Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cool for School: Part One (Mental Preparation)

There are certain things in your child's life that you look forward to: the first smile, the first giggle...we were dying for M to walk, which she didn't do until around 19 months (much later than all her friends.) There are certain things in your child's life that you know you have to do, but the idea of them is so unappealing you would rather get a root canal. Potty training is one of those things (as Coco Baby Mama talked about in her article last week) for me, so I have yet to actually get my butt in gear and seriously start training her. Moving her to the big girl bed was one of these things too - but after a few days of putting her back in bed for two hours it ended up not being as big a deal as I had made it out to be. I fear potty training will not be as easy as the big girl bed transition by any means.

At the top of this list of things I dread has been dropping off M at school for the first time. Since she was born I have pretty much been with her every day of her life. Sure my husband and I have gone on vacation, but no longer than 3 nights, and she was with my parents (who at most times I think she likes more than my husband and I). She has been left with a babysitter with no problem too, but never has she been left in a strange place with strange people for an extended amount of time, so I was absolutely sick to my stomach about having to drop her off at school some day.

When we started looking at schools this past winter we knew that we wanted to get her in somewhere that had a summer program, so that she could get acclimated to the new school environment before the new baby comes in August. We found a lovely private pre-school (I guess they are all private at that age, no?) only a few minutes away from our house, that reminded me of Sunnyside Day Care from Toy Story 3 so I was sold from the first visit. They offered a 7 week summer program to ages 2.7+ so we signed her up immediately and set the start date (a week later than the other kids due to vacation last week) as this past Tuesday.

I think it was about 3 months ago that I started losing sleep over the fact that my baby would be going to "school" in a few months. How was my child, my little sidekick, going to react to being dropped off in a strange place for 4 hours, 3 days a week? I have a hard enough time getting her 2 year old self to listen to me, how is she going to listen to her teachers? How the hell was I to prepare her for this? How the hell was I to prepare myself for this??

I first reached out to friends and fellow Mamas for advice on books to read with M to help ease her into this big transition. The book that seemed to be the most popular amongst friends was Llama Llama Misses Mama, from the famous Llama Llama series of children's books. As luck would have it, it was at Costco that same week so I snagged it immediately. It took us a few weeks to actually get M to listen to us read it to her, but for the last month is it all she wants to read - like 3 times a night - and she has memorized the entire thing so after we read it to her she likes to "read to mommy." It is an adorable tale about Llama's first day at school and how he reacts and adjusts when Mama Llama leaves him alone at school. It drives home the point that Mama might be leaving you alone for a little while, but she will always come back at the end of the day, and it is ok to be sad when she is gone. I cannot recommend it enough.

Along with Llama Llama, we had been reading to her a book from my childhood published in the late 1970s, entitled Pooh's Schoolhouse. Unfortunately I can't find this for sale anywhere now, but it is a story about a day at school with Pooh and his friends, and M can't get enough of it. Every night we read those two books about going to school and then strike up a conversation about school being so much fun, and don't you want to do the things that Pooh and Llama do at school, etc.. We tried as hard as we could to make school seem like the coolest most fun place on earth. Who knows if she actually understood that she was going somewhere or not, but she knew that "School Is Fun"!

About three weeks ago we got to visit her school for a few hours and see what an actual day would be like. Of course M woke up earlier than usual, after having gone to sleep at 10 PM the night before so she was in rare shape during the visit. The director of the school actually asked us to leave and come back the following week when she wasn't so tired, so the following week I brought a well rested M back to her school for a second visit. We ended up staying much longer than planned as she loved being with the kids and doing projects and playing outside. The fact that she seemed to feel comfortable in this strange new environment put me at ease...well just a little...

The week leading up to the dreaded "first day of school/camp" I barely slept at night, and got myself all worked up that my bowels were irritable - gross but totally true! I could not believe how quickly the day was approaching...had I done enough to prepare her for this? Should we have visited a third time? Should I have talked to her more about school during the day? Did I get everything on the extensive list of items she needed to have? Would someone else have the same backpack? Will her name tags stay in her clothes and shoes? Will they make sure to change her diaper when she needs it changed? What if she gets a diaper rash? What if she throws a fit? What if she hits another kid? What if she hits a teacher?  What is going to happen when I drop her off the first day? Is she going to cry? Am I going to cry?

Well Tuesday arrived, and I awoke feeling like I was about to go on stage, naked, to perform a dance solo. You know that terrible nervous feeling where your insides are constantly moving around and you feel short of breath and your heart is beating out of your chest? I once again reached out to friends and asked for some last minute advice and all of them said not to let your emotions show to M because she will feed off you, so I put on my brave face and talked school up like it was the best place on the planet.

I let her pick out her outfit and what she would have for a snack. She helped pack up her backpack with swimming suit and towel, and helped me to put all her name stickers on everything (stay tuned to Part Two of this post for more detail on all the supplies I purchased for school - I went a little crazy). We got in the car, turned on some Disney music and I tried to keep my game face on during the 7 minute drive to school.

She might look sad here,
but she was excited! Stupid iPhone
photo delay!
We were greeted by one of her teachers, who showed us to her locker, where to put snacks, lunches, etc. and then we walked into the class room. I was prepared for M to clutch at my leg for dear life, but she walked into the room on her own and started playing with something right away. Her teachers had told me the day before to make the drop off as quick as possible so that M could get acclimated on her own, so I leaned over, kissed her goodbye and said "Mama Llama will be back to get your after lunch, ok?" and she looked up at me and said "bye mom!" and continued playing.

Huh...bye mom? So I turned and walked out the room, said a quick word to her teacher outside the classroom, and M peaked her head out in the hallway and said "hi mom! bye mom!" and then I was on my merry way. I got in my car and thought, "what the hell just happened?"

Was all my worrying for naught? Did that really just go as smoothly as I think it did? Did my daughter not get upset that I was leaving her for the first time in a strange place? Did I not get upset that I was leaving my daughter for the first time in a strange place? How did that go as well as it did? Did I really do a good job at preparing her for school, or am I just damn lucky?

Well, it turns out that not only did I do a good job of preparing her, but my kid really likes school!! For months I have heard from friends about how hard the first few days will be, and how there will be tears from both you and the child, and how it will take a few weeks to get them acclimated. Well, here we are on day 3 and there haven't been any tears from either of us, and my kid actually likes going to school! I totally know that some days she might not want to go, and there might be struggles ahead, but for now I am counting my blessings and enjoying my free time every morning.

And damn do I love going to pick her up after lunch. To see her face when she realizes that I am at the door waiting for her is just priceless. She runs over to me and gives me "big huggies" and says "Mama Llama! You came back!" - her favorite line from her new favorite book. It makes my heart melt...

So here are my pointers for parents preparing to send their kids to school for the first time:
- Read Llama Llama Misses Mama to your child every night
- Talk about how fun school is every day, as much as you can. Bring school up in conversation whenever you can
- Make your child part of the school supply preparation by letting them pick out a backpack, or lunchbox, or putting name tags in things
- Always put on a positive face when taking them to school and dropping them off
- Make the first day, and subsequent day, drop offs as quick as possible.
- When saying goodbye always reinsure them that you will be back, and tell them exactly when, like "after you eat lunch, Mama will be back to get you!"

Of course I am only 3 days in to this whole process, so I am by no means an expert, but these are just the things that I believe helped this go from being something I dreaded, and kept me in the bathroom multiple times a day, to being something that is an enjoyable experience!

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