August 31, 2021
[00:00:00] Cindy Lopez:
Welcome to Voices of Compassion, CHC’s podcast series providing courage, connection and compassion, highlighting topics that matter to our community, our parents, families, educators and other professionals. My name is Cindy Lopez, starting school is both exciting and scary for children and their parents. Young children thrive when they feel comfortable, safe and secure. And coming off a year with the pandemic, it’s challenging to help your child feel prepared when everything feels so uncertain. So we’re really glad that you’re joining us today as we talk with Dr. Natalie Pon about the transition to kindergarten. Dr. Pon is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at CHC, specializing in the assessment and care of young children. She’s very experienced with child-centered, dyadic, trauma-focused and cognitive behavioral play therapy. We’re thrilled that she’s joining us today for this very timely topic about starting kindergarten. Welcome Dr. Pon.
[00:01:06] Dr. Pon in your experience working with young children and their families what does an anxious child look like? What do you see in young children who are starting kindergarten?
[00:01:18] Natalie Pon, MD:
Anxiety is the most common thing that we see in young children and most children have some anxieties about kindergarten. Anxiety in young children can present in a variety of ways. Children communicate their feelings through their behaviors. Sometimes anxiety may present with what we call internalizing symptoms such as fearfulness, tearfulness, clinging and withdrawal – this is often easily identified by adults as anxiety. However, often anxiety presents in what we call externalizing symptoms. These are things like tantrums, crying or screaming, throwing themselves to the ground or an anxious child may appear very resistant or rigid, refusing to do things often interpreted by parents as oppositionality. Sometimes anxious children even present with aggressive or destructive behaviors. It’s always important to consider anxiety when a young child is struggling or when you are noticing concerning behaviors.
[00:02:23] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah so that’s interesting because parents might be seeing all kinds of different behaviors, it could include, you know, resistance or rigidity or that oppositionality you talked about because I think that parents can see that as like just trying to push my buttons or just trying to be defiant or whatever.
[00:02:45] Natalie Pon, MD:
Absolutely. Yes, just trying to be difficult.
[00:02:49] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah, so it sounds like parents just need to know that hat behavior could be a result of the child feeling anxious, right?
[00:02:59] Natalie Pon, MD:
Yes, you know whenever your child’s behavior is kind of off or a little bit far from what is typical for your child that always is kind of like a flag to think about what could be going on, what feelings may my child be having inside that they are communicating to me with some of these behaviors that may not align in our adult minds.
[00:03:24] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah and young children may not have the language or vocabulary to be able to say how they’re feeling or it’s really more sophisticated thinking to like be able to connect a feeling with like, oh, I’m feeling angry or I’m feeling mad because I’m really nervous about starting kindergarten, like that’s just not going to happen, right?
[00:03:50] Natalie Pon, MD:
Yes exactly, If your child is able to do that then you are way ahead of the curve, but the social emotional learning that happens in early childhood is exactly what you’re saying Cindy, learning that vocabulary and that language.
[00:04:06] Cindy Lopez:
Is it generally most kids are anxious about starting kindergarten? Would that be accurate?
[00:04:13] Natalie Pon, MD:
I would say that probably there’s something that may be starting up a little bit of anxiety in them. Many kids will say that they’re not anxious, that is kind of the default to deny emotions. As parents you know your child best and you know I’d say just like with adults any sort of change brings new things and new things can be scary or new things are just the unknown.
[00:04:43] Cindy Lopez:
Right, right. So kids are anxious and it seems like parents could have some anxiety too about, oh my gosh, my child’s going off to school for the first time. So what do you see with parents?
[00:04:57] Natalie Pon, MD:
I see a really big range of emotions in parents, and I think one thing to keep in mind is that children are emotional sponges and they absorb their parents’ feeling states. On a concrete level you know, I do see a lot of parental anxiety. Many parents worry about how their child will do in kindergarten, will they behave and make friends, will they be able to use the bathroom or eat lunch without my help. Many kids have not done that independently on a consistent basis. How will we get there in the morning, how am I going to do all the drop-offs, what will the classroom look like. There’s a lot of things that parents are thinking about just from a practical standpoint with their child transitioning to kindergarten.
