Whether it’s your oldest, youngest or only child starting school, this is a big change for the whole family. Even if your child has been used to going to nursery or to a child minder, they’ll almost certainly pick up on the enormity of this milestone.
To make this easier for both you and your child, there are a number of ways in which you can prepare yourselves in advance. It’s worth remembering that the emphasis is on preparing them practically and emotionally. But parents may also want to begin (and then continue to support teachers) with reading and writing skills for their children.
Preparing your child for school
In the months and weeks leading up to ‘the big day’, you may wish to consider the following suggestions for your child:
- Social skills - Work on their social skills, such as learning to say ’Hi’ and ’Bye’, and to look at the person they’re talking to. Also host playdates and encourage sharing and taking turns.
- Dressing - Start working on their dressing and undressing skills, even if it does make the start and end of the day twice as long!
- Eating - Try to offer a variety of healthy foods and encourage your child to decide for themselves how much they need.
- Going to the toilet - Get them used to going to the toilet on their own. This includes recognising when they need to go (and being able to say so, preferably without ‘pet’ words that only you and they’ll understand), managing their pants, tights, trousers, learning to wipe themselves properly, and to wash their own hands.
- Can they recognise their name? They don’t need to be able to write it yet, but it would be helpful if they could recognise it on a peg or in a name label.
- Personal belongings - It’s never too soon to introduce the notion of tidiness and taking care of their possessions. You may avoid one or two trips to the lost property cupboard!
- Are they nervous? Discuss their fears and anxieties and ways to cope with them. Encourage them to ask for help from teachers or assistants when needed.
- Start a day time routine - Introducing a routine similar to the school day at home, with fixed lunchtime and set activities might help.
- Start a night time routine - Most children of this age will need 10-12 hours’ sleep a night. A bedtime routine, for example, a bath followed by a bedtime story will help your child to settle at night.
- Practice ahead of time - Some ‘dry runs’ of the school run can be reassuring so the routine, route and buildings are familiar.
Talking with your child about the days that are coming in a positive and confident manner will start to make the experience more real for everyone. If you don’t have happy memories of your own school days, try to keep that to yourself. Children pick up on these negative feelings very quickly.
Finally, be careful not to build up the excitement too much, or your child might struggle with the inevitable tiredness and emotional ‘wobbles’ they’ll experience.
Preparing yourself for a new school
While this is a new experience for your child, it may also be your first time as a parent at school, which can be intimidating. Here are some top tips for making it a smooth transition:
- Work with your school - Getting a clear understanding of the normal methods of communicating with the school, and their expectations of you, will allow you to feel involved and more confident that you’re part of ‘the team’.
- Try to attend as many introductory talks and sessions as you’re offered - If parents are encouraged or expected to say goodbye at the door, or to limit the time it takes to drop their child into the classroom, it would be wise to follow the rules as much as possible. Your child will see that all the other mums, dads or carers are doing the same and will feel reassured by this.
- Communicate regularly with your child’s teacher - Keep your child’s teacher informed of anything unusual or potentially unsettling in your child’s life, such as loss of a pet or changes to the family dynamic (for example, a new baby on the way, a sick grandparent, or a separation or divorce). Even a house move can impact their behaviour at school. Also bring any known health or emotional issues to your teacher’s attention too.
By the end of the school day your child will almost certainly be tired, and perhaps a little grumpy. This is the perfect opportunity to have ‘quiet time’, either with a cuddle in front of the television or with a book, or perhaps a visit to the park to run off that last bit of energy. You’ll hear a lot more about their day this way than if you start to quiz them on the journey home.
These will be precious days for both parents and child, and you’ll enjoy them much more if your child’s able to start school with the emotional and social skills to help them adapt more easily. If they know how to share, take turns, feed and dress themselves, go to the toilet, use a knife and fork, and follow instructions and play, the teachers will be able to do the rest. Your child will soon settle into this new phase of their life, and so will you.