An entire genre of books explores the start of a young person’s life at school with the idea that if Maisy the Mouse or the unvanquishable Molly Lou Melon made it through a first week at a new school, so can you.
Preparing a young person for the start of school – whether they’re 2, 5 or 15 years old – requires preparation founded in fun. Playing with the idea of what we do at school, and how we get ready, in books and at home, can help first-timers imagine their way through a disorientingly new first day – especially if they’re not so wild about the idea of leaving home, and family, for the first time.
One-on-one connection in advance of school’s first day can provide a familiar face to seek out in a crowd – and a reference point for parents to cite when they talk about what to expect. Schedule a playdate with a future classmate – you can ask a school to put you in touch with other new families – and talk as a family about how kids make friends and pay attention to each other. How we can count on ourselves and make allies from the kids around us is fancifully made into a tall tale in Patty Lovell’s “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001). Molly Lou’s rich world of birds, beasts, insects and new classmates is rendered in lavish color. Our heroine is an iconoclast, with quirky characteristics that her grandmother assures her are to be celebrated. When Molly Lou starts a new school, a critic tries to cut her down to size. But Molly Lou’s confidence inspires the rest of her peers to say “wow” and, by the fifth day of school, wins over even Ronald Durkin, the holdout who had once had bully potential.
The juxtaposition of Molly Lou’s private world of cats and insects and her new public persona in the schoolyard is portrayed as a natural progression mediated with some thoughtful advice from Grandma, and the story ends with Molly Lou’s thank-you correspondence back to that sage source.
Jean Gasperini, a longtime teacher at Los Altos Parent Preschool who started as a parent before moving into the classroom decades ago, would send out a brief article about preschool transitions to new parents before school so that the adults had a chance to set their own expectations, too.
“The biggest thing I tell parents is follow your child’s lead – don’t overexplain. Children tend to be very much in the present,” Gasperini said.
That doesn’t mean not to plan ahead – just to keep it simple. Instead of building up expectations, acknowledge that you’re going to a school you’ve visited before, and that it might seem familiar. Or not.
During an intro visit, “the child engages in the environment and they tend to remember that – they’ll remember the toy they played with,” Gasperini said.
Los Altos Parent Preschool uses a parent-participation model, so the moment of separation was delayed for many of her students. But most of the books about preschool capture classrooms where students attend without their parents.
Deirdre Sullivan’s “Ming Goes to School” (Sky Pony Press, 2016) provides a soft, moody glimpse into what one sees and does in the preschool classroom. Sullivan’s spare watercolor illustrations capture a young girl’s tranquil – but not always totally easy – transition into school. Ming says goodbye to her father and sees his silhouette fade away beyond the window, even as she is surrounded by the art and play of a morning classroom. She meets new friends, introduces a lovie brought from home, plays outside and sticks close to her teachers as she eyes a big red slide with the concern
of the new and very small.
Sullivan’s book chronicles imaginative moments that make preschool look exciting and inviting, free form and full of play. But it also pauses to linger on that returning parental figure, and Ming’s final enthusiastic run to the no-longer-so-towering red slide once she’s become a preschool pro.
Children won’t know what to expect when they go to school for the first time. What do they bring? Will their parent come back? Who will take care of them? Rehearsing how school works – and talking about how you will do drop-off and pick-up, and when – makes the process more predictable and knowable.
Lucy Cousins’ book “Maisy Goes to Preschool” (Candlewick Press, 2010) numbers among a series of simplistic Maisy texts, scrawled in a primary-colors palette, that stick to introducing a concept (school, cleanup, bedtime) and giving a positive run-through of how it works that verges on propaganda – but parents desperate to set a positive tone will observe that simple messages do resonate with young listeners.
Maisy the Mouse goes to preschool, where she greets friends (other animals) and a teacher (Mr. Peacock). She paints, eats a snack, uses the bathroom, sits for story time, takes a nap, plays an instrument, gets busy on the playground and then goes home.
“Maisy really likes preschool,” the book concludes.
Preschool won’t feel likable all the time, but gaining information that can assuage fears and build confidence sets a child up for success, anxiety or not. Visiting preschool via books is a good start, but even better is to also visit the classroom together, when children and teachers are present, in addition to getting together with classmates outside of school hours.
Two feelings at once
In Lauren Child’s “I Am Too Absolutely Small for School” (Candlewick Press, 2005), familiar characters Charlie (supportive older brother) and Lola (wild young miscreant) explore why Lola might want to give school a try, even if she is pretty skeptical to start.
Lola’s resistance to trying something new conflicts with her natural curiosity and open-mindedness, providing a subtle demonstration of the idea – new to many kids – that you can feel two feelings at once. You might miss your mom and dad, and be excited to do new things at school.
The free-form, childlike cartoon illustrations use mixed media to add texture to each tableau as Lola’s and Charlie’s worlds float and weave around them.
“I am absolutely not big, I am really quite small. I probably do not have time to go to school. I am extremely busy doing important things at home,” Lola tells her brother.
She does not need to learn to count to 100, and when it comes to the early literacy, she’s having none of it – “I know lots of secrets, I don’t need to learn to read words, and I’ve got all my books in my head.”
With patient suggestions from Charlie, Lola resigns herself to school and plans to go, dressed as an alligator (Charlie talks her out of that, too). Soon enough she concludes that she thought school was a great idea all along.
Lola’s invisible friend, Soren Lorensen, proves an appealing foil for her to both be inspired (he goes to school) and think through her feelings (he was the one who was anxious all along).
“Having two feelings at once is a big thing that kids learn – and parents need to tune in to their own feelings first,” Gasperini said. “How are you feeling about your child going to school? Are you excited? There’s stress involved, having a new schedule and having to get out the door in time. Kids will pick up on the parents’ feelings.”
Gasperini suggested that paying attention to a child’s emotions is more important than trying to foster any one response.
“Some children immediately run off and play, others need to stand at the doorway and look for a few minutes,” she said. “There’s a huge range of personalities and temperaments and how children are going to react. Accepting that, and going from there, often gives enough confidence to move ahead in their own style and progress. … If they’re standing by the doorway, that means they are taking everything in. You let them have a slow discovery of everything.”
Meeting a teacher and relying on an adult outside of one’s own family is modeled in many of the books, but Jean Reagan’s “How to Get Your Teacher Ready” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), illustrated by Lee Wildish, puts the focus squarely on the student/teacher relationship.
Part of a best-selling series that chronicles what a child can expect through extended, softhearted role-reversal jokes, “How to Get Your Teacher Ready” follows a class of students who show their teacher the ropes in the classroom, making her feel welcome and calming her nerves. Even though the setting captures more of an elementary-aged classroom’s layout, the idea that kids can be leaders, and that everyone has to learn things the first time – even grown-ups – can add humor and confidence for readers of any age.
During or before the first days of preschool, a family can look at pictures of the preschool’s teachers and learn their names together. At school, parents can model trust and comfort by greeting the teacher, smiling and interacting. If a child wants to take a turn in the “teacher” role and tend to a flock of puppets (or role-reversed student parents), all the better.
For more back-to-school books, visit the Los Altos main library at 13 S. San Antonio Road, Linden Tree Books at 265 State St. or Books Inc. at 317 Castro St., Mountain View.