Starting School

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Getting your child reading for ‘big school’

How can parents make the transition easier?

The transition to ‘big’ school is one of the major challenges children have to face in the early childhood years.

It is a time of stress and anxiety as well as excitement and enjoyment. For parents this transition may also cause some anxious moments as another adult becomes a primary carer of their child, and their child takes an important step toward independence.

When faced with this transition each child and parent may react differently.

Some children are horrified at leaving mum and cling to her desperately, while others are thrilled to be going to big school and can’t wait to learn to read and meet new friends without giving their mum a second thought. Some mums are quite eager for their child to commence school so that they can return to the workforce, while others cry, overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness and loss.

Why is the move to ‘big’ school such a transition for children, even when they have attended pre-school?

Young children feel safe and secure when they are in a familiar environment, when they understand the routine, and know what is expected of them. When there is a change they can feel threatened and insecure.

Preschool and school are very different.

Preschool has a higher staff-child ratio, and emphasises a cosy and caring atmosphere. School has larger buildings, a more regimented routine, a cohort of larger and older children, and more noise and congestion. These may seem trivial differences to an adult, but to a child they are important and can question their sense of security.

For parents, a large part of the stress associated with their child commencing school is agonising over the right time to send their child to school.

When should a child commence school?

In NSW, children are eligible to start ‘big’ school at four and a half years, provided they turn five before 1 August in the year they commence school. By law they are required to start school by their sixth birthday.

Child development experts continue to disagree about the ‘right’ age for a child to start school, but there is an emerging belief that numerous other factors – not just chronological age – should be used as criteria for school entry.

As children grow, they develop at different rates and age may not be the best indicator of school readiness.

It is vital to consider all aspects of a child’s development because if a child enters school before they are developmentally ready to cope, their chances of failure and low self-esteem increase dramatically. They can lose confidence and feel they can’t cope with schoolwork and making friends.

What can parents do to prepare their child for school?

As a parent you want to do all that you can to provide your child with the best possible chance of school success.

There are many things you can do to assist your child’s transition to school. When they are well prepared they gain self-confidence and are more likely to succeed. Here are a few strategies that you can do at home with your child.

Firstly, prepare them for the school environment.

Visit the school before their ‘first day’. Children feel more comfortable if they know where to find the classrooms, toilets, bubblers, school office, the bus stop and any other important part of their new environment.

Talk about school routines with them. Discuss school bells, lining up for class, assembly, morning tea (recess), lunch and playtime. Mention things like what to eat from their lunch box at morning tea and what to save for lunch. Talk about what to do if their lunch falls in the dirt or their drink tips over.

Don’t save their lunch box, drink bottle and even school uniforms for their first day, however tempting it might be to make these special. Let your child get used to opening the lunch box and the drink bottle, so they feel confident with using these.

Let your child try on their school clothes, making sure they feel comfortable and can take their jumper or jacket off or put it on easily.

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

Ask your school about their orientation program. Many schools have some wonderfully comprehensive orientation programs for their new starters.

Think about what you and your other children say about school. A child’s expectations of school are based on information they receive from others (including parents, siblings, peers and other family members).

Be excited about school

Have an excited tone in your voice and talk about the fun things they will learn and do. If you are fearful about your child commencing school, they may also be fearful of this new experience.

Provide your child with opportunities to play with other children their own age in an unstructured way. If possible let them get to know some other children starting at the same time as your child. It’s nice if they can recognise a face, even if they are not good friends when they do start school.

Let them do things for themselves, teach them responsibility and give them confidence in their abilities.

Then there are the physical things such as eating sufficient nutritious food and getting enough sleep. Both of these are important to a child’s ability to cope with such a big change in their life.

The first few years of a child’s school life will determine their attitude to learning and will affect a child’s self-esteem and success.

The development of cognitive skills such as learning the alphabet is an important goal of early childhood. However, instilling within a child a love of learning is even more important.

You can do this by incorporating learning into your life as fun. Children are quick to work out what is a chore and what is fun. If you make learning a chore by forcing your child to sit and recite words when it is clear that they do not want to, you are jeopardising their future motivation, interest and effort.

Encourage conversations with your child as they build a child’s vocabulary and help listening and concentration. The more you talk the better they will be able to communicate.

Talking also lays the foundation for pre-reading skills.

Children are curious about the world and will ask lots of ‘why’ questions. Try to engage in rich conversations about a range of topics of interest to the child. If you visit lots of different places, you can talk about the visits.

Read for pleasure in front of your child. Buy your child books as presents and go to the local library, making sure you read to your child and talk about the story.

Finally, let your child play. Playing is the way young children learn best.

Playing actually enhances a wide range of skills that are essential for school success. 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. Play enhances a child’s emotional skills as they build confidence through activity.

Commencing school is an important life transition that every individual and family will experience.

It is an event that can be fraught with both negative and positive emotions. Take your time with this major change, giving them opportunities to practice their different skills and expose them to a range of experiences. Above all, encourage your child with praise and love and you will help give your child their best start to a very important part of their life.

By Dr Danielle Tracey, Psychologist