The first day of school is the biggest events for many young children and a milestone that will most certainly create anxiety in children (and also their parents!). 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.
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 is paramount in helping children transition smoothly into their new routine and environment leading up to the first day and adapting within the first semester.’ Dr Ferrin shares her tips to help parents support children throughout the adjustment period:
Facilitate bonding with the new school environment
It’s important that children have an idea of the school environment before they start. Many schools will hold open days where children are invited to visit the school, meet the teachers and experience the classroom and playground, even meeting other children in many cases. Familiarity can help calm anxiety and will manage the expectations of the child. If it’s not possible to visit the new school in advance, try looking at the school online; show pictures of the environment to your child and discuss it with them.
Encourage bonding with the teacher
Teachers provide that very important safety net for your child at school and meeting the teacher in advance will certainly help calm first day nerves and anxiety. It’s also advisable for parents to form a relationship with the teacher as they will be responsible for giving vital feedback on your child’s progress, social functioning and any concerns. Maintain an open dialogue with them.
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 vital (activities such as baking cakes or making pizza are good) or meeting children and their parents at the playground are great ways for children to form friendships, without them feeling like they are being forced. 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 such as photos of the family, toys and pets or even little drawings on post-it notes. Let them know that you will be thinking of them throughout the day and 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. It won’t be such a shock to them when the real routine kicks in (dress rehearsals are always very useful for easing nerves) in advance as well as trying on the school uniform will all help first day nerves.
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.
– Lay out 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. 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 in to 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 the 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 progression of Alzheimer’s Disease and its symptoms.