Saturday 25 May 2019

First day at big school

The first few weeks of school or Montessori are daunting for both little ones and their parents. However, experience has taught Jen Hogan that there are clever ways to ease the transition

Picture posed
Picture posed

The first day of school or Montessori has come and gone at this stage. The hype, the build-up, the nerves and the anticipation has culminated in a first morning of smiles, or possibly tears, many of which were shed by the mum, and the hope of a calm, seamless adjustment to the new routine hangs in the air - if only it was that simple!

Some children take to this new challenge and stage in their lives like the proverbial duck to water, while others remain somewhat anxious and reluctant well past the first day. Then there are the children who completely wrong-foot us - full of smiles and waves goodbye on their first day, reassuring us that they are big boys and girls now and well ready to go out into the world of "big school", only to greet us with a look of horror, somewhere between day two and week two, when they realise that this wasn't a once-off event and they're expected to return every day!

So, is there any way to help make the transition go more smoothly? What is the best way to find out from your child what happened during the day? And is there anything you can do to ensure they don't arrive home with a lunch box as full as the one you packed for them earlier that morning?

Making friends

One of the things most parents worry about when their child starts at a new school is how easily they'll make friends. It can be a daunting time for a child who doesn't know anyone going to the school already, or a child who is particularly shy. There are things, however, that we as parents can do to help.

Playdates are commonplace nowadays and even the most shy child is usually happy to have a new friend over to play, especially if it's on their territory. Being the parent who organises a contact list for the class can help to speed up the process. Not only can you get the details together all the more quickly, you also initiate contact with the parents in the first place and so become the mum or dad everyone knows. Playdates not only help your child to make friends on a scale that they're possibly more comfortable with, they can also be used as a carrot to encourage a reluctant child to school in the first place.

Establishing a good routine

School days of the Montessori and primary school type are exhausting for little children as they learn to focus and concentrate in a manner that they might never have before. It's hard for everyone to adjust to the restrictions of early starts and timetables after the summer but it's so important in helping our children to settle into their new surroundings.

Organisation and consistency are certainly the key here. A good day often follows a good night's sleep. As well as keeping to a regular bedtime, setting out clothes and shoes the night before is a good habit to get into. Mornings can be fractious affairs at the best of times, and anything which takes a little pressure off can only help. Rising early to allow enough time for getting dressed, having breakfast, cleaning teeth and all the necessities, at a comfortable pace, should reduce stress levels in the household and hopefully provide for a more positive start to the school day.

Arriving at school early has the benefit of allowing your child to play with some of their new friends ahead of the start of their school day. Many schools set aside time at the beginning of the morning for 'free play', which is something most children love and is hugely beneficial in encouraging them to mix with other children and use their imagination to play in a way they enjoy. As a favourite part of the school day for so many children, it's a great way to encourage them to view school in a positive light.

Finding out how their day went

Experience here has taught me that what you find out is largely down to the type of questions you pose. Asking a broad question such as “How was your day?” invariably leads to the reply “good”, or “terrible” if their form is not so great. Likewise, “what did you learn in school today?” can often be met with “nothing”! Focusing on what letter, number, new sound or maybe even asking about what pictures were coloured in, might provide you with a little bit more insight.

One question destined to break a parent’s heart is “Did you play with anyone today?”. On countless occasions, I’ve been told by various different children, “No, I played on my own”. The first time I heard this reply, my overactive imagination conjured up visions of my darling baby standing alone on the periphery as all the other children played merrily — and together. So concerned was I, that I took a day off work and went down to the school yard at break-time to see the pitiful sight for myself. Needless to say, my Junior Infant was running around the yard laughing and interacting with plenty of little friends and completely happy out. Lesson learned. Going forward, I changed my question to “What games were you playing in yard today?” and then enquired as to who joined in.

Of course, one of the things that can be hard for us parents to fathom is that sometimes our child might just want to play on their own. It doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a problem, or that they’re lonely or unhappy. Some days they’re just content in their own company, getting lost in their own imagination.

If things aren't settling

Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, a child can still struggle to settle in to their new school or Montessori. While it can be tempting to somewhat shrug off your little one's worries, it is important to allow them to vocalise their concerns. This will give you the opportunity to offer reassurance, positivity and hopefully some coping suggestions.

If your suggestions and reassurances, however, are proving fruitless, it may be time to have a discreet word with your little one's teacher. Not every child who resists school in the morning, continues with their objections throughout the day, and speaking with the teacher can give you some real insight into how your child is actually managing.

It also equips your child's teacher with the knowledge that your child may still be finding the transition difficult. As the new "knower of all things" in your child's eyes, the teacher's influence can make a crucial difference here and, even if they say the exact same things that we as parents have already said, the fact that teacher said it can make it carry more weight.

And then there's trying to convince them to eat their lunch…

Amazingly, even children with the heartiest appetites can still manage to arrive home from school with a lunch that appears to have barely been touched. Naturally, parents worry that their children haven't eaten enough to sustain them through their day but there are ways to encourage them to eat a little more.

It's important to be reasonable with the amount given. School lunch times are typically much shorter than children will previously have been used to. Involve your child in lunch time choices, bearing in mind that most schools adopt a healthy eating lunchtime policy these days. Wrapping food separately for the two breaks will also make things simpler for your child.

Another thing to consider is that a lot of schools don't allow children to discard their rubbish in school. The smell of fruit cores and empty yoghurt cartons can be very off-putting and when these are placed back in the carefully prepared lunch box, yoghurt-covered tinfoil can make the sandwiches seem a lot less appealing by 'big break'. It's definitely worth providing a means for your child to store his/her rubbish.

And so begins the epic journey and exciting next stage of your child's life. The weeks will pass, routines will take hold, new friends will be made and any unsettled early days will seem a distant memory. Before you know it, it will be Christmas concert time and the next challenge will be trying to find a reindeer or penguin costume...


Helping your child settle into school or Montessori


● Make sure your child is collected on time. If the person collecting them is late, it will just add to their worries

● Organise some playdates as soon as is practically possible

● Speak positively and encouragingly about school

● Listen to your child's worries

● Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep

● Make sure your child has a lunchbox and beaker that they can open comfortably

● Make sure your child knows where the toilets are and reassure them that it's OK to leave the classroom (once the teacher knows) to use the toilet

● Bring any ongoing concerns to the teacher's attention


● Let your child see you upset. It's important not to let your anxiety become their anxiety

● Brush off your child's concerns without addressing them

● Compare your child to others, siblings, friends, peers. All children are different and react to different situations in their own way

● Hang around the classroom too long in the morning

● Give your child an oversized lunch. He/she will feel defeated before they even start

● Worry too much. Things will fall into place and, with your help and support, your child will be happy and settled in their new environment before you know it

Irish Independent

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