard great things about him or, showing that interest just opens the door, keeps those lines of communication, open for your kids.

And even with the older ones, I know it's tough, but you know, talking about the importance of sleep early on not talking about necessarily that the negatives, like if you don't get enough sleep, you will. But like, you know, when you have enough sleep, you are gonna do better on tests because your recall rate faster, you're gonna do better at sports because your response time will be faster and really getting them used to why sleep is a study strategy is just such a key one for our adolescents, because that is gonna make such an incredible difference in their emotional life, if they are getting adequate sleep in high school. So that's a conversation to start right now with them, too.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Oh, that's good. I I feel like one thing I hear a lot from parents and to some extent it's true of my experience with my daughter last summer, where we had what I call our false start of school. It was right about the five or six week mark. But one of my worries, and I think many parents worries is when you've had a child in a smaller situation, whether that's elementary school and suddenly you're going to a thousand person secondary school, or you've been in, you know, a small nanny share environment, and you're going to a classroom for the first time. Is that a research-founded worry for parents? And what advice do you have for parents that are particularly worried about like the size and network kind of concern?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: I mean, it's research founded to the extent that a big change can be stressful and some of our kids are going to adjust easier than others. And part of that is temperament, right? So you might have a kid who's like, oh my gosh, I can't wait for the bigness. And suddenly they're making friends and, they have a different set of worries where you may have another child who maybe may be more of an introverted temperament, and it might take them longer to find their people.

And giving them that reminder, I think, especially, let's say middle school that they've made friends before, they will, again. That it can take time to find their people, but they will. And really encouraging some of the extracurricular activities, at that age, they tend to form friendships based on common interests. In kindergarten they're friends, because they're all in the same class. When they're in eighth grade, they might be friends, cause they like the same music or they're both into soccer, or they're both into robotics. And so, really starting to pay attention to what interests your kid, because hobbies are so important at this age and trying to steer them toward those smaller within the larger – like how do you make the big, just a little bit smaller?

It can be great to enlist an advisor, if there is an advisory program at a school in this effort, 'cause they really don't just want to hear from you at this age. So again, enlisting that older cousin to say, hey, you know what club is really cool at this stage. But if, if all they're doing is going to classes in a big environment, that can be hard for some students to find their people. And that is where getting them involved in a sport or in a club, something like that, that can just narrow it down a little bit, that can really help their adjustment because sometimes you'll discover, I see this a lot, with ninth graders that it's a rocky first semester, and then they find their groove, and they do. They'll find their groove. And often finding their groove is finding that one or two close friends. So if you've just moved or it's really big, or they're doing a friendship transition, which also happens at this age, you can tell kids this too, almost nobody's best friend, their senior year of high school is their best friend when they're in seventh grader.

So when it's suddenly really scary that they've kind of split apart from their close friends and they're navigating and you are all activated as a parent, because of social stress. That's a good reminder. Over 90% of people their senior year don't identify their best friend as the same person as in seventh grade and that's not a bad thing. That just means we're evolving and our friendships are evolving and we're finding our interests in who we are, but that means at some point there was a shakeup in friendships and that can be painful. But if we can keep that kind of long game perspective, they've always made friends, along the way. They'll make them again. That can be really helpful for kids.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's very good advice.

Helen Westmoreland: I wanna dig deeper on the timeline, because I, I mentioned five or six week mark. And you said it takes at least six weeks, but it might take a full semester, right, depending on your child. What are you kind of caution parents against doing, if their child is taking a little longer to transition? What are some of your, we talked about some dos, what are some of the don'ts that parents should be aware of?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: So I like to make the distinction between our reactions and our responses, because we all have emotional reactions and they're normal. And, as my book says, you have feelings all the time and we're gonna have them as parents. They're gonna come in the car, they're gonna be crying. And your instinct is gonna be to pull out that phone and text the teacher immediately because the teacher said something to me in class and your fifth grader is now crying in the car. I really caution against reaching out to a teacher in the height of an emotional outburst from your child, because that emotion high point is going to pass. And when they're in the midst of an emotional storm, their sense of reason is really offline and that's okay.

