First grade is very
different from kindergarten and preschool, with new demands,
expectations, and experiences. Parents and children look forward to
first grade because it’s the beginning of “real school” and a sign
of growing up. They also feel anxious and uncertain, however, and in
the case of parents, nostalgic about the passing of the preschool
Some children are better prepared than others for the increased
demands of first grade. Age is an important factor, since children
sometimes aren’t developmentally ready for first grade until they’ve
almost turned seven. Children just turning six at the beginning of
first grade may not adjust as well as those with earlier birthdays.
A child’s adjustment is also affected by his home situation. If he
has a new sibling, if his family has just moved, or if there’s
tension between his parents, he may enter first grade feeling
insecure or fearful. Any negative experience outside of
school—including a bad time at summer camp—can interfere with his
On the positive side, he will have an easier time adjusting to first
grade if he has friends in his class and if he has a warm and
attentive teacher. A caring teacher knows that first graders arrive
with varying academic skills, social skills, and experiences. She
will patiently help her students get over their fears and
hesitations and offer them support and encouragement.
Most kids feel better about first grade if they’re familiar with the
school and the classroom. Ideally, kindergartners should be invited
to their future first-grade classrooms to meet the teachers. If this
doesn’t happen, parents can prepare their child by talking about
first grade and encouraging him to ask questions.
Once first grade starts, some kids say, “I love school!” and go off
happily each day. Others have a hard time getting along. They may be
unhappy and hesitant, or they may resist going. They may feel
insecure if other students seem able to read and write. They’ll feel
inferior if they’ve been placed in the low reading group. Although
parents want to be sympathetic, many get angry and frustrated with
their child’s com plaints about going to school: “Why can’t he just
be like the other kids?”
You may find yourself intolerant of your child’s attitude if you
feel guilty or embarrassed. But if you lose patience and pressure
your child to do well in school, such pressure puts him in a bind.
He wants to please you, yet he can’t fully control his feelings and
actions. Often, if you are understanding and supportive for the
first few weeks of school, your first grader will get over his
If your child is having trouble adjusting to first grade, there are
many ways to help. First, stay in close contact with the teacher.
She may give you a fuller picture of his behavior. While you see him
go off hesitantly, she may see him joining in class activities and
getting along with other children. Even the most reluctant
first-graders have good periods during the day. They feel sad or
lonely sometimes, but at other times they’re fine.
Help him connect with another child who rides the same school bus.
Consider telling the bus driver or the parents you carpool with
about your child’s reluctance to go to school. If you usually drive
him yourself, consider asking another parent to give him a ride in
the morning. Some kids have an easier time separating if they aren’t
with their parents during the moments before school starts. Your
child may be entertained or distracted if he goes to school with
Try giving him a “love note” to carry in his pocket or offer a
reward at the end of the day. It can be a small toy or sweet treat
for entering school with a smile and not crying during the day.
If he’s having trouble making friends, encourage him to invite class
mates to your house and talk about other ways of getting to know
kids. Having him join a club or after-school activity will help him
meet others and feel more connected to the school.
You may have success with role-playing games. Suggest that you and
he play school—you’ll be the student and he’ll be the parent. Use
real situations that come up in first grade. Have the “student” cry
in class and ask the “parent” what to do. You may be surprised at
the good suggestions your child comes up with. He may say, “Call
your friend and ask him to go to school with you.” Role playing can
be therapeutic for him, and it can offer you insights into his
difficulties. If you’re having success with this approach, try it
once a day for a week or so. For your story themes, choose
adjustment to school, sadness about leaving home, schoolwork, and
other topics that seem to bother him.
If, after several weeks, you see no improvement in his attitude
toward first grade, talk to the school counselor or principal and
ask her to observe him in the classroom. Perhaps she can suggest
some solutions. In addition, consider his readiness for first grade.
Does his social and emotional development seem slower than that of
his classmates? Does he seem too young for first grade? Is the
classroom atmosphere appropriate for him? Are the teachers’
expectations realistic? Even if he’s not quite ready for the demands
of first grade, it’s likely that he’ll adjust as long as you
continue to be patient, offer help with his work, and seek support
from the school.