[00:05:49] Natalie Pon, MD:
You know I think on a deeper level, many parents have very ambivalent feelings when their child transitions to kindergarten. This time can be exciting and at the same time feel like a huge loss for parents. This is a big moment of your child moving out of close family connections and moving into the world on his or her own and it’s something that they’re going to experience separately from their parents, and that can bring up a lot of mixed feelings for parents. Your child now has a huge chunk of time during the day that they don’t spend with you and you miss them. It’s a loss for sure, and I always encourage parents at this time to really prioritize self-care and give themselves validation for all of their feeling states.
[00:06:42] Cindy Lopez:
So my background is education, and actually started in early childhood education long ago and far away, but that relationship too it might help parents to make sure that they’re building a relationship with the child’s teacher so that they can get a sense of what’s going on every day and the kindergarten teachers they’re kind of a, you know, a breed on their own, right, I love them.
[00:07:08] Natalie Pon, MD:
Absolutely, yes, kindergarten teachers are wonderful.
[00:07:13] Cindy Lopez:
If this is your first experience as a parent sending your child off to kindergarten, make friends with the teacher and you’ll find that that will kind of ease some of your own anxiety and worry too.
[00:07:27] Natalie Pon, MD:
I absolutely agree with open communication with teachers, and communicating to them your concerns, if you have any or anything that you want them to know about your child, they’ll be happy to have that information.
[00:07:42] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah. You know Dr. Pon in addition to all of this kind of just natural anxiety that occurs when starting kindergarten, we’ve been living in this pandemic for over a year, and that has changed some of our practices and behaviors, especially in relation to early childhood experiences, and I’m just wondering do you have any comments on that?
[00:08:05] Natalie Pon, MD:
Well I think you’re absolutely right, young children even more so now than ever have had so many different early childhood experiences and parents, you guys have been under a lot of stress during this pandemic. The pandemic has been particularly hard on parents of younger children who’ve been trying to work and take care of their kids at home. This has been such a challenging past year and a half, and there’s a huge range of what we’re seeing kids having coming into kindergarten, even if a child started preschool a year and a half or two years ago, they may not have had the experience of leaving home and experiences of being in a group of kids their own age on a really regular basis, they may have been doing that over Zoom. They also may not have as much experience making new friends or playing with other children at parks or places that families would typically gather due to the level of restrictions and maintaining distance. For those of you whose children were able to go to preschool, they definitely have an advantage of experiencing some of the separation issues, getting used to a new setting and a new teacher and the advantages and stresses of being in a group. Some kids have been in daycare and for them kindergarten may not feel very different. On the other hand, many children have been at home through the whole pandemic, this is okay, too. Kindergarten will be a point of transition no matter what, but every child will transition and transition at his or her own pace.
[00:09:44] Cindy Lopez:
Thank you for tuning in! Just a note, before we continue on with today’s episode, we hope you’re following us on social media, so you don’t need to wait a whole week between episodes to get engaging, inspiring and educational content from CHC. Our social handles are linked on our podcast webpage at podcasts.chconline.org.
[00:10:09] You know we’ve talked about anxious kids, anxious parents, the pandemic. I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding effective ways for parents to support their kids. What should parents consider and what practical tips might you provide?
[00:10:26] Natalie Pon, MD:
Some of the first things that come to my mind are related to routine, structure and communication with your child. Young children thrive on routine and structure, and many children actually thrive so much on structure and the structure of school that they do very, very well there. More so than at home and maybe especially at home during this pandemic where things tend to be less structured. I hope that this feels like a relief for some parents, especially because I’ve heard so many concerns from parents about their child’s behavior at home during this pandemic. I would really encourage families to shift their routine at home as much as possible to align with the routine at school. So some questions may be that you ask yourself: what time does my child need to be getting up and going to sleep this school year, have them start waking up at that time and have them start eating at times that are similar to what they will be doing at school. This really helps to get your child’s body in the same rhythm as the school year. We want children to be sleeping well and eating regularly to stay regulated during the day and be their best selves. And as hard as it is, I would really keep the structure on the weekends, especially during the first month or two during the transition back to school. It’s a lot more work upfront, but I promise that that will make things so much smoother in the long run. We as adults all kind of know what that feeling is like Monday morning going to work after enjoying a lot of sleeping in on the weekends and maintaining the routine will really help your child during school and during all their times at home.
