Sending Them Off
Adjusting to the first days of school
Many parents in Beijing are choosing to send their children off to school when they are as young as 2 years old – or even younger. Kaatje Harrison reached this decision a few months before she gave birth to her second child, Charlotte. Benjamin, at 21 months, was already a proficient talker and Harrison and her husband felt that with the new baby on the way, this was an ideal time to enroll him in the nursery class at the Children’s Learning House.
Londi Carbajal, the chief education officer at the Ivy Group schools since 2006, has been working with young children for over 40 years. In her experience, she has seen children as young as infants engage with each other. “We used to believe that infants were too young to connect with each other and that toddlers were too egocentric to play with other children, but research is disproving this,” Carbajal says. She says that in the classroom, she often sees children communicating even before they have speaking skills. “I’ve seen two boys connect through imitation. One friend would wait at the door for another friend. Once he arrived, they would chase each other around a circular rug – then one would fall down, and the other would follow,” she says.
Making a conscious effort to help kids socialize has become necessary, according to Carbajal. “When I was a child, I had a neighborhood full of children that were my age. During the day and weekends, I had many peers around me and that continued up through my teen years. But now, many kids tend to live in relative isolation. And if they don’t have a neighborhood, what would they be doing? Probably watching television,” she says. She adds that the best way to learn how to interact with other kids is to have hands-on practice – and that can happen in a school setting.
This was another reason the Harrisons decided to start Benjamin at school, although it wasn’t without a hitch. “At the beginning, it was a tough transition,” Harrison says. Benjamin often cried when his mother dropped him off at school, but by having his father take him to school, goodbyes to his mother were confined to their front door. “It was easier that way. He’s very smart, so he’d try delay tactics like saying he was hungry or wanted to play. When he would cry and had to leave, his father could distract him on the way to school,” said Harrison.
But Benjamin’s behavior is quite common. “Separation anxiety is expected. The first time a child goes to school or the first time a child enters a new school, they’re going to experience some anxiety. That’s the sign of a healthy child. Teachers should be very gentle and compassionate,” says Carbajal, who oversees the teachers at the Ivy Group schools, which have 20 kids per class and one to five teachers in each classroom. But Harrison also faced some separation anxiety of her own. “I was a nervous wreck when I left him and saw him cry,” she said. She did find a few ways to mitigate the effects of being separated.
“In the very beginning, I would go sit with Benjamin in class. Yes, he did cry when I eventually left, but the teachers would give me updates on how he had been during class.” She also found that gradually increasing his classroom time led to a smoother transition. Benjamin’s class meets for three hours two mornings a week, but in the beginning Harrison would pick Benjamin up after half that time. “Gradually, I would leave him there for longer and longer – now he spends the entire three hours there.”
In special cases, Carbajal allows mothers to stay for three or four days in the classroom (until the child feels more comfortable). Also, if the children are 3 years old or older, she may invite another child to come and help comfort the upset child. “It’s a way of inviting the child to practice empathy and compassion,” she says, although the process of getting a child to feel comfortable should never be hurried.
Londi Carbajal, chief education officer at the Ivy Group Schools
Benjamin developed a few attachments as a result of being apart from his mother – a blankie and a backpack filled with toy cars. He refused to let go of these two items while at school, but eventually, Benjamin did grow to really enjoy the experience. But with the start of summer school, he is being moved into a new classroom with a new teacher – another obstacle. “It’s almost as if he never went to school. He had gotten familiar with the routine of his class but with a new environment, it will probably be difficult again,” says Harrison. “He’s the kind of child who is more cautious with new people,” she adds. Carbajal calls children like Benjamin “watchers and waiters.” “I think these children are feeling, ‘I am not going to join until I feel safe, and I won’t feel safe until I’ve watched and waited long enough so see how my style of participation fits in,’” she says. One other thing teachers can do to help children build friendships is create a classroom environment that invites them to work together during activities. This also helps them work on negotiation skills.
Harrison thinks that if she and Benjamin had attended more Mommy and Me classes (classes where mothers and children can become more familiar in a classroom environment before sending kids off on their own), the transition may have been smoother. “I saw other kids who did that with their mothers, and they seemed just fine,” Harrison says.
Talking about the transition with your child, if they’re old enough, can also do wonders. “We would talk about how Mommy drops you off, you play at school, and who will be there, and then Mommy will pick you up. Ben would parrot these phrases back to us. I really needed to stress that Mommy leaves and comes back,” she says.
According to Carbajal, socializing teaches kids skills like negotiating, resolving conflict and solving problems – skills that will greatly benefit them when they start elementary school.
Playgroups are also a way for older children to socialize with other kids. Harrison met many other mothers at prenatal yoga and now they hold regular playgroups. Another way children learn how to socialize? By observing adults. “Teachers and parents should be friendly and respectful to each other. Kids learn a lot by what they see,” says Carbajal. Jessica Pan