Starting school is one of life’s big milestones – for children and their parents – and a successful transition is about much more than bedtime routines and healthy lunchboxes. University of New England educator Madeline Fussell draws on her 40 years of international experience in early childhood and primary teaching, and as a mother of three, to offer her top 5 practical tips for parents.
1. Deal with your own anxieties
It’s natural for you to feel anxious about your child starting school, but they benefit hugely if you do not transmit these fears. Crying and saying how much you will miss them is not helpful, especially on their first day. It can make your child feel guilty for leaving you and lessen their sense of trust in their new school because you are indicating there is much to be frightened about.
A child may miss you, but it is better to be matter-of-fact about this and explain that, in time, they will make friends and that they will still have special times with you after school and on weekends. If the child is upset, soothe and reassure them but try to stay composed and calm.
2. Have realistic expectations of your child and your child’s teacher
Try not to hype up school, and be honest and realistic with your child about what happens there. We can fall into the trap of saying to our children that ‘you’re going to have a fabulous time; school is so great’ and build up their expectations. They often come home from their first day hot and tired and bewildered, and it hasn’t been fabulous. Then the child can feel that Mum and Dad just don’t get it and that they (the child) don’t have a right to complain. If, from day one, your child thinks that you don’t understand and that they’ve somehow failed by not enjoying their first day, then they can start to think that it’s no good trying to explain to you how they feel. If you want your child to be able to communicate with you, then empathise with them. Explain that it will take time to settle in to school, that they aren’t going to learn to read in one day and that every day is not going to be fabulous.
Parents often expect their child’s teacher to know their child’s needs by the end of the first day, and preferably by lunchtime. They may feel disappointed and let-down, and communicate that to their child. This only reduces the child’s security and their trust in the teacher’s ability to meet their needs. Be reasonable, and give your child’s teacher at least a month to get to know each of the little people in their class. Helping your child to understand that the teacher needs time to get to know everyone in the group will also assist them to learn to cope with being a resilient class member.
3. Respect your child’s teacher
Some parents are not prepared to concede that teaching is just as hard as parenting, maybe even harder, because teachers have 20 or more individuals to engage in learning and take care of socially. Teachers aren’t perfect and they will make mistakes, but these days it seems that the minute a teacher makes a mistake, parents jump on it.
Respect is at the heart of a good parent/teacher relationship and vital to a child’s educational success. If the child has a minor grievance, parents should help the child to develop resilience and offer them advice for expressing themselves and resolving the problem themselves. Remember that, like adults, children sometimes just need to vent. Often no action is needed – just a sympathetic listener.
Children often aren’t very empathetic; they can have a lot of trouble seeing things from another child’s point of view and behave differently at school from home. They can also get things wrong. One teacher said to me once that their best advice to parents was that they (the teacher) wouldn’t believe half of what they heard about home from students if they (the parents) didn’t believe half of what the child came home from school with.
As parents, we are usually very defensive about our offspring. But if we always take our child’s side, without knowing the facts or the full picture, we can portray their teacher as someone who is unable to meet the child’s needs. Ask questions of your child, without making it an inquisition, and explain that their teacher will keep them safe and have their best interests at heart, that if something is worrying them they just have to tell their teacher.
Nothing should be allowed to escalate, but if you go into overdrive and race up to the school or write notes or emails the minute your child says something is wrong, they will stop confiding in you pretty quickly. The time to intervene is the minute you see behavioural changes in your child – such as coming home consistently teary or withdrawn or when they stop enjoying activities they normally enjoy, or if their eating or sleep is affected. If you keep your expectations reasonable and maintain respect for the teacher, then your child will normally confide in one or both of you long before it gets to that stage.
4. Keep extra-curricular activities to a minimum in the first term
Allow your child time to settle into school, without extra-curriculum activities for at least the first term. The grind of ballet and music or art and gymnastics sessions starts very early. While it’s important to give children physical exercise, remember that they are starting school in Australia in the hottest month of the year – January. They are in a new situation that is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, and they’re wearing hot shoes and different clothes.
Give children time to be on their own after school, and allow them to initiate their extra-curricular activities when they’re ready. Pick your priorities very carefully and think about when you schedule those activities. Straight after school, when children are tired and hungry, can be tricky.
Remember that if you’re rushing to a ballet or music lesson, you’re not going to give your child downtime just to talk. Kindergarten children who have had a bad day or even a big day at school don’t like to be interrogated. Run them a bubble bath and stay and chat, or take a snack to the park and push them on the swing; you’ll be amazed what you find out about their day.
5. Help your child to apply at home what they are learning at school
If your child feels that what they do at school is only for the classroom, then they won’t realise that it can help them to operate better in the real world, and they can become sluggish learners. We need children to see that maths, English, science and social science, art, drama and music are integrated in our life skills – offering things they need now and later. Once children learn the purpose of this learning, it can make them incredibly enthusiastic. If you are shopping, ask your child to find the ingredients and quantities you need. Get them to read signs and labels and recipes and instructions. Demonstrate how to use what they are learning at school.
People may think I am old-fashioned in highlighting the importance of parental respect for teachers. However, helicopter parenting has surfaced in Australia, and we are bringing up a generation of children who are not allowed to make mistakes and who don’t take responsibility for their mistakes. Well-intentioned parents sometimes hijack their child’s learning because they are anxious themselves. If we could just get parents to relax, it would be more productive for their child’s learning.
Children feel pressure to get everything right the first time, but of course we learn from our mistakes. I tell little kindergarten children that if they knew everything, they wouldn’t have to go to school. They have lots of time to learn and it’s a learning journey – for all of us.