[00:12:25] Parents can also prompt kids about different transitions through the day and practice transitioning with activities. This is what happens at school where kids shift from circle time to free play, to sitting at a table to recess and having a snack. This can be a growth point for a lot of kids with kindergarten as many children may be used to having a large amount of free time and unstructured time at home. When you’re working on prompting children with transitions, give your child a labeled behavior praise, great job coming over to the table when I asked, this will really help to reinforce those behaviors. Young children thrive on consistency and predictability. By making home consistent and predictable we can help them feel more at ease.
[00:13:17] Cindy Lopez:
As an educator I completely agree setting up those regular routines and structures really create a safe environment for the child. And when a child feels safe, they’re willing to take more risks. When they can take risks that’s kind of where the learning happens, so that structure and routine and predictability is so important for kids, all kids I think, but particularly young children. Having a signal, when they change activities, so even at home, you might say you know what we have two more minutes and then when you hear the timer go off, like, that’s your signal that it’s going to be time to get ready for bed or whatever it is, but having a signal is kind of nice too and that as Dr. Pon said they use that in kindergarten.
[00:14:06] Natalie Pon, MD:
Yes. I love that idea, and I’m glad you brought that up. One thing that I love to use during my sessions and encourage families to get is something called a time timer – you can find them easily on Amazon. The good thing about this timer is that it really gives the kid a visual of how much time they have left, and I love your ideas about prompting. I really encourage parents to prompt ten, five, two minutes, and you’ll find over time that they need less prompts because they’ll get used to transitioning.
[00:14:42] Cindy Lopez:
It’s funny because I am watching my nephew’s daughter who just turned two and I’ve watched them say, you know, Georgia, you have two more minutes, you have five minutes, and even though the young child doesn’t really understand the five minutes she’s starting to learn that language, right. So she just knows, okay, we’re going to make a transition. That’s not what she’s thinking in her head, but she knows they’re about to do something different. And so whether or not they understand the five minutes or two minutes doesn’t really matter.
[00:15:14] Natalie Pon, MD:
Exactly, yeah, you know, they know that it’s a kind of a prompt to wrap up what you’re doing at that time and that’s what schools do, and there’s a lot of transitions during the school day. And that’s one of the real learning and growth points of kindergarten.
[00:15:31] Cindy Lopez:
I think children really feel calmer when they know what’s going to happen, right. And so part of easing their anxiety is giving them that information that they need.
[00:15:42] Natalie Pon, MD:
Exactly. Children definitely feel a lot calmer when they have information, just like adults. So many times I see kids who feel very anxious because they don’t know what’s coming next. And that may be because adults don’t communicate to them or that may be because they actually were communicated that information, but don’t remember. So I always give the example of, imagine going to work and not knowing anything that will happen today versus having a schedule of your meetings. It’s stressful to not know what to expect and kids feel the same way that’s why when you walk into the kindergarten classroom there’s the visual schedule up on the board so that kids know what is coming next. And I would really encourage parents to give developmentally appropriate information about school. This might be things like: who will take them to school, what is their teacher’s name, what kinds of things might they do at school, who’s going to pick them up and where are they going after they get picked up. When there’s opportunity for choices, I definitely encourage you to involve your child, such as what do they want in their lunchbox. I think it’s really important to distinguish to children what are adult choices and kid choices.
