Tips for settling in to primary school
Education expert and author of ‘Your Child's First Year at School' (published by Early Childhood Australia) Jenni Connor has some valuable tips for parents to ensure the road into school is as bump-free as possible.
Your children are just about to step out of the warm embrace that is school holidays – with all its sleep-ins, later nights, playing at friends' houses and days at the beach – and into a new routine and a new environment.
Soon they'll be starting school.
How can we ensure that our children are ready to settle into primary school for the first time?
Think about emotional wellbeing
Listen to your child and observe how they seem to feel about going to school – are they excited, anxious, flat, uninterested? Listen without rushing to judge or ‘solve' things. Hold and comfort your child as you did when they were even younger; sometimes, all any of us needs is a cuddle!
If there appear to be problems, what might be the cause? Some common concerns can be feeling overwhelmed by a mass of children, not quite relating to the new teacher, or feeling like other children are more knowledgeable or confident.
Decide which concern might need action, but don't be too hasty. An anxious moment might pass, the loss of a friend might be retrieved or replaced, the child might get to know and like the teacher... Establish friendly relations with the school staff anyway, so that you feel confident to talk about any issues and ask their help.
If there are persisting separation problems, ask for the help of the teacher and Guidance Officer. Ask for the teacher's support by discussing how to help the child settle at the beginning of each day. Provide a calming activity if your child becomes upset: a walk in the park, patting the cat, one-on-one sharing of a favourite story. Build their confidence by reinforcing what they do well.
Build a sense of security
Make sure your child is on time for school in the morning, has all necessary equipment and has a relaxed, organised start from home.
Make sure that you are on time to collect your child, especially in the first few weeks. If someone else is collecting your child, make sure they know about it and inform the school in writing (schools can't just hand over a child to a stranger).
Tell your child what you will be doing during the day and ensure the school has up-to-date contact numbers, including backups for an emergency.
A steady routine and being equipped with information will help your child feel in control and more at ease with all the change of a new beginning.
Manage social adjustment
Living and learning with a large number of other people takes some adjusting. Check if there are buddy systems in place. Begin to ask your child's friends over, or arrange to meet a child and parent out for a coffee date.
Model and talk about how to be friendly without either giving in all the time, or being bossy. Explain about taking turns and not always winning or getting their way. Encourage your child to have another go, with support, when things go wrong, or are too difficult.
Young children often have changing friendship circles. Some may turn into lasting friendships, while others may be short-term, based on current interests. Reassure your child if friends fall out, that this happens; it's part of life and it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them. However, if you can see that your child is pushing others away by being too timid or too dominating, you'll need to intervene and build their social skills.
Consider physical health and nutrition
Starting school is a tiring business for a young child, especially if they are in before/after school or vacation care. The day can seem quite long, particularly at the beginning of the year when the child may have been used to a nap or some ‘chill out' quiet time when they've been at home or childcare.
So, the first thing parents can do is to provide the child with ‘down time' when they walk in the home door without heavy demands like ‘Tell me about your day?'. Secondly, ensure that your child has plenty of sleep during the school week. Sitting quietly with the parent in a warm hug, hearing a favourite story and/or having a massage or soothing bath before bed-time may help ease them into sleep if they are anxious or over-excited.
Encourage your child to eat a good breakfast, with fruit and fibre-based cereals to provide ‘fuel' for a busy day at work and play. Involve them in selecting what goes in their lunch boxes – they're more likely to eat it if they choose it!
Support your child to enjoy exercise in the fresh air, but don't over-burden them with after-school and weekend commitments; they need time just to ‘be' and feel relaxed.
Discourage late night TV viewing or the use of digital devices after tea; stimulated brain waves don't encourage sleep.
Support early learning
A five year old is just that; they are not seven or eight and they are entitled to space and time to play freely alone and with friends, to make up stories and games, to run and climb in the outdoors, to mess about with paints, collage, dirt and sand. There is no evidence that pushing children to gain cognitive skills, like reading, writing and counting too early is beneficial. In fact, ‘hot house' learning seldom lasts and often turns children off engaging with learning tasks in case they ‘fail' or feel under pressure.
Instead, normal everyday support from parents has the most lasting benefit, and builds confident and capable learners who are willing to explore new ideas, have a go, learn from ‘mistakes' and seek help when they don't understand. Parents help young children to progress in learning when they:
- Read and share stories and information books, talking about the pictures and what's happening.
- Provide paper, crayons and paints to write, draw and create with.
- Model the pleasure and value of literacy as you read and write for everyday purposes – checking timetables and program guides, reading a recipe, writing shopping lists and sending emails.
- Sing and chant songs, jingles and rhymes, building the child's ‘phonological awareness' by emphasising repeated and rhyming words and sounds.
- Talk about the letters of their name and help them to write it, not worrying too much about reversed or upside down letters – it's all part of learning how our symbol systems work.
- Provide alphabet and concept books, and alphabet charts, but introduce the letters a few at a time.
- Ask children to help you set the table and to share out cake and pizza; this teaches one-to-one correspondence and fractions in a real-life way.
- Point out numbers on houses, buses, cars, on goods in the supermarket.
- Encourage children to use their fingers for counting; fingers are always with us and using them is an intelligent strategy. Children who instinctively use fingers do better at maths!
- Involve children in cooking and talk about weighing ingredients and selecting the right size cake tin.
Keep in touch and work with the school
Children do best at school when their parents and teachers work together and support each other. Communicate to your school anything that happens at home that might affect your child's wellbeing, disposition or ability to learn. Follow up problems before they become a major crisis, in a spirit of cooperation and ‘we can solve this together'.
Be ready to support your child in their learning without becoming ‘the teacher'; gentle, positive reinforcement of children's efforts works better than direct instruction; we don't want the child to ‘hate it when mummy helps me to read'.
Be supportive of the school and its activities. Do parent help or canteen duty if possible, take the family to fun events at the school, attend important functions like assembly, join in fun-runs and working bees – whatever works for you and shows you care about the place your child spends a heap of time.