How to take the stress out of Big School
Before you know it, your child will be making that giant transition from pre- to primary school. Andrea Mara has some practical coping suggestions for parents
'And please, it's really important that you don't cry in front of your junior infant," said the teacher. "You need to wait until you go around the corner."
I scribbled this down in my notebook, then feeling a bit foolish, I stopped and looked around. But most of the other parents were writing it down too, along with all the other practical tips we'd been given to aid our children's transition to school. We were desperate for any kind of information that would ease the process, and understandably so - it's a huge milestone. So, just what can parents do to prepare children for starting school?
On the practical side, there are some very simple tips that will help make things a whole lot easier. Buy shoes with a Velcro fastening as you won't be there to help with buckles, and the teacher won't have time. Buy a school bag that's big enough to fit A4 folders and books - lots of parents make the mistake of buying a too-small bag for their tiny junior infants.
"Practise putting on and taking off their coat and jumper with your child," advises junior infants teacher Zoe Mannix. "Label all your child's belongings, and we suggest each child has a change of underwear in a plastic sealed bag at all times in the school bag."
Consider putting something colourful and recognisable, like a button or sew-on badge, on your child's coat - labels are important for when coats go missing, but a small child will find a button or badge easier to recognise. These are all easy-to-implement tips and make a huge difference in terms of boosting confidence and avoiding anxiety.
Lunch time can be an unexpectedly tricky time for junior infants, but there are plenty of practical solutions. Buy a lunch box that's easy to open and close and make sure your child knows how to do so.
"Let them choose their own lunch box beforehand if possible," suggests Kathryn McCloskey, teacher and mother-of-three. "And don't pack too big a lunch - this causes stress if they don't get to finish it."
Joanne Keane, agrees. "Keep the lunch child-friendly," says the teacher and mother-of-two.
"Provide fruit, such as grapes, raisins, or peeled oranges for little break, and a small lunch, for example a sandwich, pasta, rice cakes, or crackers for big break. Also pack a piece of kitchen paper for cleaning hands afterwards."
Think about what your child can manage - raisin packets can be hard to open, so little boxes are better, and yoghurts are easy to spill so may be best avoided. If you're sending in a carton drink, make sure your child can manage to unwrap the straw.
Finally, make sure your child can go to the bathroom without help.
For the practical preparation, there are plenty of tangible tips, but what about the psychological side - how do you make sure your child walks in happy on day one?
Talk about starting school
Discuss it in a positive way and explain that it's a fun place to go, but don't overdo it - don't make it a huge, hyped-up deal.
Visiting the school beforehand is a big help too
"Drive by it, walk by it, and talk about the kind of fun things they might do there," says Joanne Keane. "If the school organises an induction visit beforehand, it's a great opportunity to see the school and the classroom, to find out where the toilets are, to meet the teacher and to meet new classmates."
And if at all possible, get to know one or two classmates in advance
"If there is one, I recommend that the child is enrolled in a summer camp at the new school, as it helps them to become familiar with the layout of the school and they get to mix with many more new entrants in a fun, positive atmosphere," advises Zoe Mannix. "Or there may be a relative or neighbour who attends the school who you could invite over for a play-date."
Prepare children socially too
Teach them how to share, how to take turns, how to follow simple instructions, and to understand that when a teacher says no, that means no. And encourage independence by letting children do things for themselves around the house in the run-up to starting school.
Starting school isn't just a huge milestone for children
Parents need to prepare mentally too. For lots of parents, the biggest adjustment is the realisation that school is not crèche. Going from a childcare or pre-school setting with a low pupil/teacher ratio, to a classroom with just one teacher is a significant change. There's no diary to detail what the child has done all day and no handover chat at pick-up time.
Children often don't tell parents what happened at school
They're tired after a long day, and when asked what they did, often respond with "Nothing". For parents, it can be tough at the start, but you learn to trust the teacher and the school, and eventually you will start to get a sense of what goes on in the classroom. Try to get to know other parents - this will help you with the settling-in period while you're busy trying to help your child.
Finally, what about some tips for the big day itself?
"Be organised the night before," says Joanne Keane. "Go to bed on time, have the uniform, hairbrush, bag and lunch box ready. Get up early so everyone isn't in a mad dash out the door."
Kathryn McCloskey points out the importance of punctuality on that first day. "Parents should make a huge effort to be in plenty of time and definitely shouldn't be late collecting their child after school."
And what about the big goodbye?
"What can cause issues is the length of time parents stay in the classroom," says McCloskey. "I would definitely encourage parents to stay for minimal time. I would love to have a school policy that doesn't allow parents in at all, and for everyone to say goodbye in the school yard."
So, back to my notes from the school meeting - the biggest tip of all. . .
Don't let them see you cry. But don't worry about the tears around the corner either - you're definitely not alone. In fact, on most first mornings, the kids do better than the parents, which is exactly how it should be.