The once-complex task of driving a car only again becomes complicated when we have to teach our own children to drive. Just as we no longer pay heed to all the small steps which go together to make the car drive smoothly, we have forgotten all the small steps it takes to start the school year. Whether your child experienced First Day Blues this week – or comes up against delayed hurdles weeks or months into the term – the right preparation can transform an otherwise stressful event into a smooth transition. Early education expert and former school principal Simon da Roza offers 9 tips for an easy start to the school year…
Max’s mother was in labour with her third child when she dropped him off for his first day at ‘big school’. No one knew, except his parents, that the likelihood of her not being there at the end of the day was almost a certainty; the closest hospital was 120km of black soil road away to the southwest. It was summer, oppressively hot and the downpour rolling in would result in the road becoming impassable.
Nonetheless, this was his big day. They hugged, they kissed, took the first day photos, and he was shown to his very own seat and book bag. He recognised the big reading bathtub filled with brightly coloured soft cushions that he had sat in on one of his visits to the big school last year. His young, enthusiastic teacher who Max had met the previous year got down to his level, looked him in the eye, held his hand and so began his journey. Max hugged and waved goodbye, and his parents smiled and breathed, they knew it was going to be OK they had planned for most of the day ahead. Max was fine, his parents were too eventually. And I learned – and have continued to learn – that children are incredibly more resilient and adaptable then we give them credit for.
Whether your child suffers from separation anxiety, is projecting concerns based upon negative past experiences or just feels a little queasy about returning to the school year merry-go-round, here’s some helpful tips you can start implementing today, to make the first term easier for all involved:
1. As a parent, your attitudes towards school, teachers, and school are crucial to ensuring an excellent start.
Children spend so much time with you they can read you; your body language, your tone, your mood. They learn from the moment they are born, and have an unquenchable appetite for finding patterns, making sense of their ever changing and expanding world. If you are nervous about the transition to school they will pick up your nervousness. If you are negative and find problems, they will too. If you have openly expressed anxiety or nervousness about starting or returning to school, a dislike for teachers or your negative childhood experiences, your child will look for problems with the transition, their teachers and the whole experience. Consciously use your facial expressions, body language and words to convey a positive message.
2. Once you’ve set the tone, then create expectations.
You are your child’s most influential teacher. Remember when you encouraged your child to walk? You had the expectation that they would; you supported them, encouraging them physically and verbally. You set little achievable tasks, celebrated their first small steps, captured those moments on your phone and proudly shared it with friends and family. You had expectations, you knew exactly what your child had to do, and you adjusted their environment to give them the best possible opportunity at success. It worked. And it will continue to work as you empower your child through feedback about your child’s language development, physical development and other newly-acquired skills.
3. Get an honest understanding of your child’s level of development.
In some ways, each year parents ‘go back to school’ with their kids. Modern schools are very different places from those you attended. The expectations are higher; much, much higher. Knowing the school your child is attending – and their development expectations at each year level – is important so that you can answer questions when they arise. They will arise, and never when you expect them to. If your child hasn’t yet acquired expected skills, don’t panic. There’s an abundance of resources (online and face to face) that have been created for this exact purpose, and can be employed at home or amongst your extended family and friends to help support and encourage your child’s development. Be honest with yourself about your child’s abilities, avoid making excuses; and be proactive about supporting their growth.
4. Practice the daily structure.
Calmly structure the new experiences your child is going to have to get used to; from getting dressed, to eating lunch whilst sitting on the ground or on a bench. Some children may find the tag on their shirt uncomfortable or find breaking in new shoes during the first weeks of school cause painful blisters. All avoidable things that can cause them to relate their early experience of school to stress or pain. From identifying their bag tag, opening their lunchbox clasp and holding a pencil through to self-toileting and understanding how to share time, resources and people – pace yourself and reinforce them at home through daily events. Don’t forget to reflect on where you have come from, and how much has been achieved. It’s a wonderful opportunity to show how big tasks can be broken into small manageable tasks, while build your child’s self esteem and resilience.
5. Be an optimist.
You will reap the rewards of this investment for years to come. Have discussions about being an optimist and what an optimist thinks, says and does. This will be more beneficial if you have had the opportunity to lay the foundations of this important value over the preceding days, weeks or months, but it is never too late to start! An optimist remembers the successes they have had in the past. They remember that they overcome anxious moments and were brave. This bravery leads to wonderful new discoveries and fun.
6. At school…
Give. It. Time. Each school is and school community is markedly different and will have explained to you exactly what’s going to happen in the early days of term one. Despite this there are some commonalities, such as settling in time or drop off procedures. Staying too long can make even the happiest child unsettled. I have heard parents say to children “I’m leaving now – you aren’t going to cry are you?” But this begs the question in the child’s mind: yes you are leaving; should I be crying?
It’s like sewing a seed of doubt in the child’s mind. It is much safer to say “have a great day; bye!” Then don’t hang around and draw it out. Be pleasant take an appropriate amount of time (20 minutes) but leave and expect that you and your child will be quite OK. If you are having trouble leaving and the teacher’s aids haven’t noticed, ask them for assistance. They are experienced, have good calming tools and have your child’s interests at heart. If your child has exhibited separation anxiety, remember to stay optimistic and outline that feelings change and pass – and that the feelings they have now will pass also. Be careful of the “just one more kiss” or “just one more hug” spiral. One more kiss means just that; any more just feeds avoidance behaviour and can be heart breaking for both of you. Remember children know you they push your buttons and pull on your heartstrings not because they are naughty or nasty kids because they have learnt that this has worked for them in the past. Full of adrenaline and anticipation, children make not be as sensitive to your feelings at this point in time as they normally may be.
Finally, once you do disentangle yourself, stay away. Don’t pop your head back in.
7. Encourage your child to make friends.
The single best way to combat bullying is for children to have friends; children alone are targets for bullies. Point out to children the things you may take for granted as an adult – but need to be explicitly taught to kids – things like smiles, looking at the person, using names and using a conﬁdent, friendly voice. Being prepared to take turns can make a big difference when making friends. All children will experiences friendship issues sometime in their school experience and you cannot be there to solve their problems, so empowering them to solve these is essential. A great way to encourage friendships and not just within one gender group is to play sports. Little ‘A’s are great opportunities for children to make friends and to also practice listening to other adults, swimming and one developing, physical skills, resilience and a team focus and having fun.
8. Behavioural changes you might notice early in the school year.
You may notice your child displays some all or none of the behaviours listed below which they have never demonstrated before. It’s all normal; children may a have a mix of emotions and not have the words to express their stress at tackling this new and challenging situation. They might:
· Be more clingy then normal and hang onto your leg, impeding any forward movement or escape from or towards the classroom door.
· Appear restless and flighty.
· Demonstrate increased inappropriate attention seeking behaviours.
· Show and increased desire to avoid activities through increased negotiations and deal making.
· Revert to immature behaviour such as thumb sucking, ‘baby’ language or even increased attachment to favourite soft toys.
· In some cases sleep, bed wetting and diet may even be altered.
This behaviour will pass in most cases. Be reassured, they are not a sign of poor parenting skills or developmental problems. But if they persist, talk to your class teacher or education expert so you can work on a strategy to support the child out of these behaviours together.
Have faith in your children’s ability to adapt. Have faith in your ability to guide and support your child through this transition. If you are confident and relaxed – and have plans in place – you will understand what the child’s day will be like. Then your child will subliminally read this confidence in the words you choose to use, your actions, your conversations with friends, teachers and others – and they will also be confident and ready.