In today’s interview, we’re chatting with Caitlin Greer Meister, a strengths-based learning expert and educator who specializes in giftedness, neurodiversity-affirming practices and provides parents with the tools to help their kids learn in the way that’s best for them. She’s also mom to an exuberant five-year-old and a profoundly gifted, neurodivergent, nine-year-old, who’s been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and Parents. Here’s what she shared with us:
Tell us about yourself. How long have you been an educator?
As Founding Director of Joyfully Learning at The Greer Meister Group, a New York City-based private tutoring and educational consulting practice, I consult with private clients around the world, as well as speak and write on a variety of education topics for consumers, parents, faculty, and other educators and practitioners who work with kids and families. For 20+ years, I’ve supported parents with everything from placing their kids in school to tutoring to navigating neurodiversity.
What are ways parents can do a debrief with their kids after school to stay in the loop on what’s going on while they aren’t there?
Here’s my #1 tip for getting yourself unstuck from the loop of “What did you do in school today?” “Nothing”...
I ask my kids questions like:
“Did anyone smell anything stinky at school today?”
“Did anyone see anything sparkly at school today?”
“Who heard something LOUD at school today?”
It works every time.
Once the conversation’s started, the best way to keep it going is not to ask too many follow-up questions. That can cause our kids to feel pressured or like there’s a “right” or “wrong” answer and clam up. Instead, try repeating back what your child said without turning it into a question. So if your child says, “Kaiden tripped during recess,” you say, “Kaiden tripped during recess.” Remember not to inflect up at the end - you want it to sound like a statement, not a question. Then, the hard part - stay quiet but present. Wait for your child to share something else.
Why does this work? By not questioning, we’re eliminating any pressure or potential for feeling judged. By repeating what our kids say, we’re assuring that they feel heard. By being quiet, we’re making space for them to share more.
What tips do you have for kids and parents going into kindergarten for the first time?
The summer before kindergarten, we want to focus on helping our kids develop self-care skills. They need to be able to open and close the fasteners on their clothing independently, open their own lunch boxes, and use the bathroom from start to finish without an adult. Skills like those are way more important for the first day of K than knowing how to read or add.
Here’s another great tip: Use the week before school starts to get your child adjusted to waking up and going to bed at the times they’ll need to for school and to get them adjusted to eating breakfast and lunch at the times they’ll be eating those meals once school begins.
Since most kindergarteners are starting at a new school for the first time, here are my top three tips for getting kids ready for a new school:
1. Visit. If your school offers classroom visits, an opportunity to meet the teachers, or playdates with future classmates, definitely do it. All of these small opportunities to get familiar with the people and space will have a big impact on our kids’ comfort with the new experience.
2. Get Familiar. Even if your school doesn’t offer those opportunities, you can visit the school to play in the yard if it’s ever open to the public or even just to walk around the outside of the building. You can practice your ride or walk to school.
3. Social Story. Make a social story for your child about going to their new school. A social story is a little book that uses words and pictures to prepare our kids for an upcoming event. Use photos of your child, your family, the new school, new teachers, etc. Keep the language simple, with one or two sentences per page. Read the story daily in the several weeks leading up to the start of the school year.
- The first page might read, “My name is Addie, and I am five years old,” and it would show a happy picture of Addie.
- The next page might read, “I am going to kindergarten!” with a photo showing Addie playing happily during her classroom visit or on the school playground.
- Then, “My school is called Quimby Elementary School” with a photo of the outside of the school
- Then, “I will be in class K-127” with a photo of the classroom
- Then, “My teachers will be Ms. Cooke and Mx. Bell” with photos of the teachers
- Then you can have several pages featuring aspects of school that your child will be excited about…the playground, the art room, whatever you think will appeal to your child. If your child needs reassurance about something specific, you can include pages about those things, too. For example, you might have a page about riding the school bus or a page about who will be picking your child up at the end of the school day.
- I like to end the social stories with a page that reads, “Kindergarten is going to be so much fun!” so that we end on a positive note each time we read it.
What are ways you set your kids up for success for the new school year?
Since we just talked about getting ready for a new school, let’s talk about getting ready for a new grade at the school you attended last year.
You can ask for a conversation with your child’s new teacher right at the start of the school year to talk about how to set your child up for success. As long as you follow a few simple tips for how to approach the conversation, most teachers welcome this kind of outreach from parents at the beginning of the year. They want the year to be a success as much as you do!
Here are those tips:
- Teachers are busy this time of year, so be respectful of their time. Ask for a quick chat, not a long meeting.
- Before the call, decide on two or three things that you want to address and have them written down on a note in front of you (or if the meeting is in person, review them a moment before going in). That will help you make sure that your priorities are covered during the conversation even if the teacher wants to talk about other things.
- This first chat is going to set the tone for your relationship for the school year. Start by expressing gratitude and excitement.
- Be on a team with your teacher. The two of you are teammates working toward the shared goal of helping your child thrive. In addition to sharing what helps your child thrive in school, ask how you can help at home supporting what the teacher is doing in the classroom.
- Don’t feel pressured to respond to everything the teacher brings up. You can always say, “Thanks for sharing that with me. I’m going to take some time to think on it, and I’ll follow up with you.”
- This first chat is going to set the tone for your relationship for the school year. End by expressing gratitude and excitement.
What traditions do you have to celebrate the end of summer before the school year starts?
We live in a big city during the school year, and we spend our summers outside of the city. We celebrate the end of summer with ice cream from our favorite small-town ice cream shop, one last visit to our beloved local library, and a picnic by the lake with friends. We tend to keep it low-key, since big transitions like the change from summer to school can be hard work for kids. I recommend asking yourself what will set your child up for the most success when thinking about your end-of-summer traditions. For example, if your child struggles with change, and there’s already so much change at the start of a new school year, maybe it’s not the best time to buy everything new - new shoes, new jacket, new backpack, etc. On the other hand, if you have a child who loves surprises, a new, special school supply in their backpack on the first day could help make it a really positive experience. If we’re going to have a big end-of-summer event, I try to do it a week before school starts so that there’s plenty of time to get into a calm routine before the first day. If you’re traveling during the summer, I recommend coming home at least a few days before the first day of school for the same reason. Kids have the best start to the school year when we’re calm and sturdy as parents and routines are predictable.
What do I need to know about after-school meltdowns?
Is your child a dream in school and a hot mess when they get home to you?
Our kids may be working really hard to keep it together during the school day. When they get home with us, where it’s safe to feel those big feelings and let them out, we can see an increase in meltdowns or what some folks call “after-school restraint collapse.” After-school meltdowns can be more common at the start of a new school year because it’s a big transition, and our kids are navigating a lot of new expectations, people, and routines all at once. Just because the meltdowns happen when your child is with you does not mean that you’re to blame!
If that’s the case for your child, it’s time to ask some questions. Here are the three questions I want you to ask:
1. Does my child experience authentic belonging at school?
2. Does my child feel emotionally safe in the classroom? Does she feel connected to her teachers? Does she feel that there’s a safe adult for her to go to if she needs support?
3. Is the work appropriately differentiated for my child? Is it the right level of challenge, or is my child either bored or overwhelmed for most of the day?
Once you know the answers to those three questions, you can advocate for your child with teachers and school administrators so that your child isn’t working so hard to keep it together all day at school and then melting down at home with you.
We’re so grateful that Caitlin took the time to answer our questions and give us so many actionable tips for helping our littles adjust to school! Be sure to give her a follow on Instagram at @caitlingreermeister. Next in our back-to-school series, we’ll interview Leah Norris, a home educator, content creator, and mom.