Wednesday 22 October 2014

Leave first day nerves at the gate

Starting primary school is a big deal for all the family, so David Coleman shares his top tips for preparing both parents and children

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

For many parents and children that first day in school, or the first day in a new class with a new teacher, or the first day after a change of school, can be daunting and anxiety provoking.

That stress and anxiety will diminish, or vanish, within a few days for most children. Their anxiety is simply about the unknown and once they get comfortable with their surroundings and realise what is expected of them, they settle quickly.

For some, however, it persists. Even the anticipation of the stress of starting school can be a huge obstacle for some.

So what can we do to prepare our children for the inevitable anxieties that come with new environments and new people?

Perhaps surprisingly, the starting point is to first deal with our own anxieties. Many of the worries that children have are mirrored, or even exceeded by, parents' own worries.

For example, we also don't know what the teacher is going to be like. We don't know how our child will react to the teacher. We don't know how our child will cope with the routine and structure of the school. We don't know how our child will fit in socially.

Depending on your nature, none of these issues might be a cause of worry for you. Alternatively, some or all of these concerns may weigh heavily on your mind.

We know, however, that children can pick up on their parents' anxiety and become anxious themselves. For example, you may have noticed that your child seems fretful when you go out, perhaps mirroring your own anxieties about whether or not they will be okay with the babysitter.

This occurs because our children are very attuned to us. They are aware of our moods (even if they can't put words on them to describe them) and they also look to us to give example about how to judge new people or situations.

Naturally, you can see how this kind of mirroring behaviour can quickly compound into a very negative cycle where you may be worried, your child gets fretful and then you get more distressed because they seem upset and so on.

So, regulating your anxieties and shielding your child from them can be really helpful.

One way to reduce your own anxieties may be to arm yourself with as much information about the school as you can.

Maybe you could visit the school and meet the principal, or even your child's class teacher. Maybe you could get a tour of the school and see the class your child will be in.

Maybe you could meet up with some of the other parents who are already in the school to hear about their experiences of the school and the teachers (hopefully all positive!) and to get a sense of the routine and structure of the day.

Once you have regulated and soothed your own emotions you can better attend to your child.

Do remember that children are remarkably adaptable and resilient, often more resilient than we might give them credit for.

In truth, when they are starting school for the first time, or even if they are just moving into a new class, they need that adaptability.

For example, if we think specifically of the junior infants, coming into a new school building, meeting new children and having a new person in charge of them who dictates the ebb and flow of their day, they have a lot to get used to.

No matter what information we might give our children about school, nothing can fully prepare them for the moment that you hand them over to the teacher and then have to leave them.

We are familiar with the term 'separation anxiety'. It describes how children can get upset at the temporary loss of their parent who leaves them in the care of someone else. It is very natural for children to get upset in this way.

Normally your child will be dependent on you to guide them and to mind them in new surroundings. When they go to school, however, they won't have you for that support. No wonder they get upset in the early days of school.

Of course, time and experience in the classroom with their teachers and the other pupils will allow them to get used to school and to become comfortable and at ease in the environment.

But, one way or another, you can't be there to help them do it.

So, it is really important that you show your child that you are confident that they can cope without you.

Practically, you do this by warmly, but firmly, bringing them to the class, or to the teacher, and then, when the teacher engages them, you say "good-bye, I love you" and leave swiftly.

There is nothing to be gained by lingering at the school gate, or at the door of the classroom. If your child is upset that you are going they will only increase their crying if they think they might persuade you to stay!

You need to trust that the teacher will be able to soothe and distract your child when you are gone. In my experience the reception class teachers are expert at this.

Beyond the natural separation anxiety that young children might show, you may discover that you child is also anxious, about what will happen to them in school.

Again, this is a very normal experience for both children and adults. Whenever we are faced with unpredictability it is likely to raise our anxieties.

The converse of this is also true; the more we know what to expect and the more familiar we are with the routines and the environment, the more relaxed we typically feel.

Do you remember your first day at your current or most recent job? You probably felt unsure about what to do, where to go, or what the etiquette for lunch or breaks were. You may not have known anyone well enough to even feel comfortable to ask.

This is what it is like for children who have moved school, or who are starting school or who are going into a new teacher.

Everything is potentially new and needs to be learned.

So, if you have opportunities to familiarise your child with any aspect of the school before they start then take them. For example, some schools invite the junior infants in the day before the whole school starts.

Similarly, some schools will arrange for the next year's teacher to meet with the class in the days before term ended in June.

If there were open days for the school, hopefully you availed of them to get to know the school yourself and for your child to, at least, be familiar with the look and layout of the buildings.

Children who have older siblings in the school may be at a significant advantage, since they have probably been visiting the school for pick ups, or dropping off forgotten lunches, or the like, on many occasions.

Apart from the familiarity, or not, of the physical environment, your child will also have to become accustomed to the social environment of the school.

Primarily, they will have to develop a relationship with their teacher and the other children in their class. So, as before, if you have opportunities for your child to meet their teacher or to meet and play with some of their prospective classmates, in advance, it may help.

You may already know other children from a local pre-school, or from meeting them at a playgroup or in the park.

If you know that a child will be starting school with your child it might be worth investing in some play-dates between now and the start of school.

At the very least it might give them a familiar face to spot. At best it might give them a firm friend to hang with at break time, giving them that extra bit of support.

You can also coach your child in the skills of making new friends. This too might give them confidence socially. So, encourage your child to make eye contact and to smile at other children.

Teach them how to show interest in someone else by asking questions and by seeking areas of common interest.

The great thing about school, for most children, is that it is incredibly consistent once children are there. The school day tends to follow a very predictable pattern and the routines of school are quickly established.

Most children, therefore, find the security and predictability to be reassuring and they can allow themselves to be relaxed.

But, this does take time and so you may find that for the first number of weeks that your child is exhausted and irritable when they come home. That is normal! Rest assured, this is just because they are working hard academically, socially and emotionally to fit in and keep up. And, because children are resilient and adaptable, most of them manage this just fine.

Irish Independent

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