My Top Tips, as a parent and Psychologist, for parents of young children who are due to start school, nursey or preschool.
My little boy is 5, so together we have navigated him starting nursery, and then last year he started school. A "big" P1! I am a Psychologist who has always had a specialist interest in supporting families around these huge life shifts and transitions, probably because separating from me was not something that came easily to my son, and perhaps because of that, it didn't feel easy to me. I realised that there wasn't enough information available to parents to give them the understanding required and the tools necessary to support their little ones who were starting school. That's why I created an online course packed full of all the guidance you need to make this transition as successful as possible for your child.
How Best to Prepare Your Little One
In the time leading up to your child starting school, you want to increase their familiarity with their new school, classroom, teacher, and friends. Visit the school (don't be afraid to request additional orientation sessions than are typically offered). Maybe you want to meet with the new teacher briefly in June, so that you can spend some time "matchmaking" during the school holidays.
Matchmaking is the process of supporting your child to feel as though their teacher is an important person in their life, and that your child is important to their teacher, even if they have never met.
You want your child to start school already feeling bonded with and connected to their teacher. Little children need to know whose care they will be resting in while they are apart from you. Ideally your child will have an opportunity to meet briefly with their teacher ahead of their start date, but if this hasn't been possible there is still so much that can be done to plant some roots for their relationship.
Request a video of your child's teacher introducing themselves to the class, or pull a photo of the teacher from their website, print it, and display it on your fridge.
Talk about their teacher fondly and often - like you would a member of the extended family. Use their name and draw out similarities between them and your child.
"Mrs Boyd loves reading books too! I have heard she reads the class a story every day before snack time!"
"Miss Bittles told me that playtime is her favourite time, too!" Did you know that she loves playing with dinosaurs? Sarah was in her class last year and she says Miss Bittles has a whole tub full of dinosaurs for the kids to play with!"
Matchmaking works both ways, so encourage your child to pick a special flower , or ask them if they would like to draw a picture of all their favourite things to give to their teacher on their first day. Another reason why I love this idea is because it can minimise first day nerves at handover as your child is more focused on their gift than on the day ahead.
Get Creative with Play Dates
You know as an adult, when you walk into any social event, one of the first things you will do is scan the room to find a familiar face. This helps children, too. During the summer, if you can arrange playdates with one or two friends from your child's new class, it can reduce any first day nerves. Your child will already know at least one child that they can play with. School's can help facilitate these meet-ups by creating mailing or phone lists. What can be really special is to arrange a couple of play-dates in the school playground ahead of school starting. That way your child is familiarised with the school setting and has the opportunity to establish friendships ahead of starting school.
Visit the School
Maybe you need to pop into the school building to collect your child's new school uniform. Perhaps you want to arrange a visit with your child to orient them to the classroom and visit the key areas of their school? I like to focus on the entrance so the child can visualise where they will say goodbye to you. I also like children to know where they can use the toilet and where they will eat snack. Some schools and nurseries provide new families with orientation books that contain photographs of all of the key areas for your child and these can be really helpful to read and re-read. If your child's school doesnt provide this, ask if you can take photos of those key areas so you can make your own.
Play is the language of childhood, and it is how children learn best. Take out your child's cuddly toys and play "nursery." Sit the stuffies down for story time, let them play outside, pack them all a little snack. Use little figures to engage in small-world play about school life. Its drop-off time and someone feels sick, or it's Peppa's first day at school and she isn't sure what to do. Use play to explore the unknown with your child and make it more familiar. Problem sole together. Help your child to know what to expect and remain open to hearing their worries. Provide messages of reassurance throughout your play...
Grown-ups in school always take care of you.
Your grown-ups will always come back.
Role play is a wonderful way to "play through" what your child's day will look like with them. I always encourage parents to role play drop-off, and to practise giving the child a calm and confident goodbye. It can be sweet to incorporate personal goodbye rituals. More importantly, parents should always role play the reunion, and allow the child to practise, repeatedly, that you will always comes back to collect them.
Read Books about Starting School
Reading is such a great way to talk with children in an indirect way about something big that is going on in their lives, to normalise their feelings, and provide them with a visual about what to expect when doing something that is unfamiliar to them. Two of my favourite books for little ones starting school or nursery are linked below with some key talking points for you to consider.
Llama Llama Misses Mama
One of my favourite books about starting school because it gently touches on the ambivalance of school for little ones, allowing parents to discuss with children the contradictions of enjoying school while simultaneously having to get used to spending time apart from a parent, and sometimes missing them.
Buy it here: https://amzn.eu/d/aUZVzpw
"Don't Worry Little Crab"
This one is a little bit more abstract, but I love how it supports parents to normalise the feelings of "not wanting to go" somewhere unfamiliar. It normalises worries and nerves around trying something new by telling the story of a little crab who would rather stay in a tiny rock pool than venture into the big ocean. But little crab is lovingly supported by big crab and when they do go into the ocean...little crab loves it so much that they don't want to leave.
Buy it here: https://amzn.eu/d/c36XYsg
Starting your little one in school or nursery is a big step for any family. If you found this information helpful, or you would like to learn more about how best to support your child as they transition into school or preschool, check out my online course below.