For most children, there’s no more significant day in their life than the day they start school. This time last year I nervously dropped off my second child for her first day. Those six hours between drop-off and pick-up moved more slowly than peak hour traffic. I couldn’t wait to pick her up and hear how the day went. But like most kids, she told me very little. ‘Okay.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Alright.’
In the first few weeks, there were tears, as she told us she had nobody to sit with at recess or lunchtime. Then finally, she made her first real friend, and the family breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was an anxious time for everyone.
So how can we make it easier for our little ones and everyone around them?
Parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson says kids face a number of challenges when starting school for the very first time.
‘The kind of things kids usually worry about are typically going to be missing parents or whoever their carer is, and dealing with the social challenges that come with being around the same group of kids all day.’
Then there are the behavioural expectations of being part of a group.
‘There’s a certain way we’re supposed to behave; we’re supposed to do the same thing together at the same time in the group because that’s how groups work,’ Justin explains. ‘Sometimes 4 or 5-year-old kids just want to do it their way, in their own time… and so even the emotional regulation that goes along with that can be tricky.’
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Supporting a child feeling anxious about starting school
‘I think the most important thing is that we don’t try to use logic to convince them that they’ll be okay because when somebody is feeling emotional and we start to get logical with them, they don’t tend to respond well.’
‘It seems the best thing we can do is just let them know that the emotions they are feeling are normal, that it’s okay to feel that way and that we’re there to support them.’
Rather than saying ‘You’ll be fine’ which will probably stress them out more, Justin believes it’s much more effective to say something like, ‘You’re nervous aren’t you?’ and let them know that you will be waiting for them with a big cuddle when they get home. This makes your child know that they still have to go to school and stay there, but you will be there for them when they get home.
What kids need most when they get home
Although you may be desperate to hear every detail of how your child’s day went, Dr Coulson advises against peppering your child with questions as soon as you’ve picked them up.
‘They’re tired, they’ve just pulled a full day’s shift. And by the end of the week, they’re going to be even more tired.’
I recently tested this out at school pick-up on the first day back. I resisted the temptation to ask both my children about their day. Instead, I showered them with affection, a welcoming smile and my full attention. They chatted all afternoon happily about the things that mattered to them.
So what do kids need when they get home?
Just reflect on what you would have liked when you were little, Dr Justin says. ‘A nice afternoon tea. A hug. Some downtime. And perhaps later that evening a little bit of nighttime nurture.’
Dr Justin suggests asking your kids three questions at the very end of the day when they are safely tucked up in bed.
- Three things you liked about today – that’s the sunshine
- Something that was tough about today – that’s the storm cloud
- Then ask how did you deal with that tough thing? How did you get through it? That’s the rainbow that comes out after the stormcloud
Dr Justin Coulson is the author of Ten Things Every Parent Needs to Know. More information is available from his happy families website.