Transitioning to Grade School: Tips to Build Your Child’s Self Confidence
By Robbin Rockett, Psy.D

Children entering kindergarten and first grade are well on their way to becoming big kids. It’s a big transition, and you may notice that your sweet, confident toddler has become shy, insecure or aggressive at school and at home. “What happened?” you’ll no doubt wonder along with questioning what you can do to support your child’s passage from preschool to grade school. As children enter grade school, their independence and competition increases and their need to be loved and feel secure remains. They move from being emotionally dependent on their family to experiencing others in the world. Moving through this complex social and emotional territory can be tricky and confusing as their sense of self, “who am I,” starts to develop outside the family. Offering empathy and understanding as well as exploring solutions helps build their ability to deal with others in an assertive and compassionate way.

As relationships outside the family become important and “best friends” develop and change, the child’s sense of self is increasingly determined by how he evaluates himself in relation to peers. Dealing with feelings of jealousy, aggression, and competitiveness on the playground is a normal part of growing up and essential for building skills in dealing with complex social situations later in life. As children develop friendships with peers, social struggles on the playground can be complicated and difficult to understand for your child. How can we help our kids maneuver through the “playground politics” and gain self-confidence?

First, know that all of this is a normal part of growing up that will be the building blocks for their social development later in adolescence and adulthood. Helping your child by listening without judgment and exploring their feelings and solutions to difficult situations they encounter at school and on the playground will help build their confidence and self esteem. Here are a few tips:

  • Spend regular consistent one-on-one time with your child. This can be as little as fifteen minutes of playing, talking, doing a share activity like a walk or shooting hoops. Building a warm, trusting relationship will be the foundation to help them discuss issues that arise with friends at school.
  • Work together with your child to problem-solve issues that come up for them by discussing different solutions. The goal here is to develop their ability to think through a situation by anticipating challenges and creating solutions to try out.
  • Empathize with your child about a difficult situation. If we listen and learn how our child understands the problem and why they may be behaving in a certain way, then it is easier to help them change their behavior.

Seems pretty straightforward right? Maybe. When our child comes home complaining of the “mean girl” or insists that they have to wear certain clothes to fit in, it can be tempting to jump in with our perspective and feelings. However, we can gain a lot of insight into our child’s world and how they see it by listening to their understanding of the “mean girl” and what our child is doing to handle it.

The ultimate goal is to have our children grow up to be healthy, strong, independent and happy adults that can deal with tricky social situations with friends and at work. In order to facilitate this growth, rather than solve the problem for them, we want to encourage them to problem solve and reach out for support in figuring out a good solution. Having them try out different options to see what works and does not work with our belief in their ability to figure things out on their own goes a long way to building their self-confidence and self-esteem.

When children first enter school, they are starting this life-long journey of managing and maneuvering the world outside their family. Our job is not to fix the problems for them but explore and encourage them to figure out how they could handle it. Seeing this time as an opportunity to help your child navigate and problem-solve social situations will be the building blocks in developing a good sense of themselves and others into adult years.

For more information about this topic here are a few great books that further discuss how to help your child in the early-grade school years:

playground politics
Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child

S. Greenspan

A great resource for giving specific and real life suggestions for helping kids cope with aggression and competitiveness on the playground and at home with siblings. The author normalizes the difficulties that children and their parents face and shows how to effectively support your child’s social and emotional growth.


mindful discipline
Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
by S. Shapiro and C. White

This book is a wonderful guide to discipline that is thoughtful, empathic and supportive as your child navigates school and peers.


talk and listen
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk
by A. Faber and E. Mazlish

A good resource for parents with clear and quick suggestions on how to discuss difficult issues with your child. A great reminder of the power in listening.


How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids By T. Rath

This book is a gem to read with kids. Rath shows how our behavior and attitude affect others through a charming story about a boy having a tough day. A good starting point when discussing why peers make hurtful choices.