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Preparing for the Transition to Elementary School

February 27, 2017

It’s hard to believe, but we know many of you are already thinking about that big transition from the cozy preschool world into the “big kid” realm of elementary school. It can be a lot to digest for a parent, but we have you covered with some great tips from Photosanity founder and Brooklyn mom, Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick.


We’ve been talking about the elementary school application process for the past couple of weeks, both how to choose a school, and how to survive the acceptance process. We’re going to round out this series by talking about the transition that happens when school actually starts in the fall. Even though that seems very far off right now, it’s good to have some idea of what to expect. It may even be reassuring to start thinking about what that might be like, even as you’re still waiting to find out where you child will be going.

1. Plan time in your schedule. September is a crazy month when you have kids in elementary school, even when they are returning to the same school, let alone starting somewhere new for the first time. It’s a hard adjustment from the summer back into the school year routine for everyone, parents included, and when you’re going to a new school, it’s an entirely foreign routine that has to be figured out, often in coordination with other siblings that have to be transported to other locations.

Also, many schools have orientation for parents and incoming new students before the first day of school, and a transition period with 1/2 days and even 3/4 days. It could be a week or even longer before your child is on a full day schedule, so be prepared for what that may be like for your family, in terms of  logistics.

If your child is taking the school bus, service may not start the very first day, and in NYC, our school advises new kindergarten parents to wait a couple of weeks before putting their child on the bus as it can be chaotic in the beginning as drivers figure out their routes, etc.

And then, there are usually a lot of school holidays in September and early October too. One year, I don’t think the NYC public schools had a full five-day week until October.

Having said that, if it’s possible to plan time off work to help get your child settled in and to figure out the new routine plan to do so. If you can, have your spouse plan time off work, too, so that you can tag team it, especially if you have kids going to different locations.

Alternatively, have caregivers on hand for extra hours, and/or grandparents or other relatives and friends who can help out during the transition.

I would also recommend that you try not to plan any business trips in September. This may seem extreme, and of course, sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I made my husband promise this after he went away for a couple of trips last September. It felt very stressful to be solo-parenting during that time, although admittedly it was also because we were in between after-school sitters and looking for a new one, so it was a tricky time for our family.

One more thing – don’t forget that you will likely need to order school supplies for the classroom (especially in public school), backpacks, lunch boxes, uniforms or new clothes, etc. and health forms with vaccination records will need to be up to date. All this takes time.

2. Know your child and how to prepare them best. Some kids need a lot of time to get used to the idea of something big and new like a new school. For other kids, too much notice gives them too much time to worry and freak out about it. Think about it and make a plan with other caregivers as to when and how it will come up. Pre-K teachers usually start to talk about it toward the end of the school year, which is a natural time for it to come up, although it can be tough if you’re not sure yet where your child will be going to school.

As with other topics that we adults are often more anxious about than our kids are, you can follow your child’s lead and not make too big a deal out of it unless they do.

If you know your child’s placement already, look out for any new parent get-togethers over the summer. As it gets closer to the start of school, it’s great to schedule play dates with kids who will be going to the same school, although often class assignments aren’t announced until the last minute. If you can take your child by the school and point it out to them, that can help get them used to the idea, even before you actually take them to school for orientation.

If there’s any uniform or dress code that will be a change for your child, think about when you’ll start talking about it or even wearing the uniform ahead of time. If there is a uniform, it’s a good idea to have your child try it on ahead of time in case it doesn’t fit right so that you can avoid a panic on the first day of school.

3. Get phone numbers and schedule play dates. Not to get too Tiger-mom-ish, but one of the reasons it can be helpful to take time off at the beginning of the school year is so that you can do some of the drop-offs and pick-ups yourself. This will enable you to get a feel for the classroom, teachers, and how your child is settling in, and also to meet other parents and kids so you can schedule play dates, which can be helpful for your child to get more comfortable in the classroom.

Usually, a class parent will gather phone numbers and email addresses and issue a class directory, but that can take a few weeks, so don’t be shy asking for phone numbers from other parents and caregivers if your kids seem to be hitting it off or have an interest in spending more time together.

I’ve been in discussions with parents from around the country, and it’s common to feel a little bit like an outsider, or like everyone else already knows each other. However, I’ve found it worth it to reach out anyway and form connections within what is likely to be your child’s (and therefore your) community for the next six years or more. It helps from a practical as well as social perspective, and eventually, you can share drop-offs or pick-ups or caregivers in a pinch and I believe it really does help your child to form friendships, too.

An easy way to start up playdates is to do an impromptu “we’re heading to the playground, do you want to join us?” invitation at school pick-up. In those first few weeks, everyone is in the same boat of wanting to help their child form connections with their classmates. If you can’t be at pick-up, you can ask your child’s caregiver to do this on your behalf.

If you already know a lot of people at your child’s new school, reach out to the new parents and their kids and welcome them in, especially if they are from a different background or new to the neighborhood – it’s a small thing that can make a big difference.


Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents. She founded Photosanity to help parents find joy & connection through photographing their kids. Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5.

Alethea has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity.com and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.