[00:17:08] The other thing that parents might talk about in terms of information sharing and communication is talk about what’s exciting for kindergarten. Kindergarten is a chance to make new friends and meet other kids, meet kids from places that you would not have otherwise met, meet teachers who like to help kids learn new things like sing new songs, read new books. Kindergarten is getting to do art projects and playing with new toys, having things like recess, where they get to play with their friends on the playground. And if parents are able to it’s always great to take your child to play at the school playground ahead of time or on weekends. This really helps the child to familiarize themselves with the space and the school and get more comfortable so that everything during the day isn’t completely new.
[00:18:02] Cindy Lopez:
Dr. Pon you mentioned that your child needs to understand what the adult choices are and what the kid choices are, could you give a couple examples of that. What do you mean by that?
[00:18:14] Natalie Pon, MD:
One thing that I do in my sessions which really helps with this concept is that I draw out three baskets or even better if I have three baskets, then I use them. And I label the baskets: basket number one belongs to mom and dad, basket number three belongs to the child and basket number two belongs to mom and dad and the kid and every child has their own set of baskets. And then I put toys in them or put eggs or whatever the kid wants and these represent the choices that are up to the parents, the parent and the kid, or just the kid. I identify things like for the child, you know, what flavor ice cream I want, what book I wanna read at bedtime, what I want in my lunch box and adult choices, basket number one, those choices are things like brushing your teeth before bedtime or going to school, those are adult choices and when kids know what’s within their control and what’s not within their control that really helps to settle things down at home and make them feel calm and safe because if they don’t really know where their boundaries lie, then it feels like they can push and push. And you know, there may not be any limits, and that creates a lot of anxiety for young children.
[00:19:51] Cindy Lopez:
That’s a great analogy and a great visual for parents to see too. If a child is feeling particularly worried about kindergarten, how can parents help them, like should parents share their own feelings or not?
[00:20:06] Natalie Pon, MD:
You know parents sharing their own worries about kindergarten some children will handle that well and feel like that is helpful, but other kids may actually feel more worried hearing their parents worry about their kindergarten. What I actually recommend parents do is that they share how they felt nervous or scared when they were going to kindergarten or what that experience was like when they were that age. This allows parents to continue to project some confidence with the transition, as well as, you know, identify with the child. This also brings up the topic of what do you mommy or daddy do when you’re worried about something new – that’s an important lifelong question for kids. Sharing can help to validate your child’s feelings and also allow you to still project confidence for your child with the transition. Sometimes reading books together about separations, such as the kissing hand can also be a way to provide information and talk about the transition.
[00:21:13] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah and you mentioned separation, like that’s not unusual, right for a child, entering kindergarten to just struggle with separation and parents too, as a matter of fact.
[00:21:25] Natalie Pon, MD:
Oh yes, absolutely that’s very typical.
[00:21:28] Cindy Lopez:
Do you have any advice or thoughts about how to make that separation a little bit easier?
[00:21:34] Natalie Pon, MD:
Typically what the separation looked like pre-pandemic was that children would get walked into the kindergarten classroom and parents would really, you know, drop them off in the classroom and it would be a direct transition from parent to teacher, hugs, goodbye, hello to the teacher. And that felt very containing to kids. One thing I’ve seen since the pandemic is that many schools are now having all kids no matter what their age is, be dropped off from a carpool or from another setting to reduce the amount of people on campus. And I’ll say it’s not really developmentally typical for a five-year-old to be dropped off from the car. If we think about it, most kids this age are used to having parents walk them into a new place. So this style of separation has been challenging for many young children, understandably. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge and validate this if that’s the kind of drop-off that your child’s going to have. And I would say, you know, if drop ups or separations are particularly challenging for your child you may practice play some separations, such as saying goodbye and closing a door at home. This could be the front door, or this could be doors between rooms and then reopening the door and saying, hi, great to see you again. You might also practice getting in and out of the car if they are being dropped off in a carpool lane and you could go to kind of a fun place, like a toy store and practice that in and out of the car. This really supports rapprochement, which is a developmental consideration at this age and that’s all about the going apart and reuniting. Ideally at this age, children have built a stable mental representation of their parents, but a lot of kids still need something very, very concrete and if you think that your child might benefit from this, you might ask the school if he or she could bring a transitional object, such as a picture of your family or a picture of a toy or something that actually belongs to you, mom or dad. Usually kids aren’t allowed to bring toys. However, some schools will be flexible about children bringing a stuffed animal and leaving it in their backpack during the day, just having this can be very comforting to kids who have a lot of anxiety around the separation.
