The first day at school is a milestone both for your child, and yourself. Many parents are filled with mixed emotions, proud of their child’s independence, but sad to see them taking their first steps away.
Returning to an empty house after dropping off your child at school for the first time can be a depressing moment, so if you're not rushing into work, make sure that you’ve got plenty to keep you busy. You could arrange to exploit the free time and meet a friend for coffee or lunch, or spend more quality time with a younger pre-school child. You will soon be meeting other parents at the school gate, and a whole new life will be opening up for you, so don’t despair.
However anxious or distressed you may feel, remember to stay polite and positive when you drop off your child. If you’re friendly to the class teacher and other parents, you will be laying down good foundations for your child’s time at school. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with your own child that you sweep aside other parents and their concerns. You certainly don’t want to come across as a neurotic, over-demanding trouble-maker – while teachers are well trained and experienced enough to deal with this, other parents may recoil, and this could have an impact on your child’s social life.
Ease your child into the school habit by following this advice:
• Both children and parents will be understandably nervous. Help your child out by concealing any heightened emotions; they’ll cope much better if you’re taking the whole thing in your stride, and not over-emoting extravagantly.
• Talk about starting school well before the actual date; show your child where it is, involve them in buying the uniform and equipment. You could even do a trial school run, so they’re familiar with the route and location.
• It can help if you read stories about starting school in the run-up to the first day, or talk about your own schooldays in a positive way. This will help the child to understand that going to school is something that everyone goes through, an inevitable part of growing up.
• Over the summer holidays practise putting the uniform on; get your child used to any fastenings, velcro, zips and so on, and they won’t be panicked when they need to use the loo or change into PE kit.
• While it is important to talk positively about school, don’t turn into a compulsive cheerleader – your child will pick up on your underlying anxiety. You will need to acknowledge that they might feel tired or overwhelmed and you should explain (more than once) that the teacher is there to listen and to help.
• Explain that each child has a designated peg (it helps if they can recognise their own name when it is written down and read the label), and practise hanging up coats and putting shoes on or taking them off. Gently point out that your child must look after their own clothes and belongings – if you’re lucky you might be able to give them a sense of responsibility for their possessions, which will pre-empt countless visits to the lost property box.
• Try and instil positive feelings in your child about the first day; remark on how smart they look in the new school uniform, hand out a brand new pencil case or lunch box to mark the day, take a photograph as they set out to school.
• Follow the school’s guidance on saying goodbye; generally, it’s best to make it short and sweet. If you start emoting over your child it will inevitably cause upset, so keep it brisk, positive and cheerful.
• Be ready and waiting to pick up your child after school. Make sure that they’ve coped with the new environment – check that they managed to find the loos, negotiated the lunch queue etc. Any practical teething problems can be ironed out immediately. Don’t bombard your child with questions straight away – the first day at school is always exhausting, and you can subtly extract information over the course of the evening.
• Never dismiss your child’s anxieties. Problems that seem trivial to you may appear to be insuperable to an anxious five-year-old.
• Sometimes you have to leave a screaming child in the capable hands of the reception teacher – it’s obviously extremely distressing for you, but most children do not cry for long after their parents have left. If the school is cooperative, you can always ring up the office later in the morning to check how it’s gone.
• If your child doesn’t want to go to school, or complains of a tummy ache, don’t panic – you will need to find out why, as gently as possible. Bear in mind that children will often make extremely dramatic statements: “Everybody hates me”, “Nobody will play with me”, which are usually not true. The first course of action is to discuss the issue with the class teacher – you will find it reassuring, and staff at school, who are well used to these problems, will pay your child a little more attention at break and lunch time.
• It’s easy to get into a state about how your child is faring in the school playground, and most of us have conjured images of a lonely figure on the sidelines while everybody else plays happily together. This is the stuff of nightmares, not reality – schools are extremely proactive when it comes to ensuring that children are socialising and playing together.
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