From letting them carry their own bag to making a quick exit after drop-off, there are plenty of things parents can do to help ease kids’ nerves on the first day of big school
‘I can’t believe you’re starting second class,” I gushed to my eight-year-old on the way to the park recently. “You said that last year about first class, Mum, are you going to say it every year?” she laughed.
Oh, how we’ve all chilled out. I still remember the first day of Junior Infants. All the anxious, hovering parents; our daughter, like many of the children, roaring crying. And then out of nowhere, her wonderful teacher, Tony, appeared at our side, gently talking to my daughter, “Let’s find your place”, and off she went, and luckily, we knew to scarper.
If you’re about to face this most heightened of emotional days, here are some tips from teachers, mental health professionals and the true experts — other parents.
1 PRE-BIG DAY NERVES
“Get them to choose their bag and lunch box, then they are excited to use it and get invested in the process,” advised Clare, a mother of four boys. “Don’t build it up too much or talk about it all the time, because then they overthink it and it makes them nervous.”
Sarah, a mother of two, told me she has banned people from saying to her youngest child, who starts this year, “and you’re starting big school”, after she could see how it escalated things for her eldest. She’s also changing her own approach this time around. Previously, she took the entire first week off work so she could do all the pick-ups. In retrospect, this established a false normal, and her child then had to adjust further when she returned to work and the childminder stepped in. This time, she’s mixing pick-ups between her and their childminder from day one.
2 JUST GO
“When it comes to incoming Junior Infants, we always find that the parents are more nervous than the kids themselves,” one teacher I spoke to told me. “They will always loiter and hang around. Just go. Leave the child and go, because they may act up with their parents, but then with teachers they’re totally different — they can settle in really quickly. Often you get tears and crying, the parents think they’re not going to do well, and then 10 minutes later, they’re happy out. Leave and they will be fine.”
3 PLAY IT COOL
“My oldest started Junior Infants in the pandemic, which meant it was a hands-off, ‘you’re not allowed in’ scenario, and that was the best situation ever,” says Jen O’Dwyer, co-host of the hilarious parenting podcast Mother of Pod. “I think you getting all emotional, which is natural, and normal and just a part of a parent’s experience, just makes it all weird for the child. They start feeling like, ‘Oh no, this is a big deal. You seem sad, is this a bad thing that’s happening?’”
“I think a big one for me is don’t be overly emotional about it in front of your kids,” says Laura, a parent of an eight-year-old. “I used to call my daughter back for one last kiss and she’d roll her eyes, but now she’s clinging to me like never before, so I regret making too much of a fuss over milestones like that. We know it’s a big deal and a big change, but we don’t necessarily have to tell them it is. Obviously if they are scared and emotional themselves, we validate it, but just don’t let anxiety start with you in front of them.”
As another parent I spoke to said, “you can cry in the car afterwards”.
4 INDEPENDENCE DAY
Emma Blain, pictured above with her son Hunter and daughter Tilly, had a similar experience to Jen when Tilly started school during the pandemic. “I think it’s been brilliant,” says the Fine Gael councillor. “Both of my sisters are primary school teachers. They would both say that it’s really important to give your kids independence as early as possible when starting school, for their development, and for them to be comfortable in school.” This can start as simply as letting them carry their own bag to school.
“Let them do as much as possible, because you’d be surprised at what they can do,” says Emma. “Let them carry their own bag, take their coat off and put it on the hanger, sit down in their own chair. They’re tiny little things to us, but they’re really important things for the kid, for character building and independence building.”
5 THIS IS NOT A DRILL
Label everything. And then do a practice run. Are they able to close their own coat? Do not use shoes with laces unless they can tie them. Can they open their lunchbox, not to mention the food inside it? “You can’t have a teacher opening 30 bananas,” a teacher I spoke to pointed out. And don’t fret too much about the lunchbox contents — some days they will barely touch its contents. Better to accept now that you will spend the next eight years passing uneaten apples back and forth between your house and the school. “They only have like three seconds for lunch so there’s no need to pack five courses in their lunchbox,” a parent several years into this game pointed out.
