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How you can make 'big school' a little easier for your little one

Starting school is a huge change for little ones and parents. Jen Hogan suggests ways you can make the process easier

School countdown - checklist

The first day at school is a huge event in any child's life and a big milestone for their parents too. While some children look forward to that big day with excitement and anticipation, others remain unsure, nervous or maybe even indifferent to it all.

With new beginnings visible on the not-so-distant horizon, a new routine and a new structure beckons for children around the country as they take their first steps towards independence and prepare to assume their place in the education system. For this adventure, however, you can't be there to hold their hands every step of the way but there is still time to help your child prepare for this new and exciting next chapter of their lives. And though it may be difficult to predict exactly how the early days will go, preparation can play a vital role in ensuring as seamless a transition as possible from their current routine to school.

Getting familiar

Small children are generally more comfortable with the familiar. Driving or walking by the school on regular occasions in the build-up, and chatting about the exciting times that lie ahead, can help to create a sense of familiarity about the whole experience. If your child has older siblings, they may already be very accustomed to the school run, but a personal drive or stroll-by can set the scene and give them the chance to raise any concerns or worries that they may have. This in turn gives you the opportunity to answer them in an encouraging manner. You can discuss all the positive aspects of school and chat with them about all the fun they will have with their new friends. If they have already met their teacher through a previous school visit, remind them of the teacher's name and chat about how nice he/she is. But don't brush off any worries - no matter how trivial they may appear - without offering reassurance and solutions, so they can feel confident that going to school is a good thing.

Advance Play dates

It's a huge help to your child if they know someone from their Montessori or their neighbourhood who will be attending the same school. Organising a few playdates among the children ahead of the first day can help to build on their friendship and create the comfort factor of a familiar face at 'big school'.

All is not lost, however, if this is not the case. If your child is starting school without the safety net of friends or known faces, don't dwell on it. Reassure them that they will make plenty of new friends and that you will organise a playdate with some of these new friends as soon as possible.

The Junior Infants environment is a warm and welcoming one. The teacher will be very aware that some children won't know anyone in their class and, besides anything else, children are much better at walking up to people they don't know and asking them to play than adults are.

Label everything

If you want to avoid the hassle and cost of replacing your child's belongings umpteen times throughout the year, then label absolutely everything - even down to individual crayons and pencils. With 30 children in the class, there is a good possibility that several children will have the same stationery and accessories, and things are bound to get mixed up. Jumpers, coats, ties, even shoes... if you can fit a label or a name on it, do it.

Schoolbags are another. If your little one loves Spider-Man or Frozen, chances are so do half their class - and they'll have the schoolbag to prove it.

It can be difficult for young children who haven't yet learned to read to identify their name on a coat or schoolbag. One way to overcome this, and to make their coat easily identifiable among 30 similar styles, is to sew a brightly coloured button to the hood. A ribbon around the schoolbag handle or a colourful keyring attached to the zip can also help avoid the sort of mix-ups that can easily happen in the hasty rush to meet parents again at collection time.

Lunchtime practice

School lunchtimes are very different from the sort of leisurely affair that lunchtime can be at home or in childcare. With comparatively little time to eat, and potentially a totally different type of lunch to be eaten, practice ahead of time definitely makes perfect here.

At school, your child will need a snack for 'little break' and a lunch for 'big break', and it's a good idea to wrap these separately, for ease of access, in your child's lunchbox. The teacher won't have time to peel oranges, bananas or other fruits for the entire class either, so this is something that will also need consideration.

Bearing in mind that most schools have a healthy-eating policy, it's a good idea to practise lunchtime at home as it will be in school, with the food prepared and packed in the same manner and in the same lunchbox and beaker that your child will be using.

Little fingers can take a little while to get used to opening and closing new lunchboxes and beakers, so it's really important to help them to get the hang of this ahead of time. It's also worth practising with fruit too, so that you know which fruits will be a realistic, manageable option in the early days and which definitely won't.

Toilet time

The ability to use the toilet completely independently at school is essential. Ahead of time, practise with your child to make sure he/she can manage their trousers (particularly if there's a belt or buttons) without your help and remind them of the importance of good hygiene.

It's also worth reminding your child, ahead of time, to tell the teacher when they need to use the toilet and reassure them that this is perfectly okay to do. Often, new-school nerves mean that children can hold on much longer than they should and accidents sometimes happen, even to the most capable child. It is worth noting as a parent, however, that if this happens, the teacher will deal with it discreetly and sensitively, with minimum upset.

Getting into a good Routine

Good routines are a great way to start the school year, and they can be put in place well in advance.

Getting children to bed at a decent hour over the summer months is no mean feat, but in the weeks and days leading up to the start of school, it's worth pulling back bedtime bit by bit. School is exhausting for small children, in a very different manner to Montessori. Tiredness will catch up with them and just lead to further upset, at a time that already involves a great amount of change. A good and steady bedtime routine is vital.

School mornings can be fractious affairs. Leaving out school uniforms and shoes the night before can be a real timesaver for Mum and Dad, but encouraging your child to practise dressing themselves in their new uniform in the weeks preceding may save you even more time and see you reap the benefits when you really need them.

Top buttons are tricky and small children won't necessarily be able to handle everything themselves but encourage them to independently manage what they can. The weeks ahead of school can be put to good use by leaving out their ordinary clothes and shoes every day to help them get into the habit of getting dressed again first thing in the morning, replacing some of the summer habits that may have crept in.

Building excitement, not fear

Have a chat with your child about what to expect. Discuss who will bring them to school, who will collect them and the sort of things that they'll do at school. Talk to them about the need to put up their hand in class to ask a question and explain why this is necessary. Chat about the games that they might play with their new friends and how fantastic it will be to learn to read and write. Knowing what to expect can calm any fears that they may have.

Involve your child in the build-up. Let them help you to choose their new schoolbag (though be sure that it's big enough to hold an A4-sized folder), pencil case, colouring pencils/crayons and other accessories. Try to turn uniform shopping into a fun occasion with a little treat thrown in for good measure.

Keeping it positive will help your child to feel good about the big adventure that lies ahead. As parents, it's natural to worry but it's important not to let our children pick up on our worries and to be mindful of the questions we ask for our own reassurance.

Practise putting on and taking off

Ahead of the big day, be sure to help your child to practise putting on and taking off their coat independently. Often in our eagerness to get out the door, it's something we do for small children automatically or at the very least we help them with it.

Shoes are another. Velcro-fastening shoes make life much easier. Not only can they be put on more quickly in the morning but they can be closed independently by your child at school. This removes the need for making numerous requests to the teacher to tie their laces and avoids the risk of a bad fall at yard time if laces are left open.

Remember, it's the little things that can sometimes make the biggest difference.

Jen Hogan's new book, 'The Real Mum's Guide to (Surviving) Parenthood' will be published by Orpen Press on September 5, €14.99, out on September 8

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