As we move from Christmas into the New Year and through the summer holidays, here in Australia we get ever closer to the start of the new school year. The precise start date varies depending on where we are and also whether our children are in a public or a private school. The approaching milestone of starting school for the first time can be reflected in many, sometimes mixed, feelings for both the child and their parents. Some parent surveys have shown that parents are five times more likely to be in tears when their child starts school than the child itself.
What can parents do?
Whilst some nervousness and uncertainty about the unknown is to be expected for all of you, it is important for parents to approach this life change in as positive a frame as possible to help their child to transition well. As a parent, recognise and manage your own feelings about your child’s progression to school. If you don’t know what you are feeling or if you don’t acknowledge those feelings then it is difficult for you to support your child or to approach this life stage positively. It is OK to seek help to work through this so that your child does not pick up on or bounce off your anxiety, stress, or worry.
What do children experience?
For many children, school starting represents a significant shift from predominantly home/family orientated time to, for the first time, being away for home or family for a full, rather than part, day or no time away. If they are also the first child in the family to start school there is an added dimension in this ‘new for everyone’ experience. If they have older siblings what that experience was like, what worked or didn’t work, does not necessarily mean that it will be the same for the next school starter.
Some school starters are likely to be more at ease with separation from their parents having previously been cared for through out of home arrangements, including long day care and family day care. These children are also likely to be more familiar with group based activities and routines and the expectations of other adults or children. Their transition and that of their parents is more likely to focus on the change in the arrangements and the size of the school or class setting they are moving into, as well as changes to friendship relationships, than on being away from their parents or home for the first extended time.
Six valuable tips
Whatever the starting point for you and your child there are things you can do that will help you all to embrace this life stage:
- Lay the groundwork, talk about school and the first day more than once. Revisit what is known. Most children will have attended some transition to school visits. If so, talk about games played, the layout of the school, names of teachers or other children (if known). Provide problem solving information. Talk to your child about school expectations and rules, for example the need to wear a uniform, how they would ask their teacher or another adult a question, what to do if they need go to the toilet, what time and what routine they can expect for recess and lunch. Discuss what will happen with drop off and pick up as well as what the child can do if you (or the pickup person) are late to arrive. If they have not been for transition visits talk with them in general terms about the above. Even young children are able to learn routines and ‘what to do if’ processes.
- Start a daily routine before school term starts, especially a morning routine that will allow enough time for things like breakfast, lunch preparation, hygiene and chats without too much pressure or worry that you will run out of time. If you have a partner, talk about what you will do to support each other. Also plan an after school routine that fits with your particular situation, this doesn’t mean that every day will be the same and it might vary but aim for some consistency in snacks, meals, play time and bedtime routine.
- When the day comes, stay calm, follow the morning routine, and get yourself ready (this is often helpful to do first).
- Establish a ‘goodbye’ routine at school – a kiss or a hug, that is special for you and your child can bring in some humour and special connection. Don’t linger too long and make sure you let your child know you are going. Tell them when you (or other pickup person) will be back and aim to be on time for this. Sneaking out in an attempt to avoid overt distress is usually unhelpful and can make the next separation harder for your child as they have less trust that they can rely on you. You are also likely to add to more guilt to your own load. Your child’s teacher is likely to be experienced in settling first day nerves, so follow their lead or ask for their assistance if you are concerned.
- Plan ahead for what you do after leaving your child. Your options might depend on whether you have work or other child care needs to attend to. As with most things though it is advisable to be active, and not to ruminate on any guilt, concerns or fears you have about your child. Many schools will have a meet and greet opportunity for new parents and this can provide a way to connect with the wider school community. If this is not for you, consider making a catch up time with a friend or family member.
- Aim to be flexible and responsive to your child. Stay calm and be consistent. Normalise that attending school is expected of all children. Listen to your child when they talk about their own experience and validate their feelings, both positive and negative.
Whilst separation anxiety is a recognised childhood disorder, in the majority of cases some early tears and time for all to adjust and settle into school and new life routines is part of the process and are not in themselves a sign that something is seriously wrong. As with all life challenges and transitions it is important to understand the individual characteristics and needs of all involved to work out the best way forward.
The education departments in most states also have information to help parents prepare their child for school. There are also many parenting sites that have additional helpful tips.
If your child is becoming more, not less, distressed or reactive about going to school, if you are at all concerned about your child’s adjustment to school and would like some assistance with this or any other child development issue please give our office a call.