Claire Burgess, Head of Research, Consultancy & Training
Katie Crouch, Early Years Consultant
Traditionally, the first day of school tends to start with pictures of the little one(s) standing proudly, and nervously, in their brand new and immaculately pressed school uniform by the front door. These pictures help to form special memories and also mark a moment of reflection for the parent. For many, this moment can cause a flourish of memories of your past four, or five, years with your child(ren). Recollections flash by from pregnancy scans, first smiles, magical first steps to bumped knees. All of these emotions can be overwhelming and therefore makes it completely understandable that you and your child(ren) may be apprehensive about starting school.
All parents will have sympathy for the task of preparing little ones for their first day. This usually includes shopping trips for clothes and equipment (the dilemma of school dinners or which lunchbox to buy is a mighty job in itself!). Then you have the task of dealing with the emotional aspect of this transition into schooling. The child(ren) may feel confusion and possibly sadness at the thought of leaving familiar adults and friends behind at nursery or pre-school. With all of this in mind, we have compiled seven top tips to help both you and your child(ren) through this milestone transition and into their first few weeks at school. .
Tip 1: Keep things familiar
In order to help children through their transition into school there are a few things which we can do to support them. If your child(ren) has / have a bag, or something similar and familiar, which they used at nursery it will help them to continue to use this during their first few weeks in school. This object can help to comfort the child(ren) when moving to a new environment, helping aspects of school to feel familiar to their experiences at nursery and home. You could also leave something in your child’s bag which smells of you (preferably something small and material based). We all know how poignant smells can be in triggering memories and emotions andthis is the same for our little ones. When they can ‘check in’ with something which has your scent it can helps them to feel connected to you even when they are away from you.
Tip 2: Work together with the teacher
We are sure that your child (ren)’s teacher would appreciate it if you could calmly re-introduce your child(ren) to the teacher. This shows the child(ren) that you trust the teacher and that they are a safe person to go to. This also helps the teacher to be able to connect with your little one(s) straight away. It is not unusual for a parent to jot down a few notes or concerns which they may have about their child(ren) starting school. Writing things on paper is an excellent idea, as it allows you to communicate with the teacher without the child(ren) hearing any concerns or worries. It also means that the teacher is free to read it after they have safely greeted all of the children into the room.
Tip 3: Keep it calm
Another great trick is the ‘flight attendants face’. Think about how we feel on flights, whether we are seasoned travellers or a novice, we depend very much on the flight attendants helping us to feel safe. We may feel concerned during a sudden bought of turbulence, but we are reassured with a calming voice and a smiling face. Imagine how our own stress levels would rise if we saw the flight attendants showing concern. This is the same for our little ones. If we show them that we are feeling excited about school, then they, usually, begin to feel excited too.
Tip 4: Empathise and value the emotions
You know your child(ren) better than anyone else, if you sense that your child(ren) is / are becoming stressed or upset don’t feel that you have to change or make what might be seen as a negative emotion (worry, upset or scared) into a ‘positive’ emotion. Naming and acknowledging emotions can help children to understand that emotions are designed to help us throughout our lives and how we deal with them in a positive manner.
For instance, if your child(ren) is / are looking a little hesitant before they go to school, talking about this feeling helps them to recognise how emotions feel. For example, “You have gone a little quiet, that can happen if you are feeling worried about something.” When acknowledge that your child(ren) is / are looking a little nervous, form a gentle discussion around what helps when you feel nervous. Such as, “Sometimes I feel worried if I am doing something new. It is a little bit like having butterflies in my tummy. If I am feeling worried I try to think about all the fun things, I will be doing.”
In the case of starting school, try to think about all the things that may be contributing to your child(ren) feeling nervous. Could this be due to your child(ren) being worried about where the toilets are? Making friends? What will happen at lunchtime? They may be worried about missing you or wondering how you will be when they are busy in school. Exploring these potential worries can help you to pin point what aspect has triggered your child(ren)’s feeling.
Forming ideas allows you and your child(ren) to share strategies of what may help them. If your child(ren) is / are particularly worried about making friends, you could bring ideas into the conversation. Your little ones may then come up with their own ideas. Perhaps playing with the construction will help your little one to meet another child who likes construction.
Tip 5: Rest and relax
This can be the ideal time to then discuss the things which you may be doing when your child(ren) is / are at school. This helps your child(ren) to understand where you are and that you are safe when they are in school. You could always discuss other things which you may do together after school, so the child(ren) has / have additional things to look forward to. Walking through a park together during your walk home can be a good way to help your little one to transition to the slower pace outside of school. If you are driving then think about the music that you might play and allow time for your child(ren) to just sit, avoid asking lots of questions as this can be overwhelming and can mean that your child will not want to talk at all. However, when walking or driving it can also be a great time for you to start a conversation about their day, if they are willing. Sitting together and sharing a story or a snack can also be a good way to help your child(ren) to feel secure and relax after a school day. Your child(ren) may be incredibly tired at the end of their first few days, so try to plan for calmer afternoons and possibly earlier bedtimes.
Tip 6: Keeping it short and sweet
When the time comes to hand over your child(ren), and you have carried out your introduction to the teacher, ensure you say goodbye to your child(ren). It is important that you do not ‘disappear’ in their eyes. Your child(ren)’s teacher will understand that you may want to give a hug and a kiss, but keeping it short is key. Long drawn out goodbyes can become distressing for children. There is nothing more confusing for an upset child than seeing their parent looking through a window or door, your child(ren) will be naturally drawn towards you. Even if your child(ren) is / are upset it is important that you hand them over to the teacher and trust them to keep them safe. In my experience, your child(ren) will usually have stopped their tears by the time you have walked around the corner and the teacher will discuss any issues with you by phone if your child(ren) is / are distressed. In this case continuity is key, so carrying out the same routines each day is essential. It may take your children several days to get used to this process.
Tip 7: Caring for the carers
If you are experiencing sadness or fear when saying goodbye to your child(ren) remember your ‘flight attendants face’ as you walk away (even if you burst into tears around the corner). This will help the child(ren) to feel safe and confident. It can be more emotionally challenging for the parents than the child(ren) when starting school, so my suggestion is to meet up with friends for a coffee to discuss your morning and to keep your mind busy. It is change for everyone and it can take time for you all to adjust to this new way of life!