'It's a big deal to go to kindergarten': Advice from 1st-graders who've been there

Derek Montgomery for MPR News
Duluth first graders offer first-day-of-school advice to kindergarteners

For many kids and their parents across Minnesota, Labor Day marked the last day of summer vacation — and school starts now.

And for kindergarteners, the day is doubly momentous: Often the first full day of school, the first ride on the bus, the first time away from parents and siblings and day care for hours at a time.

Liam Tonnis knows. "It's a big deal to go to kindergarten," he said last week at an open house for his new first-grade classroom at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth. It was only a year ago that he was the new kid in the school. But now he's an expert.

"The most important thing you should do," he said, "is have fun."

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Liam and his classmates — the experts on kindergarten — offered some insights for incoming kindergarteners who are about to start school this week.

'Play with others that are alone.' — Evren Sotres

Advice from first-graders to kindergarteners
Duluth, Minn., first-grader Evren Sotres
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

"They're going to learn about how to be confident, and smart and respectful, and play with others that are alone."

Evren is her mom's third child to start school. "They'll be fine," Jessica Chavez laughed. "The teachers are generally super, super communicative, and will send home weekly emails, covering the things they're going through in class. So you can help them in the home setting."

She offers a word of advice to the parents of new kindergarteners: "Even if you are kind of dreading it, putting on the face of confidence for your kids is really important, because if they see you having a hard time, they're going to reflect that," she said.

'Everyone feels the same way ... and it's OK.' — Zoe McDonald

Zoe is also the youngest of her mom's three daughters. She was a little reluctant to offer a lot of advice, but agreed that everyone in her class was a little nervous the first day of school — but that it all ended up being a lot of fun.

"It's kind of bittersweet," Amanda McDonald said. "It's exciting to see her grow and become the person she is, but this is my baby, and she's growing up, so: Cherish the times."

She echoed the advice that Evren's mom gave: "They'll be fine. I remember her first day [of kindergarten], her going on the bus with her two older sisters, and wanting to follow the bus to the school because I felt like she needed me," she said.

"They're perfectly fine. They're capable, and they're going to have fun. I think we have a harder time with them going to school, than they [do]. They are going to have a blast, and meet new friends, and it's good, it's a good thing."

'It's OK! You'll have friends!' — Brianna Wallace

Brianna Wallace loved kindergarten. "I got to color a lot of pictures, and there was a really fun playground. And once we got to play four times!" she said. She said the most important thing for new kindergarteners to know is that everything will be OK.

"It's OK! You'll have friends!" she said. She wasn't too nervous the first day, she said. "I think I was a little bit more emotional than she was," her mom, Jessica Wallace, said. "She was like, 'Bye Mom.'"

"It's OK to cry," her dad, Joe, said. "Dropping your kids off, don't feel bad. Everybody understands. I got a little teared up."

Lunch: 'It's not all candy, and it's not all vegetables. It's like a mix of everything.' — Millie Mohn-Johnsen

Lunchtime is the part of kindergarten that Millie Mohn-Johnsen wanted to talk about the most. "It's not all candy. And it's not all vegetables. It's like a mix of everything," she said. "Sometimes there's ice cream with the food, sometimes Rice Krispies." And the French fries? The best. "They were shaped like smiley faces."

Advice from first-graders to kindergarteners
Duluth, Minn., first-grader Emilia Mohn-Johnsen
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

But her mom, Jessica Mohn-Johnsen, said she didn't always hear about how Millie's day was in kindergarten till long after her daughter got home. "What I knew is she was having all these adventures, and I always wanted her to come home and tell me all about kindergarten. [But] kindergarteners live in the moment," she said.

"She didn't always know what she did in kindergarten, but she always had fun, and it was a good time. So I had to just let it be, just let it be, and she'll tell me stories when she remembers them after the moment."

Bonus: Five things to know, from a kindergarten teacher

Becky Sheldon is a teacher at a Spanish-immersion kindergarten at Lowell Elementary. She offered her top five tips for parents about to start the kindergarten year.

1) Read!

The most important thing you can do, she said, is read.

"Read to your kid. Read to your kid every single night for at least 20 minutes," she said. "In English — or Spanish, if you know it."

The best time to read is before bed, she said. And if you want to know a little more about how the school day went, she said, start a little early. Most kids will give you a "fine" or "I don't know" when you ask how their day was, she said.

But: Start reading 40 minutes before bedtime.

"You start reading to your kids, and they start talking to you," she said. "And that's a really, really, really important time for them to decompress after a long school day. It gives them an opportunity to finally share stuff with you."

2) When you ask, 'How was your day?' ... 'Good' is OK

It can be a little deflating to ask your kindergartener how school has gone — just to get a "good" or a "fine" or an "I don't remember" in response. But parsing through the events of a school day is a lot for a little kid, Sheldon said.

"Don't be surprised when your little kid doesn't tell you anything about their school day," she said. "Kids might be really vocal, but when you ask them how their day went, they're going to literally be like: 'Good! Bad! I don't know!'"

Just give them a minute, she said — and try that bedtime-story strategy to get them talking.

"So just know they've got a lot going on, and they need time to decompress and figure out what happened, so that's a beautiful time right before bed to give them that time to talk to you."

3) The Backpack Monster is real

If you have little kids, you've met the Backpack Monster.

Sheldon confirms that the monster exists: "If a teacher sends anything home with a kindergartner — and, I would say, a first-grader also — it's probably not going to get in your hands, because the backpack monster is going to eat it or throw it somewhere."

Just know that not every paper your kid's teacher sends home is going to make it into your hands, she said.

4) Celebrate the independence of being in kindergarten

Kindergarten is a really big deal: For a lot of kids, it's the first time they're going to all-day school. It's the first time they're riding the bus. It's the first time they're at a school with lots of bigger kids.

It can be tough for parents, to watch their little ones growing up, Sheldon said, but it's tough for kids, too.

"It's always a really hard time," she said. "But: Celebrate that independence, because these little kids, they need it and they want it, also."

"They're super-excited most of the time to go to school, and if they're not excited, it's because they're anxious, and so the best thing you can do is put your trust in the teacher, and know that she understands, or he understands, that your kid's anxious, and give those kids that independence."

None of this is easy, she said, but it's really common.

"I see a lot of parents who come through, [and] they're scared of letting go of their kid, and putting their kid in another person's hands for the day," said Sheldon. "I think all parents go through it, either at school or sending your kid off to daycare. They're yours, you want to keep them."

"But just know: We teach kids to share. Share your kids with us!"

5) Let them tie their own shoes

This one's really important, Sheldon said — but it's not going to be easy.

"Let your kid struggle through tying their shoe," she said. "It's awful. It's a horrible time. You feel like you're abusing your child by telling them, 'Just sit there and do it.' But it's a necessity."

"Let them learn."

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