First day of school: tips from an early years teacher

We asked early years teacher Hayley Winter to share how parents can best prepare for their little one's first day at school.

Hayley Winter
A photo of seven young children in their first year at school. They are standing and smiling for the camera with their arms around each other
Photo: Rawpixel.com on Adobe Stock

Starting school is one of the biggest milestones in your child’s life. It’s an exciting but daunting time for both parents and children. But with a little preparation and the top tips I’m about to share, I’ll show you how to help your child settle into school and get ready to learn and play.

But before we get into the tips, I want you to know how much teachers truly care for the children we teach. I always say I have 30-90 children of my own each year and continue to care for them as they move up in school. We will cuddle them, we will share funny stories about their day (and don’t worry, they like to share with us too!), we will phone you if they haven’t eaten, we will ensure they take their jumper off if it’s a hot day or wrap up if it’s cold. We will speak to you if we have any concerns, and you should do the same too. No question is a silly one. We are partners, here to support your child and the whole family through this experience.

1. Share some starting school stories

There are some great stories to share with your children about starting school and these can often be used as a starting point of a conversation and an effective way to get your child to open up and ask questions. A few of my favourite books include The Colour Monster Goes To School by Anna Llenas. In this story, the monster expresses his different feelings through colours and you can easily replicate this at home with your child. For example, 'I feel yellow today because I am happy'.

Another couple of my favourites are Whiffy Wilson: The Wolf Who Wouldn’t Go to School by Caryl Hart and I Am Absolutely Too Small for School by Lauren Child. Both of these stories discuss the worries your child might face when they start school. These are usually the small things to adults but can be significant to children, such as where will I put my coat? Where is the toilet? Can I go outside? There will also be excitement and discovery of new toys, friends, and play, all of which happens in their first year in school.

Starting School by Janet and Allan Ahlberg is a fabulous book as it goes through all the types of things that happen day to day in school, such as taking the class register, painting, playing outside, and lunchtime. Lastly, Topsy and Tim: Start School by Jean and Gareth Adamson covers similar ground. This is always a hit with children as they recognise the nation’s favourite twins from CBeebies so that familiarity will be very reassuring.

More books to help with starting school

2. Label everything!

Now I’m sure you’re already thinking, 'Of course, I will label things'. But speaking from experience, we really do mean EVERYTHING! Imagine 30-90 identical jumpers in exactly the same size without any labels – nightmare! And this is only one year group. In my school, we have over 550 children! I often get parents asking for their child’s cardigan when it’s unnamed and even though early years teachers do know ‘your child’s smell’ (yes this is a superpower early years staff have!) we aren’t always good enough at this to find them. As let's face it, children are very good at hiding things in the most unusual of places.

3. Encourage independence

I also recommend you start practising a few life skills to support your child on their journey to independence at school. Some of the most useful are:

• Getting changed – this is super helpful for PE.

• Turning their jumper the right way around.

• Putting on their own sun cream (I would recommend the Solar Buddies Sun Cream Applicator.)

• Putting their shoes on the right feet. To help them, cut a sticker in half and place one half on each sole. When they then go to put their shoes on, they’ll be able to see which way around is correct by matching the sticker halves together.

• Putting socks on. Your child can practice at home by pulling scrunchies on and off their ankles (this is the same movement but less difficult because there isn’t extra fabric to contend with.)

• Learn the coat flip trick (Google it if you haven’t heard of it before!) and also how to do and undo fastenings.

• Using the toilet.

• Looking after their belongings. They will be responsible for their water bottle, coat, and book bag at the end of the day.

4. Work on emotional self-regulation

Now, this is a big one and so hard for both parents and children. Understanding their emotions is a minefield but talking about emotions and relating them to how our body feels during that time will help support your child. Being able to explain how they feel is one of the most important things your child can learn to do.

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5. Try on the uniform and take photos before the big day

Don’t leave it until the first day of school to ask your child to wear their uniform. Have a little practice wearing it at home in the run-up to the big day. And my biggest tip is to take your ‘first day of school’ photos a few days before. No one has time to do it on that first day of school and taking them before will relieve the pressure.

Picture it now, your alarm is set at 7.30 am but it's the first day of school so nobody wants to get out of bed, and you snooze it (more than once if you're like me). It's now 7.50 am and you're only just getting yourself out of bed and waking your child up. Your little one is crying because you're using the wrong brush to brush their hair with. They don’t want to eat breakfast because they're used to snacking during the day. You're finally ready and rushing out the door to walk to school with five minutes to spare, and a quick ‘stand there and smile’ will not turn out as the first-day picture you were imagining.

And lastly, from a teacher to parents, it’s as much your child’s first day as it is your first day without them. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, it’s usually the parents who are much more emotional or anxious on their child’s first day than they are. So, my tip for you is to have something planned on that first day. Go for coffee with a friend (they’ll be no one to pinch your cake!), a walk with a partner, or enjoy a quiet food shop – something that will keep you from worrying and clock-watching. What you don’t want to do is to be sitting at home thinking ‘I wonder what they are doing now? Did they eat lunch? Have they been to the toilet?’ Trust me, if there is any problem, the school will phone you. If you're really worried, then do phone the school. School staff are very used to speaking to parents on their child’s first day and they won’t judge you for fretting.

For more starting school tips, give @allaboutearlyyears a follow on Instagram

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