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Column: Facing your child’s first day of school? Here’s what you should know

If you’re getting ready for your little one’s first day of school, these tips should help you to best equip yourself for the next few weeks and beyond, writes Ciara Brennan.

Ciara Brennan

OVER THE NEXT few weeks, thousands of families in Ireland will begin a new chapter in their collective lives as one or more of their children start school for the first time.

There are roughly 75,000 children who will enrol in the primary school system for the first time this autumn.

If you are a parent of one of those children, some of the following might help you to best equip yourself for the realities you can expect over the next few weeks and beyond.

The week before school

  • If your little one has a school diary, fill in all the details at the front, such as addresses and phone numbers. The teacher will have these details already, but it is good for other support services in the school to be able to get hold of them at short notice.
  • Practise eating out of a lunchbox and putting things in the bin. Remind your child what should go in the bin, and what should be kept in their lunchbox and brought home. If their lunchbox goes somewhere special in the classroom, put it there with them on the first morning.
  • It’s no harm to have an imaginary ‘school’ playtime with your child – it may reveal some previously unknown fears in your child that you can address in a safe way in advance of the first day.
  • Practise helping your child take their coat off, hanging it up in a special place, and putting it on again. This will really help the teacher in a cramped classroom and will make the child feel more independent at break-time. Praise them, even if they’re not doing it perfectly – the idea is that your child will feel less apprehensive about doing it for real in school.
  • Label everything. And I mean, everything. You don’t want to be buying a new jumper or Peppa Pig lunchbox in October. Have all books and copies covered to keep them clean – but try to avoid the wallpaper-style covers where the child won’t recognise what book is underneath. The only way we can get 30 four-year-olds to pick out the right book is by holding it up and saying ‘Take out this book, boys and girls.’ If the front of the book is covered up, the child won’t recognise it.
  • If your child is allergic to anything, make a little card (laminated, if possible) and list those allergies. The teacher can then stick this to the desk and inform their colleagues on yard duty, to ensure that everyone knows how to care for your child properly.
  • If you can at all, please teach your child how to write their name. This is a great aid to a teacher if a child can identify and label their own worksheet or book, and increases the child’s sense of ‘ownership’ of their work.
  • Be sure to take some time to talk to your children about your own experience of school, and try to remind them of the positive opportunities that will present themselves when they’re in class. Remind them that they’ll have the chance to make new friends, try new things, and so on. Try to keep it very relaxed, and do not over-inflate what the child should expect about the day.
  • If you have any fears that your child might have specific special needs, please don’t hesitate to tell your school about them. The faster that a school can recognise the specific needs of pupils, the faster they can accommodate them and the better the outcome for everyone.

The first morning

  • It’s pretty likely that your child will be a bit scared, but too nervous to say it. Invent a secret signal with your child – like pinching their little finger, or squeezing their hand three times – which means ‘I love you’. It’s a special and private thing that will reassure them as you let them go, while also avoiding any embarrassment.
  • For the first few weeks, try to put your child in shoes that have Velcro straps. Avoid laces, for obvious reasons.
  • On the subject of men being the ones bringing the kids to school: be assured that the school run isn’t just a ‘mammy’ thing anymore. Don’t hesitate. It seems obvious, but it is something that appears time and time again as a discreet issue. There are other dads there – and they might appreciate the company!
  • Don’t give your child a drink for lunch that they can’t open themselves. (I’m looking at you, unnamed pouched fruit drink with a fiddly straw.) Also, any ‘strange’ or ‘new’ food, however convenient it might be – again, I’m looking at you, unnamed wax-covered cheese product – should probably be avoided.
  • Make sure the teacher has at least two correct numbers to call you, in case something happens. It won’t happen, but just in case…
  • If your child has an inhaler, make sure the teacher knows about it, and put a sticker or tag on it with instructions for the teacher.
  • Try to chat to at least one ‘new’ parent. You’ll have a lot in common over the next eight years – and it’ll be very valuable to have an ally who’s going through the same process as you. Remember: you’ll probably know a lot of the parents already if your child was in a local Montessori or a playschool.
  • It is very common in infant classes for the teacher to ‘bring’ the class to the toilet together, so remind your little one to go then, even if they are absolutely positive they don’t need to go. They do, and they will! If they are prone to wetting themselves, make sure you are aware of the school policy on changing clothes if the issue arises. Show the child where the bathroom is on the first morning, teach them how to flush the toilet properly, and remind them to wash their hands.
  • Your little one will probably be exhausted after their first day, so a nap after collection isn’t a bad idea at all. Make time for this in your own schedule and plan this with any childminders, etc.
  • When you’re leaving your child, explain to them that you will be back to collect them, at the very place you left them. Of course, if it won’t be you that will be collecting them, you need to tell this to them and of course, the teacher.
  • Don’t worry, tears are totally normal. They aren’t upset with you, and you’re not a bad parent for walking away.
  • Enjoy the morning and don’t cry until you’re in the car/bus on the way home. Easier said than done! We’ll do all we can to help and we know that nothing will ever replace your love and devotion to your little one – we’re just here to help them get on their way to great things.

The future and beyond

  • Many schools operate a ‘line-up’ system in the yard. Most schools will let you walk into the room with your child (especially on the first day!) but don’t make a habit of loitering around afterwards. You mightn’t realise it, but the 30 minutes’ playtime at the start of the infant’s schoolday is not only important social time for your child – it’s also a recognised educational methodology for improving oral language and imagination. Don’t let them miss out!
  • Empty the child’s bag everyday – especially in the first few days, where notes and envelopes may be sent home.
  • Don’t be surprised if the child isn’t using their schoolbooks for the first few weeks. Many teachers will try to concentrate on hands-on activities and integrating the child into the school before they start to open the books.
  • Most of the first few weeks will be spent on pre-writing (learning how to hold a pencil and make shapes), phonics (sounds), early maths activities, hands-on and imaginative play, nursery rhymes and singing. Don’t be surprised if you ask your child, ‘What did you do today?’ and they say, ‘Nothing’. Often the most important activities for this age group are disguised as something more fun and play-oriented. The content is hidden inside them and backed up by the curriculum.
  • If you haven’t already received one, ask the teacher for a copy of the school’s calendar. It’ll outline the various days off and holidays for the coming year.
  • It would be useful to know the name of the school secretary if there is one – you might have to contact them to let them know of absences, reasons for absences, or if you need to arrange paying for a school tour or another event.
  • If you have to pay a contribution charge to the school, don’t be anxious about paying it immediately, or even in full. The first few weeks of school should be about concentrating on your child, and not on money. If you have any trouble in making the payment just mention it to the teacher, if you feel comfortable doing so. We know how hard it is, and most teachers will never put you under pressure about any payment.
  • Try to stick to a very specific routine over the first few weeks. Plan out breakfast and lunches in particular to help the morning run more smoothly.
  • If you’ve any interest in doing so, contact a member of the Parents’ Council in the school – they love to see new parents get on board and it’s a very nice way for you to be involved in helping to plan for events both inside and outside the school.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has some useful material on its website which might help you to get to grips with exactly what your child is learning in school, and some of the ways in which they’ll be taught.

Good luck in the next few weeks – these precious days will fly by, and before you know it, you’ll all be fully adjusted to the new routine.

Ciara Brennan is a primary school teacher in Bray, Co Wicklow. She tweets at @PrimEdTeacher.

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