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Opinion: Taking the first steps into education can be daunting – for child and parent

Venturing into the unknown is scary. Here’s how to make things a little easier…

Shane Kelly

AS THE NEW school year approaches, parents and pupils are counting down the last days of summer before easing themselves into the usual routine of buying books and uniforms. However, for those children who will take their first steps into education come September, the new term can be a daunting experience.

Venturing into the unknown and undergoing major changes in your everyday life – for example, starting a new job or moving house – is stressful for anyone, irrespective of their age, so it is hardly surprising that young children feel scared when they are suddenly introduced into new surroundings.

Thankfully, there are a number of things that parents can do to make the transition to primary education as easy and painless as possible and to ensure that the first day at school is a memorable one.

Schools are far more welcoming, inviting places than they used to be, and it is important that parents bring their children to visit their new school before the first day of term.

This will allow children the opportunity to meet their teacher and the principal, who will do their most to welcome them to the school. It will also help children to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings, including the classroom and facilities like the toilets and the playground.

Visiting the school before term begins will also help you to find parents and children who are in a similar situation. Organising play dates with other kids who are in the same boat will ensure that your child has some new friends on the first day and will help them to settle in. In some instances, schools can put you in touch with other parents to arrange a play date.

Ahead of the start of term, parents should also discuss school as much as possible with their child and dispel any fears they have. While a pre-term visit will have helped to allay many of your child’s concerns, why not plan some school-related fun events? One of the most effective ways to do this is by organising a family day out to buy books, uniforms and schoolbags. This will help make the prospect of school seem exciting, positive and something that they will look forward to.

Parents should also encourage their children to ask questions like ‘what do I do if I need to go to the toilet?’ or ‘what do I do if I need a drink?’ This will help ease any worries that they might have and it will also show that the teacher is there to help them. Consequently, it will make it easier for them to settle in and to feel comfortable in their new environment.

It’s also important that you encourage your child to be friendly and helpful to their classmates and ask others to play with them. This will help them to build on the friendships that they made during the pre-school play dates and joining after school clubs will cement these new relationships.

Once these first-timers start school, parents should talk to them every day about their experiences. Ask them what they did and what their favourite part of their day was. It’s important that you are excited and enthusiastic about their stories, which will validate their positive experiences.

By the same token, don’t dismiss your child’s fears. You must address them and talk through them. The more they talk, the easier it will be for them and you will get a better sense of how they are coping.

You should also keep an eye for changes in children’s behaviour such as not sleeping, not eating, being irritable, quiet or angry as it may indicate that they need more help to cope with the new environment. If there is a specific issue, have a quiet word with the teacher.

Thankfully, most children adapt quickly to their new surroundings and have a great first year in school, so, as a parent, try not to be too anxious yourself. After all, being in school are the best days of your life.

Dos and don’ts for starting school

Do…

  • Help familiarise your child with their new school before they start
  • Set up play dates for your child with new classmates before school starts
  • Make fun days of buying books and a new uniform
  • Establish a good sleeping and eating routine in the weeks beforehand
  • Encourage your child to ask their teacher plenty of questions

Don’t…

  • Ignore changes in their behaviour
  • Dismiss any fears or concerns that your child has
  • Forget to talk to your child about every aspect of their day
  • Be too anxious yourself

Shane Kelly is Professional Services Manager with the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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Shane Kelly

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