Susannah Robbins shares her experiences of preparing two of her three young boys for their first day at school.

[New City Magazine – August-September 2021, page 16-17]

Having a child start school is a huge milestone for any family. Be it your first child or fifth, the enormity of it will still take your breath away when you least expect it. How can your tiny baby, who it feels like was just born, be old enough to start school? In the run up to my eldest child starting school I would become emotional every time I thought about it – so I threw myself into the preparation, the shopping for uniform and lunchboxes, and name-labelling every item of clothing because those were the areas that I could control. I used to joke that if it were up to me I would have kept him home with me until he was 27. But actually, no – he was ready to go and I really value education. I was excited for him to start his journey but I was sad that I would be left behind. These mixed feelings are completely normal so take the time that you need to get your head around your little one’s first steps towards independence.

Schools are not just about reading and writing

Something I feel passionate about, is the importance of supporting your whole child in the transition to starting school, it is not just about reading and writing. Starting school means learning to navigate new rules, routines, smells and sounds. It means needing to listen to and follow instructions and build relationships with new peers and adults. Starting school means needing to separate from your ‘close adult’ and know that they will return to collect you again at the end of the day. It is a lot. It is so much more than just reading and writing.

How can we do this? How can we empower our children and give them the best chance of going through those school doors on their first day with confidence? How can we support our children and set them up with a love and enthusiasm for learning? As our child’s adult we need to ask ourselves, are they able to ask for help when they need it? Do they know who to ask for help? Are they happy to try something new or would they rather watch others try? Do they know that it is ok to speak up when they do not like something, or to ask for a bit more time?

Here are my top 3 tips to navigating starting school in a holistic way:

  1. Harness curiosity – We can help our children to gain a solid sense of self through games and activities. When we are fully immersed in the flow of a playful activity our brains are lit up, our synapses are firing, and we are at our most switched on and engaged. We can problem-solve, collaborate, connect, discover, explore, investigate, learn new skills, and absorb information at a rate of knots. This is why learning through play is so effective. Play games with your children in the weeks before they start. Ask them questions about their opinions, thoughts and feelings and nurture their curiosity as much as you can. Encourage them to ask questions about themselves and their environment and support them in finding the answers. Simple things such as knowing the names of body parts, being confident to try new food but also being confident in saying ‘no thank you’ hold real value. If you don’t know where to start, share a book from the library about starting school – see what questions arise as you read together.
  2. Talk about healthy decisions – This can be as broad as knowing about healthy food choices, what makes a healthy friendship and of course knowing how to keep safe with good hand hygiene (what with Covid-19 seemingly ever present). You can really make this fun by preparing a healthy snack together such as a fruit salad but try and sneak in a less healthy ingredient such as a biscuit or slice of pizza – the sillier the better! See if your child recognises that this does not belong here and can tell you why. A top tip here is to discuss food groups as doing different things to our body: fruit provides our body with vitamins; a biscuit gives us a short burst of energy. Try not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to avoid tricky associations in later life.
  3. Emotion regulation – this is a life-learned skill, and no teacher would expect any 4 or 5-year-old to be able to manage their emotions completely, but now is a good time to start talking about it. Discuss how to notice if a big feeling is brewing and how we can handle it in a safe and healthy way. It is so important that your child knows that all feelings are ok and it is useful for them to be able to recognise and articulate the feeling too. We can help them in that process by modelling this skill for them by saying ‘you feel cross because your brother broke your Lego model’ for example – try and get into the habit of naming the feeling. Once your child is comfortable and confident in the vocabulary you can talk about how their body feels when these emotions start to bubble up. Perhaps they might say that when they are worried their tummy feels wobbly, or if they are angry their head feels hot all of a sudden. Ask your child to try drawing these feelings – what does worry look like? Finally talk together and make a list of things that your child can do when they begin to feel overwhelmed, to allow them to calm down. For example they could go to a quiet corner in the classroom and look at some books, or they could go outside and take ten deep breaths of fresh air or they could talk to a friend or adult to tell them how they are feeling. There is a lot to be said for having a plan of action.

By focussing on these three areas you will stand your child in good stead for their transition to school. That’s not to say it won’t be a process, this is new to you both but it will become your new normal very soon. Enjoy the summer holidays, talk to each other, play together and connect. Soak up these moments and enjoy!

Photo: © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

Read the 1st part of this series: Play theory

Read the 2nd part of this series: Learning through play

Read the 3rd part of this series: Baby play

Read the 4th part of this series: Purposeful praise

Read the 5th part of this series: Resilience

Read the 6th part of this series: Summer Play

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