Getting Your First Grader Off to a Good Start: Tips for Families

6 year old mixed-race girl with school backpack

The leap from kindergarten to first grade is a big one, bringing new routines, expectations, and classroom schedules. Find practical tips on how to support your child in making a smooth transition to first grade. 

First grade can bring a lot of changes! Even if your child had a great kindergarten year, there can be lots of new routines and expectations for first graders that can feel really different for students (and families). Here’s what you need to know.

Changes in routine, expectations, and schedule

First graders may be surprised to learn how their new classroom and teacher work differently from kindergarten. If students were in half-day (or no kindergarten program), those changes can feel like an even bigger change. While kindergarten and first grade programs can differ widely, here are some common changes for first graders:

  • Students may need to adjust to changes in their routine such as not having a nap or snack, and lunch may be later in the day.
  • Bathrooms, cubbies, coat hangers, and other important places may be outside of the classroom.
  • Students may be expected to go to the bathroom with a buddy, or there might be other changes in the bathroom routine.
  • Students may need to be in their seats for longer times.
  • Students may be expected to be more independent and focus on activities for longer stretches. Students may move between classrooms/teachers.
  • Students may not have as many choices during the day in terms of their learning and playtime.
  • Students may feel “unsuccessful” as they learn a lot of new things at one time, especially if they felt comfortable in their kindergarten class.

Lots of learning

First grade is an exciting time for learning! As students progress in that learning, things may feel a little bit more “academic.” Students may get homework and quizzes and they are likely to start taking more formal assessments. In addition, first grade is a critical year when it comes to reading instruction. To learn more about how you can support your first grader’s reading instruction, take a look at the following:

Tip for multilingual families

You have the legal right to information in your home language from your child’s school. Don’t hesitate to ask for interpreters or translated information as needed! 

What you can do

Check in with your child

Go beyond the standard “How was your day at school?”, which may not get more than a one-word answer. When your child is rested (and not tired after a long day), ask different kinds of questions such as:

  • Did anything funny happen today?
  • Has anything surprised you yet?
  • What’s a helpful thing your teacher did for you or a classmate?
  • Did anything worry you at school today?
  • How did things smell at school today? (You’ll be surprised at what you learn!)

Connect with your child’s teacher

If possible, take any opportunity to meet your child’s teacher, fill out family surveys, or go to back-to-school night. You can also send them a brief note introducing yourself, highlighting your child’s strengths and interests, and sharing anything that your child’s teacher should be aware of. This creates a partnership early on and gets things off on the right foot, and it also makes it easier to reach out if there are any challenges that you need to address.

First-grade teacher Sarah Kdouh says, “As a teacher, I love when parents are willing to let you know about their child’s nerves / feelings about being in school and away from home. This helps me better understand why the student may be acting or feeling a certain way throughout the school day. This year, I also sent home a parent survey for parents to complete with their children. This survey included questions about the child’s strengths, motivation, nicknames, favorite things to do outside of school and more! I had a great turnout and parents supplied so much valuable information.”

Put a different spin on morning good-byes

Ms Kdouh says, “One small thing that I’ve noticed that makes a big difference is saying ‘I’ll see you later’ or ‘I’ll see you in a bit’ instead of saying ‘Good-bye’ or ‘Bye’ when dropping the student off at the door.”

Find out how your child’s teacher is supporting social and emotional learning (SEL)

Many schools are placing a strong emphasis on SEL in the classroom and school community by giving students tools to identify and deal with their emotions and learn calming practices. Find out what your teacher is doing and how you can support SEL at home with the following tips from Colorín Colorado (available in 16 languages): How to Support Your Child's Social-Emotional Health.

Learn more about what SEL might look like from the following articles:

Read stories together

There are some great books that focus on the highs (and lows) of first grade, such as:

Other back-to-school books can also be a great way to talk about topics such as friends, nerves, and meeting a new teacher:

Prioritize rest and sleep

Due to the changes of what is asked of a first grader, students will come home more tired than before, especially if they are used to taking a nap during the day. You may want to cut back or monitor after-school activities for the first month or so. And getting enough sleep will make an important difference in your child’s health, energy, and ability to adjust to new situations. But it’s not always easy to adjust those schedules! If you need ideas on how to help your child get more sleep, take a look at these resources from HealthyChildren.org and KidsHealth (also available in Spanish) or talk with your child’s pediatrician.

Breakfast matters!

Whether your child is eating breakfast at home or getting breakfast at school, it’s important to plan your mornings to ensure breakfast happens. First-grade teacher Amanda Tokko writes, “It is so important for families to set a routine for their child. Getting a good night's sleep AND eating breakfast are so important! I am always stressing to my students and their families that having a morning breakfast means having fuel for learning. At our school, students have the advantage of getting a free breakfast, so I always remind my students that they just need to arrive a little early to make sure they get their fuel for the day.”

Work out a homework routine together

Think about the best time for your child to do homework. Is someone available who can help? If possible, find a clear, quiet place for them to work and be sure to check their backpack each day or assignments or announcements. If it’s not part of their homework, set aside some time for them to practice their reading each day so they can put those new skills to use!

Don’t forget the fun

Lots of fun things will be happening along the way! Most likely, students will enjoy hearing lots of great books read aloud, doing interesting art projects, going to their specials (such as art, music, and physical education), celebrating holidays, and using technology in innovative ways. In addition, losing teeth, learning to read, and exploring their own natural curiosity can all be fun and memorable experiences for first graders.

By taking some time early on in the school year to get things off on the right foot, you can help your first grader make the most of an exciting and important year!

Lydia Breiseth, Reading Rockets (2022)

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller