How to Prepare Your Child for the First Day of School

How to Prepare Your Child for the First Day of School
Children on their first day of school in Weisbaden, Germany in 2019. (U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden/Lena Stange)

The first day of school can be traumatic for many children, but military kids have the added stress of knowing that every few years their first day of school will be their first day at a new school.

It can be a bit like walking into the lion's den to start a new school -- playground politics strike early and swift. The good news is that you can help your child with their transition, and with a few simple steps you can smooth the path of a new learning environment for them.

One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new school is the lack of friends. Children who have lived in an area for a long time already have a network of friends and often are familiar with teachers and administrators. This is an advantage that military brats often don't have. Luckily it's easy enough to help them get some headway in this department.

Heather Forcey, vice-principal at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School in Clovis, Calif., recommends finding ways for your child to meet schoolmates early.

"Take advantage of any summer camps offered by the school," Forcey advises. "This gives your child an opportunity to meet friends that they will be in class with come fall. If summer camps are not offered, speak to the secretary or the principal to get a feel for what the school kids do on vacation (sports programs, library, etc.)."

Air Force wife Shannon Sanders agrees and adds that being familiar with the faculty can also help your child adjust.

Sanders says, "I have also taken the time to schedule appointments with their new teachers and administrators so they are not just another face in a crowd. And that they are able to recognize at least two people among the masses. In [my son's], it was middle school. I obviously could not have him meet everyone, so we did have him meet with his counselor and the principal. He does have some special needs, and as such, having these two people in our corner was vital."

While meeting new people and having to perform in a new situation is a nerve-wracking experience for children, it may not be the only issue on the first day of school. The stress of a new school and a new area affects children differently. Some regress or withdraw, some act out, some become angry, and even extroverted children may become more introverted.

Carren Zeigenfuss, licensed social worker and Army wife whose children will start a new school at a new duty station this fall says, "I suggest parents talk to their kids about what they are feeling. For kids who can't articulate their feelings due to age or lack of self expression, maybe have the parents ask the kids to draw a picture of the first day of school. Ask what the child thinks the first day of school will look like, and then discuss. You'd be surprised how helpful this can be."

Shannon Sanders, whose children started a new school last year, came up with a military brat specific checklist to help her children through school transitions:

  • Investigate the school online before you move there.
  • Take them to their school (before the first day and on the weekend) have them walk around without anyone there so they at least know the landscape.
  • Eat breakfast as a family.
  • Take pictures in front of the house where they are living at that time.
  • Drive them/walk them to school. We are not only their parents, but we are their best friends until they find new ones. So, having us close is a security thing for them.
  • Introduce yourself to their teachers. I really like it when my husband is in uniform. It sets the tone immediately.
  • For younger children: Put a picture of the family in their lunch box or backpack. Connor and Kathryn have always liked that and they usually keep it in their bag all year long.
  • After school, we go out to eat and talk all about the day they have had.

It's impossible to take away the anxiety and worries of the first day in a new place, but military brats are often more flexible and able to adjust to new situations with fewer negative consequences than children with more settled lifestyles. That's a definite advantage in today's world where jobs have become increasingly mobile and global.

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