Fighting first day nerves
Starting big school, pre-school or Montessori is a big change for children. Claire O'Mahony discovers some strategies that parents can employ to reduce anxiety
After a beautiful summer, school is upon us once again. This week sees a new term begin for primary school students, some of whom are starting big school for the first time. It's also the time of year when younger children will start pre-school and Montessori, and while this can cause great excitement, it can also be a period of anxiety for small children, which is entirely understandable.
As humans we do not like change - and that's just as true for adults - and school represents a new environment, with new people and a new regime. And while we might fear change, adaptability is another characteristic of humans, so even if there are a few initial hiccups, most children quickly acclimatise to their new surroundings.
According to Dr Niroshini Naidoo of videoDoc, which offers online access to Irish Medical Council registered doctors, children who are worried about school - or anything else - may exhibit signs such as difficulty sleeping, showing more anxiety in terms of behaviour, or they may be off their food. She recommends starting with open communication channels between parent and child, so that little ones will feel comfortable discussing their fears.
Asking questions like 'What do you think you could do to change that feeling', or 'Do you think that others might feel a little nervous too?' can help them to open up about any anxieties and give them confidence that they have the ability to perhaps solve these problems. "By addressing the issue openly, hopefully your child will feel at ease about expressing their feelings," says Dr Naidoo. "These conversations can be emotionally exhausting, so maybe plan doing something fun while you have the conversation to help relax your child."
Ideally, being prepared before term starts can help children, and planning playdates for them so that they become accustomed to having to be ready to leave the house at a designated time is a good way to do this. From parents' own perspectives, ensuring that uniforms are ready - and fit - and that items such as lunchboxes and schoolbags are good to go means a less stressful environment in the household during term time. It's also important that children feel comfortable about asking the teacher questions when they're unsure about situations such as using the bathroom.
Most importantly of all is encouraging them on a day-to-day basis to assuage any anxieties and to let them know that starting anything new can be hard initially, but will soon become easy and fun. "When they finish school, go out for a lunch or some kind of treat afterwards so that they have something to look forward to at the end of the day, as obviously it can be stressful for them," Dr Naidoo says.
While most children become happy enough in their new environment, some may take longer to adjust. Dr Naidoo recommends giving it a week or two before addressing it with the teacher to see if there are any issues, and the teacher will most likely have already been in contact if something like a difficult situation with another child has arisen in the classroom.
"If the child is not enjoying school, first find out if there is a legitimate cause - if there is bullying going on and so forth - that needs to be tackled or handled separately," she says. "If there's no obvious reason why a child doesn't want to go to school, compare it to your own lifestyle - whether or not we like going to work, we have to go to work, we have to earn a living and we have to be productive to society. As parents, we are the best examples to our children."
Of course it's not a given that all children will enjoy school. For children who don't, Dr Naidoo suggests finding an incentive - some schools may give prizes for good attendance, which may be something that they could concentrate on.
"Bring out all the positives," she says. "Find out what they do like and focus on those things."
Dr Niroshini Naidoo of videoDoc (videodoc.ie), an online doctor service with Irish Medical Council registered doctors who specialise in delivering care remotely. Patients can access a doctor in minutes by downloading the videoDoc mobile app. Doctors are available for care seven days, 8am-10pm, for €25