The prospect of starting school can be exciting, but also nerve-wracking and sometimes scary for children. Here are six simple steps to take the stress out of this milestone and help your child feel comfortable and prepared when beginning this new chapter.
1. Start a Countdown
Children often don’t have a clear concept of time. They may know that school is starting “soon” but be unsure of what that means practically and how long they have to prepare. Creating a countdown can help your child understand that their routine will be changing and that school is coming up. It’s a good idea to do this on a calendar so you can show them exactly how many weeks until school starts. Every Monday, go to the calendar to show them “five weeks to school…”, “four weeks to school…”, “3 weeks to school…”, “2 weeks to school… “1 week to school”!
When you are down to the last week before school starts, count down the days 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. A weekly, then daily reminder is plenty. Of course, if your child brings up the topic themselves then follow their lead.
Starting school is exciting, so make sure you reflect this in your tone of voice when you go to the calendar to do your countdowns.
2. Visit Visit Visit
Even if your child has siblings or friends already at their school, it’s still a new environment, likely to be larger and more intimidating than childcare or kindergarten.
Take your child to see their new school several times over the school holidays. On the first visit, just go up to the gate where they will enter on their first morning. If possible, peep through the gate and point out where their classroom will be. Point out what you can see, for example “Oh, there’s your playground!” or “Ah, there are the water fountains”.
On the second visit walk the perimeter of the school. It’s important that your child starts to get their bearings around school. Talk to your child about the direction of your house and other key landmarks in relation to their school. This will help them feel safe and secure, knowing that familiar environments are not far away. This process gently shows children that the new school is a part of their world.
On another visit, walk from the front gate of the school to the nearest café or shopping strip. Get a drink or a snack together (takeaway if need be) and tell your child that this is where you will come for a coffee after you drop them off at school on the first day. If you will never have time for this don’t make it up! Instead, tell them that this is where lots of the school mums and dads go for a coffee after they drop their kids at school. This reassures children that after school drop off parents don’t vanish, they stay nearby and are still thinking about their kids.
3. School is not an island
School must not seem like a distant island, far from home. If their school is in a new suburb or unfamiliar area children may feel isolated from their surroundings. You can help assuage this fear by showing your child the route from their house to school several times. This is best done by foot, scooter or bike. If you have to go by car, make sure you point out all the landmarks along the way and teach your child the major street names.
Every time you drive past the school or are in the vicinity, point out where it is and give it a wave “hello” and “goodbye”. You could say “Hi School!” when you are approaching, and “Bye School!” as you go past. Talk about how far school is from home, emphasising its proximity to familiar landmarks. This will cement their school as a new and exciting part of their world.
You can also discuss with your child how far school is in “minutes by car” and how long it will take them to get to and from school by your most common mode of transport (bike, scooter, walking).
All this will allow your child to locate their school in relation to other familiar places, and will help them understand that they are still connected to you and to their familiar, safe, environments.
4. Involve your child in getting the things they need
School is a whole new beginning. This means there is a great opportunity to foster excitement and joy!
Let your child choose their school lunch box and water bottle. These are exciting items, something special that is just for them. Involve your child when you label these items with their name. Your child could tell you where they want you to write their name, and how. Ask them whether they want an extra symbol next to their name to help them recognise what is theirs. For example, you could draw a little star, a flower, a ladybird or whatever will be fun for them. Offer what you can manage and let your child choose. This allows your child to feel a sense of pride and ownership.
Children with an older sibling or cousin that they look up to may now identify with them more and feel they share a common bond. Those with younger siblings who are not yet at school, may enjoy doing these special “school ready” jobs and feel excited, responsible and proud. These simple activities give children agency as they prepare for school and can help them to feel proud of themselves for starting something new.
5. Buy and wear your school shoes early
The last thing you or your child wants for their first day of school is to be uncomfortable or distressed because of new shoes pinching and rubbing. There are so many new things about starting school, any part of the process that can be made familiar will help.
Take your child to shop for shoes and let your child tell the shop assistant why they need these new shoes. Give your child as many opportunities as possible to look forward to starting school and talk about it with others.
Do not save these shoes for day one of school! Wear them for short periods at home and check for blisters! You do not want any source of discomfort on your child’s first days of school. Make sure the shoes are truly comfy and worn in a bit. It may seem a bit mad to be wearing heavy black school shoes in the middle of summer but even if you try for one or two hours a day inside the house, it is a good start.
6. Talk to your child about what happens at school
Talking to your child about what happens at school, who their teachers will be and what drop off will be like will create familiarity and confidence. Having these conversations early, and with visual cues is also a great way to create space for your children to share their concerns.
The Courageous Kids app offers a carefully crafted set of stories about starting school. These can be further personalised for your child, as the app allows you to upload your own photos (of your child’s teachers, the school environment, their classroom, etc). When adults start a new job they get an orientation and welcome pack, why shouldn’t our children get the same? Printing out the Courageous Kids stories about starting school and reading one book every few days is your child’s welcome pack to school. Starting school is an important, exciting but sometimes daunting milestone. This is an easy and fun way to share their excitement and soothe their fears.
And finally, congratulations Mums and Dads for getting to this very exciting milestone!