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Transitioning from preschool to ‘big’ school is an important milestone for any child, as well as for the whole family. Starting school is a time of excitement and enjoyment, but for some it can be a time of uncertainty and anxiety. As parents or carers, this transition can cause mixed feelings as another adult takes on a primary care role for your child, and your child takes another important step toward independence.

When faced with this transition each child and parent may react differently. Some children might be horrified at the thought of leaving their parents and cling to them desperately, while others might be thrilled to be starting school and can’t wait to learn new skills and make new friends. Equally, some parents might be eager for their child to start school so they can return to a regular work routine, while others may become emotional or feel a sense of loss at their child being away from them during the day, particularly if it’s a first child starting school.

While there is no way of knowing how your child will react, there are many simple things you can do to prepare yourself and your child for starting school. Be proactive with your planning and support your child in developing ‘school readiness’ skills in the lead up to the new school year. When a child is well prepared, they gain self-confidence and are more likely to succeed from day one.

Here are a few strategies that you can use to prepare your child for starting school:

Help them become familiar with the school environment

Primary school is a very different environment to preschool or childcare. There are more classrooms, more children and more teachers, which can be an overwhelming new experience for children starting school for the first time or if it is their first time visiting one

To help you child prepare for ‘big school’, visit the school for a tour before their first day to make sure they are familiar with the environment. Allow them to explore their new school so that they’re excited to start kindergarten. As you walk around the school, make sure they feel comfortable finding the classrooms, toilets, bubblers, school office, the bus stop, entry and exit gates and any other important parts of their new school. You can also use this time to explain school routines such as the school bells, lining up for class, assembly, morning tea, lunch and playtime. If they have any concerns or doubts, speak to the school about additional tours/visits

Be sure to attend orientation days and information nights. This is where you will receive important information about school expectations, uniforms, classes and supplies needed.

In the holidays before school starts, go for walks past the school, or drive by, so your child can become familiar with the environment and the journey in. This will also help you to understand how long it will take you to get to school each morning and afternoon.

Develop your child’s independence before they start school

Helping your child to develop as much independence in self-care tasks as possible can assist them in their transition to primary school. To help develop their independence you can practice school-related tasks at home.

Your child won’t have as much help at mealtimes when they start school, so make sure to pack your child’s lunchbox with foods they can peel or unwrap independently. You can practice these skills in the weeks before school by having picnics at home and preparing lunches when you go out for the day. Allow your child to practice opening their lunch box, peeling fruits and opening food wrappers. If there are any items your child struggles with, send these items unwrapped or pre-cut until they develop more independence with these skills. This will help reduce their frustration when they are in a different setting and where the teacher is unable to help each child individually. With practice, your child will eventually move to becoming more independent.

When packing their lunchbox, talk to them about which foods to eat for recess and which foods to save for lunch. Talk about accidents that might happen, like what to do if their lunch falls in the dirt or their drink tips over.

While it might be tempting to wait until their first day of school to try on school uniforms, it can be helpful to have your child dress themselves to make sure they feel comfortable and that they know how to do up any zippers, buttons and straps on their own.

Buy school shoes as early as possible so your child can start practicing putting them on and gain confidence before school starts. Velcro shoes can be useful as many kindergarten age children don’t yet have the skills to tie laces, this can be particularly challenging for children who have dexterity issues. If you do need shoes with laces, practice with coloured laces to make it easier for your child to see each step to tie their laces. Choose opportunities when your child can practice at their own pace and avoid times when you need to leave the house quickly to avoid frustration.

Talk to them about how they should look after their own belongings and try to help them recognise their own name tag on their clothes, lunch box, drink bottle and anything else they take to school.

Letting your child do things for themselves and teaching them responsibility will give them confidence in their abilities and reduce anxieties they may be feeling about starting school.

Create excitement about starting school and learning

The first few years of a child’s school life can determine their attitude to learning and can influence a child’s self-esteem and success. Talking about the fun things they will learn and showing excitement toward school can help to instil a love of learning within your child.

Our own emotions can have a significant influence on how children respond to new situations. While you might feel some anxiety about your child starting school, it’s important not to express this anxiety when speaking about school with your child otherwise they may also begin to feel apprehensive about this new experience. Use an excited tone in your voice when talking about starting school to help your child feel more confident about the transition.

You can also encourage your child’s enthusiasm for learning by incorporating learning into your day-to-day activities before they even start school. For example, taking your child with you for your weekly grocery shop can help to build skills such as counting, vocabulary, colour recognition and social skills. Try not to be too forceful with how you incorporate learning, or it can start to feel like a chore for your child, which could jeopardise their future motivation, interest and effort. By making learning part of your everyday life you can encourage lifelong learning in your child.

