Advice for School Starters – Smoothing the Transition

A teacher reads to schoolchildren in a primary classWith the beginning of term fast approaching, parents and children will be facing the start of the new school year with a whole range of emotions. The thought of a new class, new teacher, new subjects or even a new school might be exciting, nerve wracking, confusing or a mixture of all 3 emotions with many more besides. Whether your child is starting nursery, a new school or a new class within a known school, here are some top tips to consider when trying to ensure that the start is as smooth as possible.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings
With thousands of children starting school or nursery /changing class across the country, it is easy to down play what a big deal this is for your child. It might be their first step away from you and into a more formal educational setting, or it might be a move to a new teacher. Whatever the transition is, it is likely to be huge for your child. It will be a new environment, with new staff and possibly different peers. All of the constants that help your child feel secure might have been taken away to be replaced by unknowns. Imagine how anxious you might be when starting a new job – where do you sit? What are the rules around breaks? Where do you get your lunch? What happens if you don’t know what to do? As adults, we have the ability to reflect on these questions and form plans to deal with them (what is known as executive functioning), children don’t have this ability until well into middle childhood and sometimes later. Instead they are just left with a general sense of unease and emotional upheaval. It is a big deal. Being able to listen to your child’s worries, naming them and talking about them will help. Also recognise that their behaviour might become unsettled during this time. Remember that all behaviour is a communication – what is your child trying to tell you about how she /he is feeling?
Protect their sense of security
As a parent, you will have spent a long time building up a sense of trust and security between you and your child. By the time they go to nursery or school, they will know that they can trust you, that you are there for them and that you can meet their needs. Imagine how confusing it would be if this feeling was suddenly replaced by anxiety and insecurity by suddenly being left in a new place with no where that you know to be safe and familiar. No matter what advice you are given, it is important that you recognise what your child needs. If they need you to stay a bit longer, then stay, if they need a comforter, allow this. Recognise that the first few weeks of a new environment will be unsettling for a child – what can you do to protect their sense of security (even when others may be telling you to leave them)?
Trust your instinct (and your child)
No-one knows your child like you do. You are the expert in what your child needs to feel safe. If you feel that your child needs you to stay to help them settle in, then do this. If you know that your child will settle better with you remaining at distance, then this is fine too! Children are not all the same and just as each of us need different things in our adult lives, then this applies to children too. Yes, nursery or school staff may have years of experience in settling children into their new class, but they have no experience of what your child needs. This is where working in partnership with the school or nursery really needs to take place. If your instinct is telling you that your child needs something other than what school or nursery are suggesting, talk to them! Recognise your absolute expertise in knowing what your child needs.
Giving your child a sense of predictability is important when it comes to change. Most of the things that we find anxiety provoking are to do with not knowing what to expect. Younger children will often work through these anxieties through play if they are given the opportunity to do this. Play is a non threatening way to explore different scenarios and difficult emotions. If your child is starting school, is there a way that you can help them role play this either with toys or with you / older siblings? Can you set up a pretend classroom? Other effective ways of helping prepare children for school might be to think about visual timetables/cues – the simple act of looking at photographs together of their new environment will be helpful in lessening any anxiety. Talking to your child about the day to day detail of what will happen will also be helpful.
Give your child control
The feeling of not being in control when starting something new is the one that can create the most anxiety, and for some children, the most challenging behaviours. Think about any way that you can give your child an appropriate sense of control over what is happening. Simple things like picking their bag, clothes etc can be helpful, but don’t limit this to just thinking about school related things. Are there other points in the day where you can give your child a sense of control?
Transitions can be very exciting but are a time of great change for both parents and children. Be kind to yourself as you go through this time, you both deserve it!
by Dr. Sarah Hulme

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