The first day of school is the biggest event for many young children and a milestone that will most certainly create anxiety for many. September will see thousands of young children start their journeys into academia alongside a combination of new routines, new friendships, adapting to classroom structure, discipline, and changes in environment and learning. This can be a very overwhelming experience for children who are starting school for the first time or even changing schools at the best of times, however, with the restrictions placed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this transition and adjustments may be more difficult for children.
Many children have enjoyed spending more time with their parents over lockdown, especially those whose parents who previously had hectic work schedules with long hours, so it will be natural for very young children to feel anxious when they say goodbye to their parents.
Prepare your child emotionally before starting school
Dr Maite Ferrin Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health believes that preparing a child emotionally before starting school is key in supporting their enjoyment of school in the foundation years.
‘Planning and preparation are paramount in helping children transition smoothly into their new routine and environment leading up to the first day and adapting within the first semester. It’s important to begin talking to your child about the expectations and reality of starting school at the earliest opportunity in order for them to be fully prepared.’ Dr. Ferrin shares her tips to help parents support children throughout the adjustment period, post lockdown.
Facilitate bonding with the new school environment
It’s important that children have an idea of the school environment before they start.
Open days may not have been attended due to lockdown but there are many things you can do to help set the scene for the child. Try looking at the school online; show pictures of the environment to your child and discuss it with them. Visit the school and take the same journey there so the child becomes familiar with as many aspects as possible as familiarity can really help calm anxiety and manage the expectations of the child. Talk to your child about what to expect, discuss what may be inside the classroom, and all of the exciting things that will happen on their school adventure.
Encourage bonding with the teacher
Teachers provide that very important safety net for your child at school and meeting, however meeting the teacher in advance may not be possible with the current restrictions imposed. You can prepare your child for this by playing imagination games such as:
- What will the teacher look like? Hair colour, eye colour, height?
- What will they sound like?
- What will their favourite stories be?
- What will their hobbies be?
It’s advisable to contact the school to find out what safety measures will be put in place and what the learning environment will be in the “new normal” and to begin preparing your child at the earliest opportunities so they are not shocked by any protocols.
- Will learning and play be in small bubbles?
- What protocols will be in place for drop off and pick up?
- What will happen at break, lunch, and playtimes?
- What social distancing will be enforced within the school? (small children can be very tactile so will need to know if touching, hugging, hand-holding will not be permitted)?
- What handwashing/hand sanitising will take place?
Promote bonding with other children
It is imperative that children feel connected with other children in their class and is therefore important for parents to encourage children to foster these friendships. To prepare children to form relationships in advance of starting school, parents can play games that encourage sharing and turn-taking as well as sometimes losing at a game, so they don’t expect to always be the winner. This will also provide them with a repertoire of games to suggest when they playing with new friends. The personal wellbeing and social aspects of school are just as important as their academic progression.
Playdates are also a great way of fostering relationships and preparing children for schools and can be arranged at the park or playground on mutual territory. It’s also great for parents to form relationships and establish a school support network.
Maintain the bond with home during the first days
Ease anxiety and calm initial nerves by sending in little reminders of home. It is unlikely that toys or objects will be permitted, but perhaps put a little note or drawing in their pocket to let them know you will be thinking of them throughout the day. Also, reassure them that the teacher will contact you if there is a problem.
Routines build good habits and it is important to establish the school routine before your child even starts their first day at school. Set the alarm and begin waking up at the time you will need to on a school day, encourage your child to dress themselves independently, and have meals and snacks on “school time” before they start.
Encourage frequent hand washing and sanitizing and practice social distancing. It won’t be such a shock to them when the real routine kicks in (dress rehearsals are always very useful for easing nerves). Try on the school uniform to help first day nerves and even make the journey to school a couple of times as a practice run.
By creating a calm household routine with early bedtimes and minimal morning stress, children will be better able to deal with stressors and anxiety than those who haven’t rested or slept well. stress-free mornings. Early bedtimes are essential in order for children to deal calmly with the day ahead.
Things you can do to ensure stress-free mornings include:
- Prepare the night before. Have school clothes, books, PE kit, lunch, shoes, and anything they need for the following day prepared the night before. Rushing around and forgetting things is stressful for the whole household – this is a very good routine to establish and will pay dividends if maintained.
- Layout school clothes so it is easy for your child to get dressed.
- Set an alarm 5 minutes before you need to leave the house for school to ensure you have plenty of time to account for any last-minute delays e.g. dog hiding shoes that were carefully positioned the night before…
Finally, try to be a few minutes early to collect your child and help reduce anxiety. They will be looking forward to seeing their parents or carer and lack of punctuality can really increase anxiety.
By encouraging your child to be more independent you will also be helping them to build on their resilience.
Encourage your child to perform everyday tasks such as dressing, packing their bags, introducing themselves to new people and eating independently to support this.
Teach your child new skills in case of an unexpected event e.g. going to school with other people, changing into different uniforms or managing pocket money to create familiarity and reduce anxiety.
Encourage positive attitudes
Share the excitement and the most positive attitude towards new experiences. Have something at home to look forward to on the first day such as a reward or treat. Ask lots of questions, show your excitement about their new experiences, and talk about their day – the good and the bad.
Maintain a positive attitude with gentle and positive coaching and encourage children to work towards their goals to foster the understanding and self-esteem to try hard even when something is difficult. Perseverance should be recognized and endorsed much more than the success of the end result.
Ease their worries and fears
Don’t be dismissive of your child’s worries or concerns, it is a very difficult time that we are all living through.
Encourage an open dialogue and discuss any negative feelings and emotions with your child, ensure you ask lots of questions and answer them openly.
There can be many causes for worry for children starting to school for the first time and much of the anxiety may be caused by concerns that adults might find silly, such as the fear that something bad might happy to their family while the child is at school.
Reassure your child that everything will be fine.
Help your child express their anxieties
Encourage your child to vent their worries and anxieties and offer lots of opportunities for them to express their emotions and concerns.
Encourage laughter; it’s a very healthy and effective way of releasing anxiety- it really is the best medicine.
Be alert for other signs on your child.
Children mostly adapt and settle into school very well after the first couple of weeks after routines have been firmly established and friendships are formed. However occasionally, if the child has not adapted, their unhappiness may indicate a more serious issue such as being bullied or academic difficulties.
Ask your child questions about their everyday life at school, both during the class and in the playground, and listen carefully to their responses, reflecting on what your child is trying to say.
Don’t be afraid to speak with the teacher about any concerns you may have or issues that have been raised by your child. School should be a happy, enjoyable experience for all children and the teachers are there to support their journey.
Expert Article By Cognition Health: Re:Cognition Health is an award-winning brain and mind clinic specialising in the diagnosis, treatment and care of people of all ages.
Founded in 2011, Re: Cognition Health comprises a team of over 40 nationally and internationally recognised clinicians, who all work together to provide a patient-centred approach covering mental health, neurology, cognitive health and memory, children’s neurological conditions, traumatic brain injury and medico-legal.
The Re: Cognition Health Clinics in London, Essex, Surrey, Plymouth (and Birmingham from August 2017) are also major centres for international trials for a new generation of disease-modifying treatments, designed to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease and its symptoms.
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