17 Oct 2022

How to help your child settle in to boarding school

Image: Eton College (Wikimedia Commons)

Most parents who send their child to boarding school are filled with mixed emotions. They may be forced by necessity, for example working overseas, to choose a boarding school, or they may have decided to invest in the best possible education for their child and accept that sacrifices will have to be made. They may nevertheless feel anxious and emotional about the forthcoming separation.

A very important part of the school selection process is to visit the school with your child, talk to the staff and seek reassurance on pressing subjects such as home contact, visiting, homesickness and pastoral care. Individual children’s personalities will need to be taken into consideration. Some children are undoubtedly confident and gregarious, and their parents may feel confident that they will thrive in the challenging new environment. Others are shy, timid and introverted, and their parents may well be seeking a school that can demonstrate it will take extra care when it comes to settling new pupils in.

These considerations will certainly have an impact on the choice of school and most parents will do their utmost to address their natural concerns and pave the way for separation.

The first few weeks at the new school are a time when parents will need to be on the alert: they must read between the lines when they receive letters or emails from their children; listen attentively to tone of voice when they speak on phone; pick up immediately on any hints that all is not well. Sometimes predictions about how a child will cope, based on their character and personality, are not always reliable. Extroverted children can still suffer terrible homesickness; quiet, shy children can find their feet, thrive and blossom.

Boarding School Basics

First Day

You may find the first separation excruciating, but you need to be brave. Stay long enough to settle your child in – you will have brought duvets, posters and toys from home and you can help them unpack and create a cosy, reassuring space. It will certainly help you to be able to visualise where they are sleeping. You will need to talk briefly to the housemaster or housemistress as you hand over responsibility. Then you should leave, as decisively as possible. Try not to cry or show your emotions – your child will take a lead from you, so now is the time for the stiff upper lip.

Trust the Staff

Your child’s housemaster or housemistress will become an important person in your life. They are well-trained and experienced and have seen the full gamut of emotions that children will experience when they are separated from their parents. Trust their expertise, communicate with them, follow their advice. If there are problems that need your attention, rest assured that they will be in touch with you immediately – it’s their job.

Don’t Over-Stress

Of course, your child is your main concern and you will naturally feel that he or she should be prioritised. But bear in mind that the school is responsible for a large number of children and will certainly initiate contact with you if they have any concerns. While housemasters and housemistresses are more than ready and willing to talk to parents, don’t test their patience to the limits by making repeated contact and calls for attention.

Put on a Brave Face

When you communicate with your child, it is important that you project pride and positivity. If you find your voice quavering or your eyes filling with tears, find an excuse to end a phone or video call. If you really find it hard to keep your emotions in check, steer your child towards letters, texts and emails for the first few weeks.

Don’t Confide in your Child

If you find yourself suffused with anxiety and distress about your child, obsessing about how they’re coping, and unable to find distraction in your daily life, you must not give any indication of this to your child. Ideally, you will make friends with fellow parents, with whom you can discuss your concerns, or you can take them to the housemaster or housemistress. It should never be the child’s role to comfort the parent.

Keep Communicating

The school will give parents of new pupils plenty of guidance about how communication should be conducted, especially in the first few weeks. They may specify certain times when phone or video calls can be made, or they may encourage children to regularly communicate with their parents in writing. Respect these rules, which will undoubtedly have evolved over many years and are well-grounded in the experience of settling children in and coping with homesickness.

Visiting Your Child

Again, you will need to follow the school’s guidance when it comes to visiting. These days, most schools will encourage parents to visit their children – the old days when visits were discouraged because it was felt that being left to cope independently was character-building are long gone. However, you may find that the school discourages visits in the first few weeks because it disrupts their programme of settling children in. Respect these parameters and observe them.

Choose your Subject

When you speak to your child, be protective toward them and steer clear of topics that might exacerbate feelings of homesickness. If you ‘entertain’ them with long, rambling anecdotes about the antics of their younger siblings, their much-loved pets, or accounts of family treats and outings, you may well be feeding them the memories and sensations of home that they have been trying hard to suppress, and a few careless words from you may undo all the good work the school has been doing. Instead, encourage them to talk about their new world, their activities, classes and friendship.

Give them Targets

A term can seem hopelessly long to a young child – Christmas can seem light years away when they are starting school in early September. Try and break up the intervening weeks with lots of regular treats they can look forward to – your visits to the school, days out, their weekends at home, half-term and so on. Find ways to reassure them that school is not interminable and that their periods of separation from home and family are manageable.

Don’t Over-Promise

If you’re aware that your child is homesick, you may well panic and make wild promises that you have no intention of keeping – for example saying that, if they’re still unhappy at Christmas you’ll take them out of school. An unhappy child could become over-focused on this possibility – to the point where they disengage with school – and would then feel bitterly betrayed when the promise is not fulfilled.

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