The first day of school has arrived. Your child is positioned by the front door for their first day of school photo. He or she is wearing their brand new, freshly pressed and slightly oversized uniform… it will never look this good again. Many emotions will weave in and out of your mind: excitement, anxiety, a touch of guilt, and maybe some sadness that you will now have to ‘share your child’ with others.
‘I was excited on my daughter’s first day of school as I thought she’d love it, though I was a bit daunted about that part of her life starting, but mainly, how is she old enough to go to school?! She’s just a baby to me still!’ Parent in Oxted.
How to talk to your child about starting school
For a child to have the best chance at transitioning well into school, preparation is needed. But do not be daunted, you will probably have already started preparing for this without even realising it.
Science tells us that every time a parent interacts with a child, connections are made. Positive interactions can profoundly stimulate a young child’s mind and through them, new ‘neural pathways’ (or ‘learning pathways’) are formed. Children learn when they can make connections and if these connections are repeated, then they will eventually become embedded.
Studies show that rereading stories or hearing repeated narratives can offer great benefits for intelligence in much the same way. Children use this ‘repetition’ to rehearse their ability to predict events based on their existing knowledge. In other words, the more they hear it, the safer it becomes. If the narrative around starting school is positive and it is not isolated as a one-off conversation, then the effects will be more positive when the first day of school arrives.
Practical tips for parents
In the lead up to your child starting school, I always encourage parents to turn up to each and every event the school hosts in preparation for the child’s transition, from Transition Days to whole school events that the wider school network might be invited to. Find time to also practise the school run if this is not a familiar journey.
At my school we have our weekly Baby Hawks Stay and Play sessions in conjunction with the lovely Louise Jones from Hartbeeps, so many of our new starters have been coming into school since they were babies. If your child’s new teacher offers to make a home visit in the weeks prior to starting, as we do, seize this opportunity. This will enable your child to make a connection in an environment they already feel safe in and will make day one even more positive as they will already know their main ‘go-to adult’ in the school. If your school does not offer it – ask them – you have nothing to lose.
‘I was relieved that someone else was going to be entertaining her during the school day. I thought I might be emotional but I wasn’t. I didn’t feel worried about her probably because she was starting in a nice small class and she knew half of them already, and also the nursery is next door to the school so it was a familiar place. If she had been going into a class of 30 and she didn’t know anyone and in a new place, I would have felt worried about how she would get on.’ Parent in Stratford-upon-Avon.
In Reception, great emphasis is placed on encouraging children to establish routines. Routines help children to feel safe in their environment. Little tasks such as hanging up their school coat and putting away their book bag in the morning can be quick wins early on. Guide them beforehand, talk them through the routine, and, over the course of the first week, let them gradually take over. Remember to step back, this is about them now.
Does your child recognise their name in print? If they have some semblance of what this looks like, with the mixture of tall and short letters, it will help them to find their peg or tray, and know which piece of work is for them. Do they know some letters and numbers? This will form part of their curriculum, but if they approach starting school with a base of some sorts, then their confidence will skyrocket.
‘I was very worried as she is such a sensitive soul and the uncertainty of it all was going to be tricky – which it was for the first few months, but after that she thrived. Making a good friend early helped and she had a lovely supportive teacher. My other daughter I had few worries about as she was confident at nursery and already doing nearly a full day. She was excited about it from the start which helped. With my son I was slightly worried but also desperate for him to have some other stimulus so I didn’t dwell on those feelings for long! Parent in Farnham.
Let your child become familiar with their new uniform. Do you let them dress and undress themselves at home? Try this first with home clothes, and in the weeks before term starts, help them to put on and take off their school uniform independently and remember to ‘break in’ new school shoes. They will need to change for PE at least once a week. If a child can do this unaided in a class setting, it will be another quick win and your child’s teacher will be eternally grateful! If you also want to see your child’s blazer at the end of the day, make sure it is clearly labelled where your child and the teacher can see it. Make it bold and avoid fancy scripts!
Toilet training: encourage your child to be independent
Children starting will more often than not be toilet trained, though accidents will of course happen. I know my staff will advocate the use of real words when preparing children for this. There’s nothing worse than trying to interpret a child’s words for basic bodily functions and by the time they have worked it out it can be too late! Does your home routine suggest that your child will be able to cope with this at school? Are you still called to come and assist? If so, help your child to see themselves as independent, and to remember to wash and dry their hands properly in the weeks leading up to the big day.
Eating with others
Lunch, if done well, will be a highlight of a child’s day; it certainly is at my school. Tasty food prepared freshly onsite and with all their newfound friends seated at the lunch table; it’s a recipe for success. With so many children to oversee, staff will want children to stay seated whilst they eat, and they will look for and praise good table manners. Can your child use a knife and fork to feed themselves or do they need someone to do this for them? How they are in this setting will not be far from how they will be at school, so make adjustments where necessary. Encourage good sitting and eating, without getting up and down, and without distractions (put that iPad away and turn the TV off ) just focus on conversation and food. Whilst they are still young, do teach them how to use their knife and fork properly – bad habits can be hard to get rid of!
Sharing and listening
Encourage good sharing and taking turns wherever possible at home. This can be easily done with siblings or friends’ children, but if there are fewer opportunities with children of their own age, you can step in and be vocal in your sharing of IT devices or a treasured toy. Praise good sitting on the carpet, can they be wriggle-free for 2 minutes, 5 minutes… whilst you read or tell them a story?
Top tips for you
Relax as much as possible. This will be a change for you. Notice your emotions but do not bat them away. Talk to friends and family, share your thoughts. You will be surprised by how many other parents share yours as well.
Find opportunities for your child to experience separating from you. Short play sessions with a grandparent or close family friend can be beneficial to them and you in the lead up to the first day.
Read to them. Here are a few ‘Starting School’ picture books I personally favour:
- All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- Spot Goes to School by Eric Hill
- Come to School Too, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
- Goat Goes to Playgroup by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharatt
- Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnarvas
How to say ‘goodbye’ at the school gate
Make sure you say a ‘good’ goodbye. Rehearse this beforehand – remember it’s all about connections. Let them know, in advance, that you will be back to pick them up at the end of the day and that you cannot wait to hear all about it. Give them a strong hug, tell them you love them, wave goodbye… and walk away. There may be tears, but it’s all about the strength of the parent in these situations. Staying is only going to prolong the pain. The teachers are well-practiced in settling children and giving them the nurture they will need if they are struggling to detach. Trust them! You will always remember this day, so make it a day to really remember.
‘As a mother, the hardest part is letting go. I wouldn’t be there to help my child if he was upset, or if he hurt himself; I couldn’t protect him.’ Parent in Richmond.
Talk to other parents, those in the same position as you and those who have gone through it already but recognise that no child is identical to yours, each and every child (and parent) will have their own experience of it.
As a parent, you are your child’s first role model and their oracle in how this thing called life works. They will look to you for support as they take these first few independent steps. Tune into your child, think about what they might need or want as you help them to prepare and do as much as you can as soon as you can. Help your child to take charge of their learning and that is one of the biggest gifts you can give. Remember, if you treat yourself to a large coffee and muffin, you will have deserved it!
Article by Jenny Mackay, headmistress at Hawkesdown House School, a Preparatory and Nursery School in Kensington for girls and boys from 2 – 11 years of age.
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