Demonstrate to your child that you also enjoy learning. Read for pleasure in front of your child and talk to them about what you’re reading. Consider buying or borrowing some new books for your child so you can read with them and talk about the story together. Encouraging conversations with your child helps to lay the foundations for pre-reading skills and helps to build their vocabulary. It can also help to prepare them for the listening and concentration expectations of school. You can consider borrowing or purchasing books about starting school, there are many to choose from.

Establish a new routine early

Routines enable children to understand expectations, provide reassurance and predictability, and foster independence through repetition. Routines can take weeks to settle into, so consider starting a school morning routine at least two weeks before school starts.

Practicing a new morning routine before the first day of school can work wonders in preparing your child for starting school. Start your new morning routine by waking up, having breakfast and brushing teeth at the same time each morning. This will also help you to get an idea of how long it will take them to get ready for school each morning.

You can also use this time in the morning to start showing your child how to pack their bag. Make a checklist of all the things they will need to take to school each day and make a habit of going through the list each morning. As you go through the list, check that they know how to open and use items like their pencil case, their lunch box and their drink bottle, so they can feel confident when you’re not there to help.

Sometimes a to-do list or visual image cards can help a child remember the routine better. Consider printing off a visual list and putting it on the fridge or on the back of their bedroom door, ticking each item off as you do them every morning. An extra trick is to laminate or put the checklist in a plastic sleeve, so they can check it off each day with a whiteboard marker. This encourages independence, responsibility, and following procedures.

There are so many things to remember in the morning that it’s easy to forget about the after-school routine. The after-school routine can be just as important as your morning routine in helping your child adjust to school. Consider introducing some simple variation of homework, like reading, spelling or drawing, to help your child get into the mindset of doing homework.

Help your child learn to manage their emotions

The first few weeks of school are going to be exciting but tiring. When children get tired, they can start to behave in negative ways such as mood swings or disruptive behaviours. If you notice any changes in your child’s behaviour, acknowledge how they’re feeling and offer them more positive ways of managing their emotions, like taking deep breaths or talking about it.

Give your child time to wind down and reset at home before asking too many questions or having them do chores. Before your child starts school, find an activity that helps them relax and make this activity part of your afternoon routine.

Communicate expectations and needs with your child and their school

In the weeks leading up to the start of school, talk regularly about what they’re going to be doing in kindergarten. Encourage them to ask questions and answer them honestly. Talking regularly with your child about school can help to calm their nerves and look forward to starting school. It will also prepare them with all the information they need to understand and what to expect from school.

If your child has any additional needs or medical conditions, talk to them about what to do and where to go for help if they need it. Talk with your child’s school ahead of time to make sure that the relevant teachers understand the strengths and difficulties that make your child unique. The more your child’s school and teachers know about them, the better they can teach and support them.

Keep open communication with your child’s teachers throughout the year. Often this can help to reduce emotions and provide solutions quickly. Discuss the best method of communication with your child’s teachers. A face-to-face meeting, online portal, or email is often preferred by schools. Teachers are usually busy at the beginning and end of school with monitoring children and are not always available to discuss concerns.

Mark important school dates, like sports carnivals and school holidays, down on a calendar so you can prepare your child for them ahead of time. When an event is coming up, start a countdown with your child and talk to them about some of the things that might happen at the school event and what they might need to take with them on the day.

Let your child play

Starting primary school means more independence and responsibility for your child, but this doesn’t mean they need to stop playing and having fun! Playing enhances a wide range of skills that are essential for school. Not only does it provide an opportunity to interact with other children and practice social skills and effective communication, but it also allows them to practice gross and fine motor skills through games and movement.

Children develop a greater understanding of their world as they explore and question their surroundings through play. Play also enhances a child’s emotional skills as they build confidence through activity.

Your child will be meeting lots of new people and making new friends when they start school. Some children will find making friends easier than others, but you can help your child by practicing their social skills. Playing family games with different roles and clear rules can be an effective way to develop skills like listening, waiting, taking turns, winning and losing and following instructions. All these skills will help to prepare your child for both the classroom and the playground.

If your child is going to school with preschool friends or meets someone new at orientation, try and schedule in some play dates in the weeks leading up to school so they have some familiar faces to look for on the first day.

And remember, it’s OKAY to cry when starting school!

No matter how much you do to prepare your child for starting school, there may be a range of emotions when they walk through the gate or wave goodbye for the first time.

Don’t worry – tears are part of the journey (both from them and you!) and you’re certainly not alone. Try to give yourself a little self-care during transition to school to help you cope with the emotions you’re experiencing. This could be as simple as catching up with a friend for coffee once you drop your child off for the first time or going for a walk.

If you take your time with this major change, give your child opportunities to practice their different skills, expose them to a range of experiences and encourage them with praise and love, you will help give your child the best start to this important and exciting next step in their lives.