Who’s Driving the Bus?

Dear Mamas,

Our oldest is starting first grade next week and will be going on the school bus for the first time. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I’m freaking out about sending her off on the 5 or 6 mile trip with a total stranger in charge of goodness-knows-how-many 6-12 year olds!

I’ve heard awful stories about what goes on on those bus rides, and the thought of my little girl’s safety in the hands of someone I’ve never even met makes my hair stand on end. How do I know he/she is a safe driver? An upstanding citizen? And do I even say it … NOT a predator?

How do parents do this without following behind the school bus twice a day for the first few months?

Worried Sick

Dear Worried,

Mamas feel your pain. Sending a child off on the school bus for the first time (well let’s be honest, EACH new year) can give you a scary, out of control feeling. Our focus as moms is on nurturing our kids and keeping them safe, and the idea of loading them onto a huge motor vehicle with, as you said, a TOTAL stranger, 30 or 40 other gremlins, and (usually) no seat belts, gives most of us pause.

But there are some concrete things you can do to calm your anxiety and help you see the school bus (AND driver) as efficient transportation and one less job for you, rather than a dark and dangerous place.

First, realize that in reality the bus is an extension of your child’s school, and the same in loco parentis rules apply. The school assumes responsibility for your little one as soon as she climbs those stairs, and they know it, so they should be as concerned about her safety as you are.

Don’t hesitate to call the school or the transportation district, whichever applies in your case, and ask questions about their requirements for drivers. Do they perform a criminal background check (I hope so)? How about a Department of Motor Vehicles check? Do they drug test? What kind of experience is required? Is there a list of rules for student behavior that the driver is responsible for enforcing? If so, are they posted and available? You get the idea.

Once you’ve covered the basics, you’ll be armed with real information, and as you’ve heard me say often, information is power. Now you know what you’re dealing with.

Then you can set out to deal with your stranger anxiety. On the first day of school introduce yourself to the driver and ask his name. Make sure he knows which child is yours and makes the connection. Share any information he should know, like “Amy occasionally gets car sick, so please keep an eye out”, or whatever. You’re sending the message ‘I’m handing you the most precious person in my life … please honor that huge responsibility’.

When he does, show your gratitude. I’m not big on giving teachers gifts at holiday time, but I always send a small token for my daughter’s bus driver. Some home baked cookies or a box of special goodies is so appreciated. We always wave and make eye contact as the bus pulls away from the stop, and he knows that I value the important job he does.

If the driver feels a connection to you and your child, you’re way ahead of the game.

It goes without saying that you’ll want to ask your child lots of questions when she gets off the bus. She’ll be your biggest source of news about those rides, and don’t hold back. Just don’t make it feel like an interrogation. For some kids, the school bus is one of the best times of the day, and I hope that’s true for her.

And if you still need to tail the bus for those first few days, just don’t let her see your car!

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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