Hannah Davison, author of the My Big Moments book, ‘Ready for School’, hears from three experts for practical ideas to help your child start school with confidence.

We often ask kids if they’re ‘excited about starting school’, but, unless they’re familiar with the concept of school from having an older sibling, they may not know how to answer, or how they should feel about it.

“It can be overwhelming because everyone makes such a big deal about turning five and starting school,” says Abby Linn, Registered Play Therapist at Creative Coping (www.creativecoping.co.nz). “It can actually cause more anxiety for children. If your child brings up school and asks questions, then, that’s your opportunity to talk about it.”

School readiness

Turning five doesn’t mean that a child is necessarily ready to start school and enter a more structured classroom environment. In New Zealand, parents have the choice of starting their child at school any time between the ages of five and six. Determining the best time to start may be a decision that parents come to on their own, or by talking to their child’s preschool teacher and prospective new entrant teacher.

At new entrant level, there’s no expectation of academic ability, but there are signs you can look for as an indication of their school readiness, as well as things you can do to help them prepare to start school.

Kylee Habgood, Assistant Principal at Amuri Area School, says it’s practical skills that serve school starters best. “Writing and recognising their name is helpful, but not essential,” she says. “If your child turns up keen and interested, then they’re ready. They’ll pick the rest up really quickly.”

There is now greater emphasis on a child’s sense of well-being as an indication of how they’ll adapt to their new environment. Children who first need to overcome feelings of anxiety are neurologically less able to take on new learning and information.

“If the child isn’t right within themselves, then any amount of learning is not going to help,” says Kylee.

Encouraging independence

Parents can help children build confidence by fostering their independence around some of their ‘big kid’ abilities, making their daily life at school much easier.

“If your child can manage those little things like putting their shoes on and getting themselves to the toilet, it goes an awfully long way,” says Kylee.

Developing greater self-sufficiency around getting dressed, putting on shoes, packing their bag, being able to open everything in their lunchbox, looking after their belongings, and getting themselves to the toilet helps as they enter an environment where they are expected to do more things for themselves.

Getting prepared

Abby Linn recommends involving kids in the preparation process by letting them choose their school bag, lunch box, drink bottle, name labels and book covers. Allowing children to take the lead on decisions that help them prepare for going to school, gives them a greater sense of ownership and control over the changes that are coming. Starting school becomes something they then feel part of, rather than something that’s happening to them.

Neuroscience Educator, Nathan Wallis, suggests that it’s more important for a child’s brain development in that first year of school to focus on social integration and building confidence in themselves as a learner, rather than academic achievements. For children to be able to start school with confidence he points out that, “The biggest issue is around creating predictability for the child. Eldest children have the most trouble transitioning into school because they don’t know what to expect.”

Nathan recommends arranging a visit outside of school hours, or when school is quiet, to orientate the child. They can then find out where their classroom is, where they’ll eat lunch, what the playground looks like, and how to find the toilets. When the school is quiet, the child can focus on creating predictability around this new environment without becoming distracted or overwhelmed by other people.

Formal school visits are usually arranged as children approach their start date. These provide an opportunity for both parents and child to get to know their teacher and have some experience in the classroom environment.

“Kids can get to school and feel anxious or unsure about what’s going on or how to behave,” says Kylee Habgood. “It’s really important that it’s safe, warm and welcoming, and the teacher is building that relationship [with the child]. At school, we are their number one support person.”

Transitioning into school life

Sometimes meeting that five-day-a-week school life commitment can involve major routine changes in the home. It’s helpful to start establishing a new routine in the days and weeks leading up to a child starting school.

“Avoiding an emotional rollercoaster for everybody in the morning comes back to taking ownership and setting a routine,” says Abby Linn.

Abby recommends taking photos or drawing pictures of the morning routine to make a visual checklist for kids to follow as they get ready for school. This could include getting dressed, having breakfast, brushing hair and teeth, packing their bag, putting on their shoes and getting into the car.