That storm is going to pass, and then you're gonna learn more about what really happened. Sometimes the storm passing is enough. Like sometimes the storm passes and they're fine. They have their snack. They go and play. They figure it out themselves. You don't have to get involved, but sometimes that storm passes and they say to you, I'm really upset. That felt really unfair. What the teacher did. Then it becomes more of, so what do you wanna do about it? That sounds tough. How do you wanna handle it? It's putting it back on the child versus us swooping in to solve their problems. Cause when we swoop in, we tell them that they can't handle it on their own and they need us to solve it for them. And then if you wanna give that heads up to the teacher, Hey, my kid may come. I know she was a bit upset about blank. She may come and talk to you about this. That can be helpful. But I just know, as a teacher and administrator, like when you get that 3:30 email just after carline, it's never a good thing.

Give yourself, give your kid time to calm down, and if you're a teacher listening, you don't need to respond at 3:30. Like let them calm down. Cause you might get the email later saying actually things are fine. You don't need to step in. So you wanna give some space, allow the emotional reaction. A response is more of a thoughtful reaction or thoughtful what you do with the emotion later. If you're noticing them struggling you want to pay attention, ask questions, keep the lines of communication open.

You wanna see if they can work it out together. You want to express your confidence that they can. Thanks for telling me what happened. How do you wanna handle this? What help do you need from me? Do you just want to, you know, vent about this. Are you looking for my help? That's a great question to ask tweens and teens. Are they looking for you to do something? Often, they aren't, they just want somebody to be a sounding board and to listen. And then, the “do” in terms of say the teachers is to reach out proactively. So if, if you have an elementary student, if back to school night isn't till the end of September, you can send that email earlier on just introducing yourself, thanking them, expressing your excitement the child will be there, anything to create those lines of communication.

And, if it's an older student and you are noticing that they're really struggling in math every night, they're working on it, sending the heads up to the teacher. I'm noticing is a great phrase to start with. I'm noticing she's spending an hour each night, can you check in with her? That preserves that relationship between the teacher, and the student, but it also says to the teacher I'm paying attention. I'm your partner in this too.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. I like that. Like, empowering your child to be their own problem solver, which is skills we want with all of our kids. I want to pick up on something you said about what teachers maybe could do. My experience with the little one in two different childcare settings is like night and day, just in terms of what all the school did for the transition. So this one has been so much better. Is it because she's older? Is it because I'm finally like a little more confident and giving her a little more space.

Is it that the school did so many things? I don't know, but what the school did made such an impression on me. Could you talk a little bit more about some of the best practices, some things that families, particularly if they might be on a PTA or in a position to influence their school community can do to help ease transitions for kids as they enter the school or grade or maybe even newcomers in the country?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: So if I could wave a magic wand, here are some things and obviously schools can't do them all and they can be overtaxed. Honestly, everything that happens early on, that is such time well spent. Right. You know, we talk about the first 30 days of school, when you're a teacher, if you can get those right. If you can establish those relationships, the rest of your year is easier. And I think as school administrators, that's really true too. Are those first communications home, are they welcoming? Can you have somebody read it for a tone check? Right. If it's simply a list of details and there's no, we're so excited to, you know, to welcome your child. Encouraging teachers to send a friendly email out.

 Now, some teachers will do the handwritten notes in the mail. That's fantastic. I love that above and beyond, but at least that email. Oh my goodness. My kids, every time they got an email from their teacher or letter from their teacher. Oh, they're reading it six times, and they will remember, I have a cat named sprinkles and I love gummy bears. And I went hiking in the Adirondacks this summer. And the kids are memorizing all this information because they're trying to make sense of what's about to come. So friendly little emails before the school year starts, that just says, there's somebody welcoming on the other side here.

Depending on your school environment, I just know the school my kids are at, I'm going to be sending out an email to the other parents saying it was a local playground. If you wanna come and you know, to this playground from four to six come and I'll have some name tags and, you know, popsicles, not school sponsored, but I've seen school sponsor those saying we're just gonna have like a kindergarten play date and they'll be name tags, and it's not required, but just a chance for kids to come and see other kids.

