Post image

Consultant child psychiatrist Dr Maite Ferrin has 10 top tips for parents helping their child start school

Starting school is the first major life event for many young children and a milestone that will naturally create nerves and anxiety among children and, often, parents. While new uniform and new activities can be exciting for little ones, the combination of new routines, meeting new people, forming friendships, adapting to classroom structure, changes in environment and new learning can also present an overwhelming experience for children starting school for the first time or changing schools.

Planning and preparation are key in helping your children transition as smoothly as possible into their new routine and environment leading up to the first day. Here’s how you can do it…

1. Get your children acquainted with the school building

It helps to give children an idea of the school environment before they start, especially when the school is new for them. Many schools hold open days for children to visit the school, see the classroom and playground, as well as meet the teachers. If this is not possible, see what information and photos you can find online, and practice doing the walk to school together.

2. Meet the teacher

The teacher will be the person who provides a safety net for your child at school. If you have the opportunity to meet them in advance this will provide a familiar face which may help reduce the initial anxiety. The teacher will also be responsible for identifying worries or anxiety in the school environment, so it is also good for parents to know the teacher and maintain close contact.

3. Get to know the other children

The social aspects of school are just as important as academic development. Support children and encourage them to build friendships with their classmates.  Play games with your child that help them with sharing and taking turns before they start school. This also gives them a repertoire of games to suggest when they play with friends. Playdates either at home (making pizza or baking cakes are good activities) or having ice cream or picnics in the park are great ways for children to form friendships, without feeling they are being forced.

4. Maintain the bond with home during the first days

Little reminders of home such as photos of the family, pets and toys as well as little Post-it notes or sweet little wishes can all act as a reminder of home and ease anxiety. Tell your child you will be thinking of them and give reassurance that their teacher will contact you if something is not right.

5. Establish a good routine

Establishing a routine before your child starts school such as waking up, dressing independently and having meals and snacks on ‘school time’, as well as trying on the school uniform will all help first day nerves. Buying the new stationary/uniform can also provide a practical way for children to engage in the new start. Make shopping a special and exciting experience for them.

Create a calm household routine with early bedtimes and stress-free mornings. Children who aren’t well rested or don’t have enough sleep won’t have the internal resources to cope with stressors and anxiety, and they are more likely to struggle during the school day than children who have rested and slept. Early bedtimes are essential so children can deal calmly with the morning rush and with the rest of the day.

Finally, if you can, be a few minutes early to pick your child up from the school. That will definitely reduce their anxieties.

6. Encourage independence

While you provide the comfort and safety of a good routine, also help young children to be more independent and to gradually build on their resilience. Encourage your child to do everyday tasks such as introducing themselves to new people, asking for help, managing their own clothes and shoes, packing school bags and eating independently. Prepare children to learn new skills in case of an unexpected event (e.g., going to school with other people, moving from class to class, having the right books and materials for different lessons, changing into different uniforms, or managing pocket money). This will also help to reduce their anxiety.

7. Foster positive attitudes

Engage with the excitement of a new experience. Have something at home to look forward to on the first day back; it might be their favourite food or treat. Make sure you talk about the day and their experiences, including what they did and didn’t enjoy.

Maintain a positive attitude and encourage children to persevere towards their goals. Gentle and positive coaching will help them understand and be confident about trying hard and being determined even when something is difficult. Perseverance should be recognised and endorsed much more than the success of the end result.

8. Calm their worries and fears.

Don’t dismiss any worries or concerns that your child expresses; allow them to ask lots of questions and answer them openly. There are many causes for worry in children starting school for the first time. Most of the anxiety around school is usually caused by worries that adults might find silly, such as the fear that something bad can happen to their family while the child is at school. Reassure your child that you’ll be absolutely fine.

9. Help your child express their anxieties.

Allow your child to vent their worries and anxieties. Give them as many opportunities as possible to express their emotions and concerns. Encourage laughter and giggling, it is a very healthy way of releasing anxiety.

10. Be alert for warning signs in your child.

In most cases, children adapt to school very well after the initial couple of weeks, as routines are established and friendships are formed. But occasionally, if they have not adapted, their unhappiness might indicate a more serious issue, like being victim of peer bullying, or some academic difficulties. Ask calm questions about the everyday life at school both during class and in the playground, listen carefully, and reflect on what your child is trying to say. If you sense something is happening or not going the right way, contact the teacher to address your concerns.


:: Dr Maite Ferrin is Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health