“Whatever you do, don’t attempt to live up to whatever lunchbox standards you find on Instagram, with colourful bento boxes stuffed with healthy snacks chopped into smiling monkey shapes,” advises Linnea Dunne, mother of two boys. “Feeding a growing child with nothing but stuff they’ll eat, which doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge and which doesn’t contain nuts or eggs, is virtually impossible. If it’s nothing but plain pasta and sliced apples that gets your kid through the infant years without crying hangry tears, then so be it.”
6 HOME TIME
Do not be surprised if your previously beautifully behaved child turns into some kind of antichrist in the afternoons. This is not a sign that things are going badly. They’re just tired from being on all day.
“Home is their safe space,” one teacher told me. “In school, you can be the perfect child, quiet and mannerly, whatever it is. There’s a lot of pressure on them; they have to be a certain way. Be quiet, try and listen, be nice to their neighbour, share. So they really have to compromise themselves a lot.”
7 LEAP OF TRUST
Try to remember that what you are feeling, may not be what your child is feeling. “A big part of it is your own anxiety,” explains psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, author of Fifteen Minute Parenting. “My little one started last year. One of the things I noticed was it was exciting for her, it was emotional for me.”
She advises putting a plan in place to support yourself that first week, or to meet a friend for coffee after the school drop-off. “Because it is a big deal, sending your child off to school. If we can take care of ourselves, and self-regulate that kind of, ‘Oh gosh, will they be okay, are they going to manage the toilet, are they going to be able to open their lunchbox like I showed them?’, then actually you’re doing your child a favour, because you won’t transfer that anxiety over to them.”
For the especially anxious child, Joanna Fortune advises engaging “in a lot of sensory play, because it helps to take us out of our heads, and out of those agitated, ruminating thought processes. It pulls us down into the now-moments in our body”.
This won’t be possible for everyone, but if you can find someone whose child is also starting in the same class, a short park date or even playdate beforehand means they will have one familiar face on the day. Our school was especially proactive and organised a
class meet-up in the park. It helped take
the edge slightly off all the newness they
were being faced with on day one that they had at least already met each other, albeit briefly.
10 EXPECT WOBBLES
It’s going so well, they love it, and then you hit day four and they suddenly refuse to go in. “Some kids are great for the first few days, then it sets in, they realise they have to come every single day. It’s not just a little camp for a few days,” a teacher explained. This is normal. “That was great fun but I’m not going back,” Joanna Fortune adds of the attitude of some children. “It’s quite normal to have some waves. To have successful days, and not so successful days.”
11 SEPARATION ANXIETY
“Mild to moderate levels of reluctance at the point of separation,” are also normal, adds Fortune. “Stuff their pockets full of kisses when they’re leaving, and tell them when they miss you they can pull out a kiss during the day.” Other advice includes drawing a heart on both their and your hand and telling them by the time it has disappeared they will be back with you. When my own daughter showed occasional reluctance to go to school after lockdowns, I would give her something of mine, a small token to carry in her pocket, or she would wear a T-shirt or hoodie of mine (this escalated into her stealing all my T-shirts, so be wary!). Occasionally I would leave notes in her lunchbox, and her anticipation of what these would say was a small distraction that got her over the nerves in the morning.
“Mid-term break can unsettle them. You will end up getting children with what is called school reluctance,” a teacher I spoke to explained. “You have to set up little protocols for these children. Maybe they have a little toy, something that they can bring in to show the teacher, or just some motivation that encourages them to want to go the next day.” Familiarise yourself with the schedule so you can tell them things they will be doing that day which they can look forward to. Just keep the communication open with the school. They want what’s best for the child, they’ll really want to help make that transition easier for them.”
Mark O Keeffe’s son Riley is now eight, and happily attends an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) unit. Initially finding that place was extremely challenging, Mark recalls. “There are not enough ASD places out there. Everyone finds themselves trying to fight for a place.” At first, Riley had a place in a school, where he was with an SNA. “They were brilliant, very kind and caring and genuinely interested in his development, but it just wasn’t enough for Riley,” Mark recalls. They got lucky, he adds, with a place in an ASD unit Riley now loves.
