All summer long, your toddler has had all their favorite people around. Big siblings have been available for playtime nearly 24/7. Maybe you’ve gone away to a vacation home as a family or spent time at an amusement park. Bedtimes have been a little less strict and snuggles have been plentiful.
And then fall arrives.
Suddenly, there’s the hustle and bustle of a whole new routine. Everyone's a little stressed racing to get out the door in the morning. And those big siblings who have been giving your littlest one all that round the clock attention? They’re off somewhere big, new and mysterious that your toddler can’t go, leaving them confused, lonely, and definitely feeling the stress of transition.
Human beings (even the smallest ones) all share the desire to be included - to belong. As we head into this season of joy, change, and new routines, here are a few easy ways to reassure your toddler that they are an essential part of the family - even when the day-to-day of family life is changing.
Phase One: Getting Ready
Before the bell rings on the first day of school, you can help toddlers feel like part of the party by letting them help with prep by:
- Taking them school shopping along with older siblings and letting them pick out a few “school supplies” of their own. This might be a great time to plan a special first-week-back-at-school art project that involves something they love (shiny stickers or fingerpaints, for example). Buy the supplies, then tuck them away to use the first day of school.
- Filling them in on the plan. Toddlers may be little, but they still like to know what to expect. Show them the school building where their siblings will be attending. Talk about what school is, what siblings will do all day, and how they’ll get to go to school, too, when they get older.
Phase Two: The First Week
The first week of school is ALWAYS a little hectic. Your toddler knows what’s coming, but that doesn’t mean they (or older kids, for that matter) are going to cheerfully participate in the routine from day one. Try:
- Making sure everyone gets to sleep a little earlier than usual and waking everyone up a little earlier than necessary to keep the morning from tumbling into running late mayhem. A breakfast that makes everyone happy is a great place to start - prep pancake batter the night before or take everyone through your favorite family breakfast drive-thru on the way (listen, whatever gets everyone up and there is a big win in our book!)
- Letting toddlers be part of the action. Help little siblings make a special card or drawing to put in sibling lunch boxes and let them help pack the lunches for the big siblings. You can even make a back-to-school lunch for your toddler to eat later in the day. Our Toddler Tower is a great, safe, sturdy way to boost toddlers up to the kitchen counter and get them in on the fun.
- Doing something extra special with just your littlest. If your schedule allows, make a special stop on the way home from school drop off with your toddler to do something they really love. A short trip to the library, park, or playspace can distract them from the feeling that they’re missing out on something new their siblings are doing.
Phase Three: Establishing a Routine
Once you’ve got the first few weeks of school under your belt, take the time to start making a few new family routines or traditions that guarantee your youngest child gets some of the whole-family-together time they crave. Plans like:
- Setting aside a family day, or even a few family hours, over the weekend. Make sure as many members of your family are available as possible during family time, and play a game, go on an adventure, or have a meal together as a whole family.
- Planning occasional “field trips” with your toddler. You can make a fun, big deal out of how your field trips are just like the big kids - maybe even visit the same places! Check out the zoo, the museum, anywhere your kids in school might go. That way, your little one can say “me too!” when they talk about all the wonderful things they saw.
It’s easy to get caught up in the long back to school lists for older kids. It’s a LOT of work, on top of the already packed schedules of most modern parents. But when it comes to toddlers, a little extra up-front effort to help them feel included can go a long way and save time in the long run with fewer meltdowns, easier nap times, and a lot more joy.
Happy Back to School, everyone!