So anything before school starts that can help them feel welcomed. if it's this one of those schools where everyone's been traveling together and there are not that many new students each year, really thinking about buddying up, if there are only three or four new students in a grade, who's that person that can kind of be that buddy, so they come into the school feeling like they have at least one familiar face and at least one friend.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, it almost seems like similar lessons learned and advice to like when you're onboarding at work. Like have a plan, be intentional, have people that you can go to and know who they are. For me and my daughter, one of the things our school did that made a difference in that welcoming newsletter, right, is they included the pictures of everyone who worked at the building and their names, which goes such a long way, because even if it's not just her teacher, but a teacher in the hallway we pass, like it just makes it so much easier to know and be able to identify the other adults in that building. It's been a big help.

Deborah Farmer-Kris: Yeah. I think that goes a long way, just being able to say for parents, sometimes you can find this even on the school webpage, if they don't have it, this is a school nurse, this is what his or her name is, here's a picture. So that the first time your child gets cut and has to go to the nurse, you know, some kids, they don't really care so much, but there's always a good chunk of kids who, any new encounter triggers some anxiety, or triggers a little bit of stress. And so being able to say, oh, there's a nurse there, if you were ever to get hurt, there's a nurse on staff. Here's a picture of the librarian. The librarian's gonna help you find books. It just creates a community for them.

Like these are all the people I think of Mr. Roger's neighborhood, right? Like these are the people in the neighborhood who are here to support you. Here are the people in your school here to support you. Your teacher's gonna be amazing, but there's a librarian. There are, you know, a maintenance staff who are gonna help and we wanna learn their names too. They're gonna be people serving you lunch if it's a school that has lunch. And you always wanna say, thank you when they give that to you, cause that's gonna make them feel good. Cause they're working hard. And just really showing that, this is in so many ways, their world, right. When they're not with you, this is their universe. So you wanna get them used to the people in their universe, but also this is a good chance to kind of teach them that you wanna always say, thank you. You wanna be aware, are you cleaning up after yourself? Because, in the evening, somebody's gonna come clean that up and you wanna make sure teachers are great about doing that, but that's a great reinforcement just for all those kind of character strengths. We wanna teach our kids that, you know, this work doesn't happen on its own, the teachers are working hard. The, the, the lunch staff is working hard. Everybody's working hard to make sure you have a great experience.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, I like that, that's so positive. On the flip side, one of the things I know many children, regardless of age, will say during that transition period, mine included is I don't wanna go to school, like, I don't want to, I just don't want to, and no amount of digging underneath the why gives you an answer. What is your advice when parents are in that situation? And their kids are just resistant to getting out the door and resistant to going to school?

That’s such a good one and a hard one because there's so many different reasons why a kid may be resistant to go to school. One of the things that we don't want to do is to say, great, you're just gonna go stay home, today. They need to hear your confidence in them that, you can do this. I know you can do this. We're gonna get in the car. For the younger ones, it may be baby steps. We're just gonna get in the car right now. Giving that heads up to the teacher, creating that kind of game plan,like, what's your special, goodbye gonna be like, I'm gonna have a goodbye handshake, kiss you on the head and walk away and then you need to walk away as a parent. Because so often what we know as teachers, is that the minute the parent leaves they're fine. So with young ones, separation anxiety, if you are like, oh honey, I'm so sorry. I'm gonna miss you too. And you're showing your stress, then it like, oh my gosh. Now my mom is really upset. I'm upset, she's upset, we can't be leaving each other.

So for the really young ones, you wanna just get the routine and after a while, the routine's gonna be helpful for some it's two weeks for some it's six, for some, it may be a really painful semester, but what's the thing that you're going to do that is always cause a brain loves routine, just like nighttime routines. Mm-hmm, get that morning routine that you always do it. Get that special handshake, get out the door, maybe the teacher can send you an email later, letting them know that they're fine if you need that. But so often that's all they need. If you're having an older child who is really struggling with this,again, you want them to be getting out the door to school. You also wanna be checking in then with the teachers to hear how what's going once they are there. Yeah, because if you can start identifying what the sticking point is it a, a recess issue? It is a math anxiety?