[00:24:13] Cindy Lopez:
Thanks so much for your advice to parents on that front because separation I know is probably one of the biggest things in terms of the early kindergarten experience, hopefully as the year progresses, that becomes less and less of an issue. And Dr. Pon, I’m wondering, you’ve referenced in past conversations play, and how important that is for the child, can you talk a little bit about that?
[00:24:38] Natalie Pon, MD:
You know the thing that I would want anybody listening to this to take away from here, I feel strongly that every parent can do and this will be valuable to every child is to play with your child. Play gives us access to the inner lives of children. Play is the language of childhood and play has meaning. So, you know, I encourage parents to take five to ten minutes, five minutes in the studies is all that it takes; playing one-on-one with your child, giving him or her your full undivided attention. You can give this a name, like special time or Cindy’s time or whatever you want to name it. During this time, I tell parents to follow your child’s lead and really try to minimize questions or directing your child’s play. And if you let your child lead you will find that through their play they communicate to you, the answers to your very important questions about how was your day or what did you do today.
[00:25:48] You’ll see that in the play, they’ll probably set up a school and kids and they might want to do a role reversal where you are the kindergartener and they get to be the teacher. This is the way that children process experiences. Play is also a way that children can cope with changes or master something challenging. So if your child is struggling with something in kindergarten, anytime during the year, you know, I would absolutely spend time playing something similar to what might be going on. So it might be something like we’re playing going to school or we’re playing, you know, that two animals got into an argument when they both wanted to play with the same toy. Play can be a way that you explore and teach your child to manage conflict. And using play, you know, children are very receptive, they get it and they feel it. And it’s highly meaningful and valuable to your relationship.
[00:26:53] Cindy Lopez:
I think that’s a really good reminder for everyone, for parents, play is the work of a young child, right.
[00:27:00] Cindy Lopez:
So much of what you shared really resonates with me and especially the importance of play in supporting social and emotional growth. I’m just wondering if you have any parting thoughts or anything you want to make sure that parents really hear today.
[00:27:15] Natalie Pon, MD:
Well thank you so much for having me, Kindergarten is an exciting milestone filled with different sorts of emotions on both ends. For many kids this is a first experience with a big class and a wide variety of kids. This year is an opportunity to learn more about how to make friends and keep friends, how to deal with somebody who’s not nice to you, how to take turns, share and listen to others. As parents, I would really hear your child out as they share challenges over this next year. We don’t want to default to reassurance or minimizing their concerns too quickly, really listen to your child tell you, what did you experience today and then let’s think or play together about other ways this could have happened. Kindergarten’s a space for your child to learn social emotional skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives, and that’s really the work of kindergarten.
[00:28:19] Cindy Lopez:
Thank you so much Dr. Pon that kindergarten year is such an important, foundational experience for kids, and I don’t mean to say that and make parents feel more anxious about it, but it’s fun, it should be fun and enjoy it.
[00:28:43] Natalie Pon, MD:
Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Every child will learn how to write letters and their numbers and all the academic content, but the real growth of kindergarten is learning and mastering some of those social emotional skills.
[00:29:00] Cindy Lopez:
Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Pon, and thank you to all of our listeners for joining us today too, and we hope you’ll tune in again next week.
[00:29:10] Find us online at podcasts.chconline.org. Also, please follow us on our socials. Find us on Facebook at chc.paloalto and Twitter and Instagram at CHC_paloalto. You can also visit our YouTube channel at chconlinepaloalto. And we are on LinkedIn. Subscribe to Voices of Compassion on Apple podcasts, Spotify and other podcast apps, and sign up for a virtual village email list so you never miss an update or an episode. I always love to hear from you so send me an email or a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a rating and review. We look forward to you tuning in each week.