“They were able to communicate with Riley, because he’s still pre-verbal, as we like to say; we’re not giving up hope. All of a sudden, he just loved going into school, and he’s loved going in ever since. I suppose you’re just so consumed with just getting a place first of all, that when you do finally, you literally do feel like you‘ve won the Lotto. But if your child’s not happy in the school, you’re going to have to do something about it, even though it’s very difficult to get places. If it’s not the right school, it’s not the right school.” He knows this isn’t what anyone wants to hear, Mark adds, because of the length of time waiting for a new place. “If you do get the right school, it changes your life.”
Mark explains the importance of routine for his son. “It’s all about routine for Riley. He’s up at a certain time, he has his bath, he gets picked up every morning, there’s a couple of kids he knows in the car. And then they go in and they have a routine every single day, they know what’s coming. When you break for holidays, we have to put a new routine in place.”
It will be tempting when you see what’s on offer but try not to sign them up to every after-school activity going or start planning a complicated social schedule on their behalf. “You don’t need to do playdates,” says mother-of-two Jen O’ Dwyer. “A five-year-old does not need after-school activities every day of the week. I haven’t done a single playdate.”
15 OTHER PARENTS
“Find a way to connect with and get to know the other parents of kids in your kid’s class,” says Linnea Dunne. “Class WhatsApp groups get a bad rap a lot of the time, but these people are likely to be a part of your and your kids’ lives for eight years or more, and finding like-minded parents can save your sanity many times over. Shared birthday parties for the full class during the first year can be a good way for everyone to get to know each other.”
That said, you don’t necessarily need to set out to make best friends with other parents. “When you head into school, much more so than in Montessori, you’re getting involved with different parents, and you’re really exposed to how different people operate,” Jen O’ Dwyer points out. “You have to kind of row back, and keep the mantra going, that whatever you’ve been doing up until now, it’s probably been working fine, so just calm down.”
16 TALES TOLD
“It’s never as bad as what your child says to you,” one teacher told me, smiling gently. “Everything’s overblown, and everything’s out of proportion.” Remember that you’re probably in a highly reactive state; your child starting school is a very emotional time. Try to remember this when they, inevitably, bring you some bad news, usually an offence on the part of a fellow classmate. “As a parent, I do the opposite of leaping into that,” says Emma Blain. “I just brush everything off ‘I’m sure it’s fine, just talk to them tomorrow’, and if it happens a couple of times, let them know that the adult that they can trust and go to during the day if they need is the teacher.”
17 RULES OF LIFE
Younger children spend much of their time playing alongside each other, with the occasional grab for whatever toy the other child has. Now you’re into a whole new world of social slights and what Joanna Fortune calls the “micro aggressions of small children. That’s actually very normal behaviour. ‘You’re not my friend, you can’t play with me today, we’re playing something else, no boys allowed, no girls allowed’. Exclusionary behaviour is very normal; we don’t psycho-pathologise that in children.”
Obviously, calculated, repeated targeted behaviour is different, but very rare, she adds. Micro-aggressions are not. “But as parents we can leap in and go, ‘Oh, you’re leaving my child out, that’s bullying’… Rather than thinking, ‘I’m going into the school tomorrow to sort this out.’ I would say to the child, ‘I wonder how you felt about that. I wonder if you were thinking now, what else could you do if that happened again. Who else might you play with?’ Encourage a little bit of debriefing, but solution-focused thinking.
“They need to begin to be able to master tension-rousing experiences. ‘That’s not kind, you’ve hurt my feelings’. The school will do that with them.”
You’re not actually helping your child by leaping in and trying to manage the situation for them, she adds. “Don’t sabotage your child’s experience by jumping in with a well-intentioned fix or change agenda. Listen to what they’re telling you. Accept and empathise with that. Wonder with them what they could do differently. Certainly keep an open curious mind and eye, ear on the situation. If you notice a disconcerting pattern, then of course flag that to the teacher. But we have to trust that our kids will master this themselves.
“Trust that we’ve done enough to get them this far. They’ll be okay.”