I have a cloudy memory of what I think was my first day of school. The memory is assisted by a first-day photo of me in a school uniform that I did eventually grow into. I remember my school bag feeling almost larger than me. My hair was cut short, especially for the purpose of being school-ready. I don’t remember if my mother was there. I have a feeling I may have been walked to school by my neighbour who was a year older than me so had a good 12 months of school experience up his sleeve. I remember buildings being huge, smells (lots of smells – gestetner fumes, stale apples, chalk dust), and meeting new friends. I distinctly remember being very surprised to learn that one of my new friends had just become an aunty – surely being an aunty was something only grown-ups could do!
I’m always delighted to learn about the things that grab a specific child’s attention and, more often than not, it’s not the same stuff that bothers or upsets grownups. Adults need to be wary of making anxious assumptions about how children may or may not cope.
In the treatment of children who are having troubles, we psychologists rely on a range of techniques when helping people deal with upset, anxiety or new things. Collecting information about something new or scary is a great place to start. If the upset is about school, then it’s useful to have gentle conversations about school, reading books about school, and spending time with other people who are about to go to school. Gentle conversations are very different from one-sided inquisitions. The idea is to gently explore the new thing together as the matter arises. If a child raises a specific concern in these conversations, then this can be honed-in on for special attention. A child may be worried about making new friends, being lonely or missing mum or dad. If they voice specific concerns you can curiously gather more specific information together and help then come up with a plan for what they might try. Some children may need more preparation than others and some may like to carry a little “attachment object” (like Mum’s hanky or Dad’s key chain) as a way of still feeling close.
When dealing with new or scary stuff, psychologists also use a technique called graded exposure (not the sort that people can get arrested for) where we break down the scary thing into smaller parts and try a little bit until we feel comfy, then a bigger bit, then an even bigger bit and so on. These are techniques that can be useful as a child approaches school. Children have probably already had some visits to their new school, but you may like to walk, or drive, past school over coming days. Wear that over-sized uniform and new shoes around the house so that it feels comfy. Make sure that all the books and lunch boxes are ready.
Teachers well know that establishing and sticking to routine helps children settle. I suspect teachers have known this a lot longer than trauma psychologists.
An upset or frightened brain settles more quickly when it knows what to expect. Routines help us to know what comes next and when we stick to them, one activity just seems to roll into the next. Early learners may need routines spelled out or visual representations of routines. At home, you can help by trying to switch from the holiday bed-time and breakfast time routines to the school-night/morning routines.
Be mindful that routine is less common in the playground and some little ones can come unstuck in the playground when there is no set task to do and other children are more energised. The playground can be a jungle! Be sure to get some holiday practice in playgrounds, too.
While I’m sure it’s purely in the interest of helping a little sibling, older brothers and sisters may say things that frighten little ones about school. Just keep an eye on these interactions and be sure that you provide perspective for your child
Oh, and on providing perspective for your child, it’s important that grown-ups try really hard to keep their own anxieties to themselves and make sure they get specific grown-up help if they start to leak out these anxieties and affect little ones.
If you are worried about how you might feel about your child starting school and the child not being “little” anymore, be sure you plan a way to acknowledge and deal with these feelings – make a time to catch up with other parents in the same situations (some schools are lovely enough to provide welcome coffee for parents on the first morning). Don’t make a big deal about what great fun you will be having without your child (they won’t want to miss out) and don’t make a big deal about how sad you will be without them – children can easily feel responsible for their parents’ moods.
Overall, when it comes to a smooth start to school, it’s really important that children know that they have all they need (inside them and around them) and that they can always ask for help or speak up about problems. Pack them off with a sense of pride, excitement and wonder. They will have amazing experiences ahead!