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Starting school: 5 expert tips for parents

Just when you thought you’d put those new school nerves behind you, your little one is off to ‘big school’! Laura Earnshaw, founder of myHappymind and author of My Happy Mind, shares her advice for getting your child – and yourself – ready.

Laura Earnshaw

There’s no doubt about it! Starting school comes with a whole host of feelings at the best of times – excitement, curiosity, and maybe a little bit of worry – for us and our little ones! Add to that the fact that we’ve been recovering from a global pandemic and it’s fair to say that these feelings may well be heightened! So, here are my top five tips to help you best support your kiddie and ensure they thrive through this transition.

A photo of a father walking his little girl down a school corridor on her first day
Image: iStock

1. Encourage them to express their feelings

Even if your child seems ‘OK’ with the idea of starting school, it is super important to create some time and space to ease out their feelings about it – whatever these may be! You may have a child who talks about their feelings naturally which is wonderful. If your child needs a little prompting, which is totally normal, here are some ways to help them:

  Try pretend play – sometimes children find it easier to talk about how they feel when pretend playing. You can use Lego figures or any other characters to help here. Set up a scene which is ‘the first day of school’ and assign roles to the characters e.g. a parent or carer, a teacher, and a child. Then ask your child how they think each ‘character’ is feeling as they go into school on that first day.

  Establish a dedicated space and time – ensure when you are asking your child about how they feel that there are no distractions. Life is busy, but if you can dedicate some calm time to this conversation your child will likely open up far more than if you’re both distracted by other things.

•  Motion releases emotion! – if your little one is reluctant to share their feelings, try going for a walk or bike ride and having the conversation as they are moving. This works wonders for some children!

Remember that the aim here is to talk about feelings that they have, not to plant worries or fears. So, if they seem absolutely fine about starting school don’t feel the need to labour this!

2. Help them adjust to a new routine

Routines are a big part of the change that happens when your child starts school. Even if they’ve been in a structured environment like a nursery or pre-school, their routine will go up a gear. So, prepare them for it by helping them to understand and practice their new schedule! Start by explaining the structure of the day – what time will lunch be? Who will pick them up and take them to school, etc? 

Familiarising your child with the new elements of their day will really benefit them in the long-run before they start school. Here are some tips on how you can practice different stages of their day.

•  Practice the school run; whether this is a walk or a drive, do it a few times with them so they know the route.

•  Practice putting on their school uniform so they know what mornings will look like

•  Have a look at the school website to familiarise them with their teacher’s picture and perhaps look at some of the photos of the fun activities they’ll be doing.

•  Will they be having a packed lunch or the school lunches? If they are taking their own lunch get them involved in choosing what they’d like – you can make it like a fun picnic! If they are having school lunches you can usually find the menu on the school website. Try making one of the lunches at home!

Although COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, it is still important for you and your child to know what measures will be taken in their school should there be a sudden rise in cases. Here are some questions you can ask the school to help here: 

•  Will all staff be wearing Personal Protective Equipment? If so – what type?

•  What will happen at playtime?

•  Will children need to socially distance at all times?

•  How often will they be asked to wash their hands?

Explain that things will be different to normal but that this is all designed to keep them safe and cared for whilst they’re at school.

Finally, we’ve all been following a slightly disrupted and different routine over the last couple of years, so it can be really helpful to establish some more structure at home before they start school. Whether that is having a set bedtime, lunchtime, or maybe even introducing a set time for structured activities. Getting your little one (and yourself!) back into a regular routine will help them – and you – to adjust when back to school comes around!

3. Get them excited about school!

As well as preparing your child for school, it’s also important to get them excited! Helping them to feel positive and enthusiastic about starting school will help dissolve any feelings of worry that they may have. 

To help, here are some things that you can do to help your little one associate school with being a positive experience: 

•  Take some time to research the EYFS curriculum so you can talk to them about the things that they’ll be learning – there are lots of free resources online to help here. Pick out the topics that you know they’ll really enjoy.

•  Play school! This is a great way to act out things like lessons and playtime. They’ll love it.

•  Talk to them about your favourite memories from school and maybe even pull out some old pictures of your first day!

•  Involve them in things like buying their uniform and planning their packed lunches. Make a day of this and take them to their favourite park or treat them to something afterwards.

•  Use the school website as a resource to show them what they’ll be getting up to in school and familiarise them with the school grounds.

4. Explain the why

It can be really easy to just focus on the WHAT will happen when they start school that we can forget to explain the WHY!

Helping your child to understand exactly why things work the way they do at school and why they have to follow certain rules is an important part of helping them to adjust.

Explaining to your child why they need to go to school in the first place is a key step here. This may seem obvious but the language we use around this will have a big impact on the extent to which they embrace this change. Focus on the positive aspects of school life, such as that they’ll make friends, learn lots of cool new things, etc, rather than, ‘you need to go to school so Mummy can work’ or ‘everyone goes to school’.

5. Be kind to yourself

We have all been through a rollercoaster of emotions as parents and carers over the last two years. Whether that has been job uncertainty, health concerns, or just the feelings of fear and worry that the pandemic has brought. Sending children to school for the first time will come with a variety of emotions for us all. Maybe you’re not sure about sending your little one into a school? Maybe you are looking forward to getting a routine back?

Wherever you are on this, it is important to talk about your emotions with a partner, friend or family member too. The thing to remember is that however, you are feeling – it is OK. There is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ feelings when it comes to your little one starting school. Acknowledging that and taking the time to look after yourself is super important. Self-care is healthcare! Looking after yourself and taking time for you is not selfish – it is critical to help you continue being the awesome parent or carer that you are.

Children pick up on lots of little clues about how we as parents or carers are feeling – and they use this information to glean how they should be feeling. If we look worried, they pick up on this and start worrying too!

Hopefully, these tips provide you with some useful and practical advice on how to make sure your little one starts school with a smile on their face! All of the team at myHappymind send you our very best wishes.

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