Then you can have more conversations with your child and work to brainstorm solutions to this. What you don't wanna do is feed their anxiety with your anxiety. And so, while I can't speak to each specific situation, that when you look at all the literature and childhood anxiety is just abundantly clear, is that when we become anxious because of their anxiety, it says to them, oh, I'm right. Something's I'm right. Something's really wrong here. Look at Mom. She's freaking out too. Yeah. Right. So when I'm like, you're gonna have a great time at camp this week. If I'm expressing my confidence in them, am I keeping those routines that gives them that anchor point to try new things.

Mm-hmm and so, you know, that's one of the best pieces advice I can give is you we've really gotta watch our own anxiety, with our kids' anxiety, because so often they just feed on one another and there's this scientific term called the co-regulation of emotions, which is basically for young kids, they're learning to regulate their emotions with us. And so, if we start to get anxious, theirs will rise. If we stay calm, it gives them permission to come back down and remain calm as well.

Helen Westmoreland: That's very good advice. I it is hard as a parent to keep your own anxiety in check. When you have a child you're worried, will they get it? Will they do all those things? But I agree very important because kids are like sponges. They can just pick up on how you're feeling.

Deborah Farmer-Kris: They're anthropologists, they're just watching us and determining everything, right? How's mom reacting and I'll give it just a quick, easy example of this. My daughter's very first day was a disaster. At least from a parent perspective, because I've gotten her so excited to go to the Bears class in preschool. And I got a call 30 minutes in saying they had accidentally placed her in the wrong class. Cause that was only a two day a week class. So they had to move her to the other class in the transition, her lunch got lost. And once I picked her up, like she had spilled her water all over her blanket, which was her lovey.

I pick her up and she's big eyes, she's holding a wet, sopping blanket, she had eaten the crackers and cheese for lunch. Oh. And I thought to myself, there's that piece of me that wants to go up to the director and say, do you realize, how could you put her in the wrong class? But then I thought, my daughter's watching me right now. And if I do that, it just confirms that this was a disaster of a day, but if I can say, oh my goodness, you're gonna be in this class now. That's so exciting. We can dry this off and I'll make sure you have an extra special lunch tomorrow. I'm sure you're gonna have a great day, that suddenly just puts it in perspective. It's not that I'm minimizing her emotions, she can have the good cry. But I'm also just showing her how we roll with things sometimes. Yeah. And me blowing up at a teacher or an administrator in front of her is never going to help that relationship.

Helen Westmoreland: No, no. It is always a journey as a parent, for sure, Deborah, I could talk to you all day. I can't believe our time has by so quickly. And we so appreciate having you here on this show. Before we go, I'd love to give you one last opportunity, if there's anything you shared or didn't share that you wanna be sure that our listeners walk away with from today's conversation?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: I'll share one small tip for when you pick the kid up and you say, how was your day? And they say it was fine and you're not getting anything else out, which is a big sticking point. How is your day is not the right thing to ask, often they're not ready to share the minute they get in the car. They might be ready to share before bedtime, but for younger ones, the three questions that I would ask each day, that really helped us talk about our day were, our yay, our oops and our blah. What  was your yay? What was something that happened that was good or fun or exciting? What was your oops, what was a mistake that you made? Gives permission for them to talk about that. And what was your blah? What was something that didn't feel great? And by normalizing those, it actually allowed me to hear a lot about what was going on that was both strong, and positive and also that were pain points for them, because we had a built in apparatus for talking about those three things. So the yay, the oops, and the blah got me a lot farther when they were young than how was your day?

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, I'm gonna do that today. ! If our listeners want to follow you, find out more about your work, tell us your website, social handles?

Deborah Farmer-Kris: If you go to like 365 days a year. All the links to my books and my social channels are right there on the main page.

Helen Westmoreland: Great. Well, thank you again, Deborah for joining us.

Deborah Farmer-Kris: Thank you.

Helen Westmoreland: To our audience listening, thank you for joining us, for more resources related to today's episode, check out And we also wanted to let you know that it's National PTAs back to school week, visit for all kinds of resources to support you and your family, as you start the school year.

Thanks for tuning in, see you next time.