Listen: Childhood psychologist Dr Kaylene Henderson shares tips to prepare little children for "big school" on Hope Breakfast with Ally & Brendan
There are often two extreme responses when it comes to children starting school for the first time: some excitedly run into school grounds, never looking back, while others cling to mum and dad for dear life. And it’s not just the children who experience a whirl of emotions, either. Some parents are also trying to hold it all together.
Childhood psychologist Dr Kaylene Henderson shared a few practical tips on Hope Breakfast to make the transition a little easier for parents and children, with the fresh 2022 school year set to begin – and new pandemic challenges.
“There are two main big things we can do to prepare our little children for this big new chapter,” Dr Kaylene said.
“First is ‘fostering familiarity’ – being familiar with where they are headed, having a look at the school if they haven’t had a chance to visit it… I know that has been a little bit tricky with COVID.
“Having a look at the school, having a drive by, jumping out and having a look at what it looks like, seeing where the classrooms are. Ideally getting in early on your first day and meeting the teacher as well as meeting some other faces to become familiar.
“Practice what’s to come. There’s a newness we forget that comes for little ones starting school. Putting hands up to ask to go to the toilet, opening lunch containers themselves, introducing themselves to classmates and many more to make it less daunting for their first day.”
Ultimately, Dr Henderson said we want our children to get excited for school but there is a danger in building hype – a more realistic approach is better.
“Ask them in weeks leading up to school about how they are feeling about starting school, ‘what are they most looking forward too?’,” Dr Henderson said.
“There will be things they enjoy and conquer in weeks to come while others may be challenging and come with less ease.”
She explained that asking questions in the lead up to the start of school makes it safer and more familiar for little ones to be open and approach their parents later as school starts and talk their concerns through.
With daycare, having photos up of staff could help little ones become familiar with faces, and Dr Henderson recommended this as a great place to start when it comes to creating a bond with teachers.
“The one factor that helps your child to settle in quickly is familiarity with their teacher. Pre-COVID we would have things like Orientation Day to meet teachers ahead of time and sadly that isn’t doable anymore,” she said.
“On the first day, get there early and take a picture of your child and the teacher to pop on the fridge.”
Dr Henderson said the role of the teacher is important in this transition as they often become an extension to a “child’s village”.
The role of the teacher is important in this transition as they often become an extension to a “child’s village”.
A hysterical child on the first day can be confronting for any parent, and leaving with a trust that all would be OK is emotionally taxing for any parent.
“It’s really tricky. If you foresee it ahead of time, there’s a couple of things you can do. One great thing to do is role play your ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’. Say to them that it can be hard at times to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. So, role play and make it fun as kids learn through play,” Dr Henderson said.
“Role play and make it fun as kids learn through play,” – childhood psychologist Dr Kaylene Henderson
“If you’re worried that your child is going to be anxious, then they are going to have a lot of trouble on the day. Some schools are allowing children based on their particular needs to come in just one-on-one to meet the teacher ahead of time or meet some of the support staff.
Regarding parental adjustment during this season, Dr Henderson said it’s helpful ahead of time to expect it to “hit you and be an emotional moment for many parents”.
“A lot of schools put on ‘tea and tissues’ to acknowledge the need of parents,” she said.
“Who can you tap into and lean into for support after that time?
“It is important to make sure you don’t project [your anxiousness] onto your little ones and express to them we are worried about their safety.
“We want our children to feel brave and sometimes we need to be that ourselves to set them up well.”
For more of Dr Kaylene Henderson’s expertise on children starting school, listen to the full interview in the player above.