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A guide for the anxious parents of children starting school for the first time 

25 August 2021

You’ve got to feel for those youngsters moving on from pre-schools, nurseries and homes in September and into school. Not only have they had to endure some of the oddest and scariest times in living memory thanks to COVID-19 – but they’ve still got to go through the stress of starting “proper” school. We know many of the parents reading this will feel depleted themselves, so we asked the staff at our Child and Family Support Service in Carlisle to help us write an easy to understand guide on how to help your children get school ready.   

Before we even start it’s important to put ourselves in the shoes of our children.   

They are taking one of the most momentous steps in their lives so far and have very little reference regarding what school will look like.  

We should bear this in mind whenever we’re helping them to prepare – don’t assume or take for granted that they know how school life will function and be prepared for them to worry. The unknown is scary to most of us, and just because we know it will fundamentally be fine, we shouldn’t assume they will.  

That said, what does school readiness mean? Research by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) defines school readiness as meaning that children: 

  • have strong social skills 
  • can cope emotionally with being separated from their parents 
  • are relatively independent in their own personal care 
  • have a curiosity about the world and a desire to learn. 

So how can we support them with this? 

Social Skills 

The cornerstones of social skills are speaking and listening, as practising these skills helps children to follow instructions from their teacher and mix with their friends effectively.  

A good way we can support our children to develop these skills as parents is to practice them in a low-pressure setting – by playing games, for example: 

  • ‘Simon Says’ hones our children’s listening skills, and teaches them to pay attention to the speaker, which is invaluable in a classroom setting. 
  • The traffic light game helps children exercise a similar set of skills 
  • Memory games, such as where items are covered and the child has to remember as many as possible, are great for helping them develop recall skills and communication.  

If that all sounds a bit formal, however, then simply reading stories and singing songs will help them to develop a love of language that will hopefully last a lifetime. 

Emotional Wellbeing

The first hurdle many of us will encounter when helping our children with emotional wellbeing is ourselves. 

We might not have had the greatest time at school, and children are very good at picking up on the things their parents say, and even what they feel.  

So, to ensure they can make up their own minds without being influenced by your feelings make sure to smile and talk positively when you’re talking about school. 

That doesn’t mean you have to ignore the negative comments they make, however, and you should encourage children to share how they’re feeling about starting school – whether that’s sad, nervous, excited or scared – so you can bring any fears out into the open and discuss them. 

Here are some more tips and suggestions for ways to promote emotional wellbeing: 

  • Sometimes children are upset but struggle to open up and, in these situations, it might help to use puppets to “act out” the situation, as dealing with these feelings in the abstract can sometimes prove helpful. 
  • Books can do the same thing, and there are dozens of children’s books dealing with the topic of starting school for this exact reason.  
  • If during discussion you find out that they are a little nervous it can help to show your child pictures of you, your siblings and other family members when you went to school – particularly if these show happy or joyful moments. Even family members who’re only slightly older, such as cousins or older siblings, can be invaluable here in demonstrating that school’s nothing to worry about – they survived, after all!  
  • Sometimes it can also help to practice the routine surrounding the school day in the weeks beforehand by waking up at the right time (not that many children need this incentive!), having breakfast, preparing a packed lunch, trying on uniforms and practising the school run. This can also be quite good fun, if not a little emotional for parents who see their “babies” growing up!  

Finally, it’s worth saying that regardless of how much work you do, each child is different and yours may take a little longer to settle in.  

This is completely normal, but it can be upsetting if, for example, your child becomes distressed when you try to leave them in the early days. 

Remember the point we make at the top of the article and consider if you were them in this new and confusing situation… wouldn’t you worry about being left alone?  

Therefore, try and reassure them by telling them exactly who will be collecting them, and at what time. 

Are relatively independent in their own personal care 

It is important that children are relatively independent in their own self-care just to ensure the smooth running of the school day – for, by example, going to the toilet by themselves and washing and drying their hands 

Other valuable skills during the school day are: 

  • Using buttons and zips on their clothing 
  • Putting shoes on the right feet and fastening them 
  • Carrying school dinner trays and using knives and forks independently 

In this case, the simplest way to develop these skills is to simply “practice by doing” over the holidays if your child is still struggling with any of the above.  

These are good things to incorporate into the “practice days” we mentioned in the previous section – you could try turning your front room into a “canteen” where your child carries their own tray, and you can practice getting dressed in the morning and taking off and putting on shoes for your practice school run.   

Have a curiosity about the world and a desire to learn 

If you do all the above then you will set your child up with all the tools they need to thrive in school, but this last point from Pacey’s guidance highlights the way we should think about helping our children 

Try and ensure these activities are fun and not a “test” – we don’t want children to associate school with stress and the need to achieve at this age.  

Instead show them that learning can be fun and that there’s no penalty for attempting things we first struggle with. 

By doing so we set them up with the curiosity and desire to learn that’s essential for success and happiness at school, and beyond.  

Above all, remember that the school and teachers who will be looking after your children as they move to primary school are experienced in dealing with new starters every year. They will be able to guide and support both you and your children and will be excited about welcoming you to the school community in September! 

If you’re worried about the start of school or need support with any other aspect of family life our free FamilyLine helpline is available to help. Call: 0808 802 6666, text: 07537 404282 or email: familyline@family-action.org.uk.