However, it’s often managing the ‘drop-off’ at school that can cause the most concern for both the parents and child. “When a child is experiencing an unpredictable situation, their brainstem is aroused,” says Nathan Wallis. In other words, they have entered ‘fight or flight’ mode. Neurologically, this means they are not capable of taking on new information and adapting to change.

To help support children perform the task of learning and integrating into the school environment, kids need to feel safe and secure. In those early weeks of starting school, it’s beneficial to build a good relationship with the child’s teacher and develop strategies for managing the transition at drop-off.

Nathan emphasises the importance of never leaving a child alone in an empty space during these transitions as it can create feelings of insecurity. He recommends a physical transfer inside the classroom from their parent, or primary caregiver, to their primary teacher and that this should be consistent, supportive, and predictable for the child.

He encourages the child’s parent or caregiver to be available if necessary, during those early days if they’re needed. “It’s important to do whatever makes them feel the most secure in that environment,” says Nathan.

Abby Linn says, “Talk to your teacher about your child’s disposition, how they cope, what makes them anxious and things that help them settle. Your teacher will have strategies but knowing more about your child will help them to work out which strategy to apply. Whether it’s a distraction technique or physical comfort, it depends on the child and what they need to feel safe and ok,” says Abby Linn.

Coping strategies

Abby recommends developing coping strategies if separation anxiety is an issue, so parent and child can feel connected even when they can’t physically be together.

Matching bracelets, leaving lunchbox notes, and drawing a love heart on a stone are some of the ideas she suggests. A child can keep their ‘smile stone’ in their pocket and give it a squeeze when they feel they need to. If allowed, kids could also bring a transitional toy or comfort item from home with them to class.

Building language tools

Practising dialogue at home with kids is a good way to build their confidence in reaching out to their peers and making friends. Through role-play, you can teach them words and phrases they can use to invite someone to play, sit with them at lunch or ask for help when they need it.

However, Abby Linn points out that children may not yet have the vocabulary they need to communicate new and unfamiliar issues that may arise. She reminds us to keep an eye out for non-verbal cues, indicating something is creating anxiety, and helping them name the feelings they’re experiencing to build their language tools.

“It’s about reading what your child’s not saying and acknowledging that it’s new and it can be overwhelming, then putting a plan in place so that they don’t have to feel worried,” says Abby. “They might be fussing over their shoes, uniform or hair, or not wanting to get in the car. It’s not necessarily about those things, it’s about what the next step is after that.”

Celebrating the journey

Abby recommends parents celebrate the effort and curiosity a child puts towards their learning rather than being concerned with outcomes and results.

“It’s really important not to put our own views and perceptions on what’s good or bad, or what’s expected, or what’s not. It’s about encouraging the learner and the trier in your child,” says Abby.

Expert tips for confident school starters

Before starting school

  • Support brain development by reading books together daily
  • Give your child experiences they can talk about by discussing the things you see and do
  • Minimise screen time
  • Create predictability around their new school environment and visit at a time when it’s quiet
  • Encourage more independence in their morning routine and create a visual checklist
  • Develop a sense of ownership and control by letting your child choose their school supplies
  • Teach them dialogue they can use to make friends or ask for help

Transitioning into school

  • Follow your visual checklist for the morning routine
  • Create a strategy with their primary teacher for handling the transition at drop-off
  • Use coping strategies your child can use throughout the day, e.g. A ‘smile stone’, bracelets, a note in their lunch box, or an item they can take with them from home.
  • Acknowledge and name the different feelings your child is experiencing
  • Arrange to be available if your child needs support to feel secure
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about how to best support their transition

Ongoing support

  • Encourage your child’s confidence in their learning ability by celebrating their effort, curiosity, and courage.

Hannah Davison is the author and co-founder of the award-winning children’s book initiative, My Big Moments. The personalised books cover the topics of starting school, building resilience, getting a new sibling, grief and loss, and going to hospital. Backed by research and expert consultation, the books are designed to help little people through big moments. Find out more at mybigmoments.com.