In the education world, June marks a time of transition.
It’s easy to think of major rites of passage—high school and college graduations often first come to mind—but as any parent, teacher, or student will remind you, school life, from preschool to graduate school, is marked by a number of transitions, whether that’s moving up a grade level, attending a new school, or tackling a field of study. Transitions are exciting and scary no matter the age, but are especially important to consider for those experiencing them for the first time.
Rowland Hall’s kindergarten and first-grade teams spend time each year thoughtfully preparing the current class of kindergartners for the next phase of their academic lives.
At Rowland Hall, many students’ first major school transition occurs when they move from the Beginning School, where they attended preschool and kindergarten, to the Lower School for first grade. It’s a change in the physical building, as well as teachers, schedules, and routines, and it’s not uncommon for kids to feel unnerved about the transition. It’s little wonder, then, why Rowland Hall’s kindergarten and first-grade teams spend time each year thoughtfully preparing the current class of kindergartners for this new phase of their academic lives.
On May 18, those passing by the first-grade quad on the McCarthey Campus may have caught a glimpse of one aspect of this work, when teaching team Bethany Stephensen and Quincy Jackson ’16 led their kindergartners to Galen McCallum’s first-grade classroom. This visit was the kindergartners’ fourth trip to the first grade this year, offering them another chance to examine life as a first grader. (Kindergartners visit all four first-grade classes each spring, and prior to these visits, first graders stop by the kindergarten classrooms so the younger learners can meet them in a familiar space.) On this particular Thursday, the kindergartners were invited to sit within a circle of their first-grade friends to further explore what they can look forward to next year.
“We know you’re going to be first graders really soon,” began Galen, “and we want you to know what to expect.”
The first graders opened the discussion by each sharing one thing that’s different about first grade. “We get to use iPads,” was one contribution; another: “We get three recesses.” The group also covered similarities between the grades (for instance, kindergartners can continue to look forward to PE with Collin and Anna Banana, library with Vicki, and music with Susan). Kindergartners were then invited to ask questions, and they inquired whether first graders ever grew plants or cared for a class pet, where they had lunch, if they had homework. Excitement grew as the first graders responded to each query. The group then divided into pairs for story time (with first graders reading to their kindergarten buddies) before heading outside for a shared recess.
Kindergarten lead teacher Bethany said these first-grade visits build on the year-long kindergarten study of community, which includes an emphasis on building relationships with friends across school divisions. Since the fall, kindergartners have had many chances to meet students in the lower, middle and upper schools, as well as to build community among themselves. The kindergarten team has seen much success with what they endearingly call the “kindergarten switcheroo”: mixing students from all three classes into four groups to spend one afternoon a week together, either in a kindergarten classroom or the TREC Lab. “This is an intentional move to build grade-level community and familiarity,” Bethany explained. “That way, when children are placed in new classes for first grade, their classmates will be known to them, for the most part, rather than mostly unknown, which can help to alleviate first-grade anxieties.”
All of these steps are part of a larger plan to get the kindergartners ready for first grade, but this work, from the students’ perspective, is very quiet, naturally integrated into day-to-day routines—and for good reason. “It can feel really stressful to little kids to talk about a big change too far ahead of time,” said Bethany. “They live in the moment.”
That’s why, even when first-grade visits began in February, the teachers kept the focus on friendship, not on the future change. “They get to play and be together, build relationships,” said first-grade teacher Katie Williams, who taught kindergarten at Rowland Hall for 10 years before joining the first-grade team in 2022–2023. This solid foundation of relationship provides further support when the kindergarten teachers finally begin leading discussions about the upcoming transition near the end of the year—a time where students can ask questions, reflect on personal growth, and explore emotions. “We model that you can feel more than one thing and that’s okay,” said Bethany. “We can feel really excited to be in the Lower School and sad to not be in the Beginning School.”
We spend so much time getting to know these little learners and what works for them.—Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten lead teacher
The teachers also believe it’s okay for parents and caregivers to have big emotions about this change, and hope that they take comfort in knowing that, just as the teachers thoughtfully prepared kindergarteners for first grade over the school year, they will continue to support students and families during the next phase. “We’re all motivated to help bridge that gap,” said Bethany, and many grown-ups—teachers, principals, and support/specialty staff— partner to ensure each student seamlessly receives the support they need to thrive in first grade.
“We spend so much time getting to know these little learners and what works for them, and that doesn’t disappear when they move to the Lower School,” said Bethany.
Supporting Your Rising First Grader: Tips for Parents and Caregivers
- Continue to build your child’s independence over the summer. Kindergarten teachers spend a lot of time building students’ independence, so by continuing this work over summer break, families will help their child be prepared for the responsibilities of first grade, such as managing personal belongings and daily transitions, as well as build their self-confidence. Let your child take on tasks such as preparing a simple meal, dressing themselves, packing their camp bag, and cleaning their room.
- Follow your child’s lead when it comes to talking about first grade. It’s normal for kids to have a wide range of reactions about the transition to first grade. Some may express apprehension over summer break, while others may not bring it up at all. Follow your child’s lead when it comes to discussing the upcoming school year.
- If your child expresses concern about first grade, believe and validate them—but don’t try to fix it. It can be tempting to want to erase your child’s worries about a new experience, but early childhood experts agree that the best approach is to give them a safe place to express what’s on their mind. Start by saying, “Tell me more,” to get a better sense of what the child is worrying about, then follow up with phrases such as, “That’s interesting,” or, “I wonder what you’re thinking about that.” You can follow up by telling your child stories about when you went through new experiences as a child (including your feelings and what helped), as hearing stories from loved ones helps normalize what children are experiencing. (And if your student is having trouble expressing themselves to you, encourage them to share worries with a stuffed friend.)
- Walk nervous children to class during the first week. For those who are especially nervous to start first grade, have a trusted grown-up walk them to class during the first few days of school to provide a layer of comfort and support. (Rowland Hall parents should be clear this is a temporary step while the child gets used to a new school arrival routine.)
- Communicate with your child’s first-grade teacher. First-grade teachers understand that this transition can be hard on kids and parents alike. Know that educators view families as team members and have your child’s best interest at heart. They will share how to reach out to them during the school year and families are encouraged to use those lines of communication when they need support or have questions.
- Take comfort in knowing that your child will be fine—and will grow as a learner. Remember that going through changes and experiencing new challenges are an important and normal part of child development. No matter what emotions may arise for your child (or yourself!) during the transition to first grade, remember this is an exciting step in your child’s learning journey—and that new adventures cultivate growth, self-discovery, and newfound capabilities in children.