Shiny new shoes – how to prepare yourself (and your child) for their new school!
From the moment you play peek-a-boo with your baby, you are preparing them for the process of moving away from you and learning about independence. Separation can be a difficult emotion not only for you as a parent but also for your child. As your child matures and gains in confidence, they grow into independent beings and it is important that you prepare them to fly the nest one day.
Even in ordinary situations, some children experience some form of worry, apprehension, fear, anxiety or distress. Feeling nervous and anxious occasionally is completely natural for a child when they are faced with an unfamiliar or new situation. From toddler to teens, life is full of challenges and sometimes a natural reaction is for your child to retreat from the situation and to look to you for more reassurance.
During infancy, a baby clings to you when a stranger approaches; in early childhood children often fear new and unfamiliar situations; and as children grow and develop they worry about social acceptance, school performance or finding a group that they can fit into.
These are all normal reactions to life, but what if your child suddenly starts to get headaches, tummy aches or has nightmares about going to school?
School is a place away from home where your child will have some of their greatest successes, challenges, failures and embarrassments. It is at school that your child learns about how the world works and meets and interacts with people from outside your family, perhaps for the first time.
School is a place beyond your control so of course it can appear stressful and unfamiliar to your child regardless of their age.
It is also where children learn about themselves: their strengths, weaknesses, interests and how they relate to others socially. Children learn to perform in a way they never have to at home and they learn that they are unique, different and separate from you. So, school can appear fun and exciting but also rather daunting and stressful. There are new expectations placed on them whether it is starting school for the very first time or starting secondary school.
Starting school can be an exciting new adventure or a terrifying nerve-racking, nail-biting experience. This may depend on a number of factors.
A child who has attended a playgroup, or a mother and toddler group may feel more at ease with the new situation as they are used to and more comfortable with, the daily ritual of separation. I remember my son Will walking up the path to his nursery on the first day and striding in confidently to play with the jigsaws. It was me who had to fight back the tears and the strange feeling of rejection, as he didn’t seem that bothered to see me go!!! (But we had been going to the Mother and Toddler afternoons throughout the summer to get him used to the BIG DAY!!)
It can also depend on your child’s character, their ability to handle change or whether their friends are going to be joining them.
I really believe your attitude is of vital importance to this “Big Day” moment. If you appear nervous, anxious, worried, over-protective or guilty your child notices your tension and will react to it with anxiety, reluctance and hesitancy.
So, prepare yourself for the “Big Day” by being interested, supportive, and encouraging.
Here are some positive parenting pointers
Talk to your child about what to expect – the activities (if it is nursery or reception – the snacks, milk-time, story time or quiet time, the routines, the toys and the noise of other children) if it is starting Secondary school, the anxiety of finding their way around the maze of a larger building, the new homework expectations, the new friend issues, the new timetable or the new route home on the bus.
Take your child to the nursery, school, or secondary school to get the feel of the place and to get used to the lay out or the journey. With younger children, the place where they go to the toilet or hang their coat is of great importance to them and can really help them relax during their early days in a new environment. Let your younger child know that it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous and worried about being away from you for a little while and get them to think of a familiar object or toy they could bring in with them for a short while until they get used to the changes.
I remember when I first taught in Reception a Mum taking her daughter’s hand and kissing the back of it and saying “Now you have my kiss so pop it into your pocket and when you miss me you can take it out again and give yourself a kiss from Mummy all over again” I saw her doing that only twice over by the sandpit during the morning!!
Think of some of your own personal ideas to diminish your child’s anxiety.
Find a “buddy” or special friend who your child could go in with or pal around with during the new experience. I remember the Mums at my children’s school got together in the summer holidays in one their gardens to have a BBQ where the kids chatted, played and got used to being with each other. It was in a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere where it was safe and familiar so it was a really positive and fun experience for everyone. It helped the transition into the school environment later that month.
Make the school ritual relaxed by laying out the school clothes or making the sandwiches the night before and getting your child involved in helping with the process. It helps take away some of the anxiety and is an opportunity for listening and chatting through little or big niggles
What to do if your child has difficulties
Stay for a little while for the first day or two but always talk to your child’s teacher first about this, as some Reception teachers don’t always like this idea. As your child feels more comfortable, make your stay shorter and shorter and then just stay long enough to say goodbye properly.
I found children’s tears dried up within minutes once they got stuck into the Playdoh or toy cars while poor old Mum or Dad went home or to work feeling awful all day when really their child forgot all about feeling blue very quickly.
Be firm about attending school and don’t “give in” to staying at home. That sends the wrong message and really is making a rod for your own back!
Always come back on time so your child can feel secure and safe knowing you are waiting for them with a smile and a lovely greeting. With older children don’t always bombard them with questions like “Well, how was it?” Let them relax and talk about it in their own time and just greet them with a smile and an “It’s good to see you”.
Always reassure and be accepting of your child’s worries and concerns. Always acknowledge your child’s feelings as it shows respect to their genuine emotions and it gives you an opportunity to help them learn to cope with new experiences positively.
Always stay positive and try to relax even if your child reverts to thumb sucking, clinginess, and bedwetting or having nightmares. These behaviours are usually only temporary setbacks and remember that you are creating a blueprint for how your child handles change throughout their lives.
Encourage your older child to ask for help if they get lost, or don’t understand their homework – encourage them to realise everyone is in the same boat and is only too keen to help.
Encourage your child to see Secondary School as a “Human Zoo” and not necessarily as a “Wild Jungle” – a place with lots of interesting animals and where the zookeepers are there to help them – not just to contain them!!!!
I hope you and your child grow, change and laugh together through the exciting but sometimes scary time of starting school and with your patience, understanding and love you find it a rewarding and positive experience for both of you.
Here is a great list of books to read to your child before they start to get the conversation started.