By Linda Stade
Starting school is an important milestone for a child. For parents, it is often exciting and stressful in equal parts. Is he ready? Will she cope with the long days? Have we done enough reading and counting? Have we picked the right school?
According to Wesley College’s Head of Junior School, Maria Hodges, “It is so lovely to see little people settle into school quickly and then thrive. The excitement in their voices and the way they want to participate and embrace learning is a delight.”
Mrs Hodges says there are some easy steps you can take to make sure your child is one of those who embrace school rather than being fearful and overwhelmed.
Generate positive expectations of school
From a very early age, it is helpful to speak about school in a positive way. Tell stories about the lovely teachers you had, who your friends were and the games you played. Set up expectations that there will be caring teachers and storytime and special packed lunches. Although it might feel playful to talk about grouchy teachers and getting the cane when you were at school, those stories stick. We don’t want fearful kids who are worried about mean teachers and bullies in the playground.
Mrs Hodges says little things like pointing to schools as you drive past in your car can make all the difference to a child’s confidence and security. Let them see that it is normal for kids to be at school and playing in the yard. Show them lots of examples of kids having fun at school.
As your child gets closer to starting, talk about what a typical day is going to look like. Include the drop-off and pick up where Mummy or Daddy or someone they trust will come and get them every day and take them home. Most children aren’t afraid of new things, everything is new to them. They are afraid of the unanticipated. So do your best to help them picture in their mind what will happen.
Ensure that you participate in language and numeracy
Mrs Hodges insists that talking to your child is the single most important aspect of preparing your child for school and life. Children who have well-developed oral language skills are given a huge head start. It is fundamental to all their intellectual and social development.
“Talk to your child about everything they experience. Talk about what you are doing and what you can see and feel. Explain why things work the way they do. Talk about mowing the lawn, washing the car, animals they see, aeroplanes in the sky. Everything. They won’t understand all of it but the language is what is important. You simply can’t go wrong exposing your child to a broad familiarity with oral language.”
When we participate in, and model, learning behaviours we normalise them for children. Simple things like counting objects aloud, reading signposts, and explaining simple processes will all make what happens at school familiar for your child. And of course…Read to them, read to them, read to them. Reading has so many benefits that the time you invest in reading to them as small children will impact them for their whole lives.
Foster age-appropriate independence
Obviously, children develop at different rates and have varying learning capacity. That said, by the start of school life, a child should have been given some age-appropriate independence. Mrs Hodge gives examples such as putting toys back in a box, having a go at doing up their buttons, keeping track of their hat at the park and helping with small chores like feeding pets.
Children love to help, so often it is us who discourage their participation. Yes, when kids help in the kitchen they will make a mess. Most things are easier without the input of a three-year-old. However, the work of a three-year-old is to grow and develop and we want to allow that. They will have people who care for them at school, but there will be the expectation that kids try to help and try to be a little independent.
Get kids used to downtime and quiet time
We live in a world that loves to rush. Being busy is worn as a badge of honour. Even our kids are so scheduled that they may hardly know what to do with themselves when the rushing and scheduling stops. At school, there is likely to be more quiet thinking time than they are used to.
Being still, quiet and even bored is vital for children. This ‘down time’ is when imagination and creativity come to the fore, closely followed by problem-solving and innovation. Socially, comfort with being still and not being entertained is a key indicator in a child’s developing emotional intelligence.
Give kids time out to rest. This isn’t organised play time, this is time when a child is left to amuse themselves and it is absolutely digital-device free.
Teach awareness of others
At school, your child will be playing and interacting with many others. Most interactions will be positive but there will be times when your child might get pushed or they may push others. That is the nature of small children. They should be aware that taking turns, being gentle and being kind is important at home and at school.
Recognise that your child may not get on with everybody. That is part of being human. On the upside, your child will find lots of little friends that they do get on with. Mrs Hodges says, “We don’t all have to be friends but we do have to be respectful.”
Give children experience of cause and effect and safe risk-taking
We all know that play is the work of small children. It is where so much of their learning happens. However, a lot of our children’s play is in man-made environments that are honed for safety. When supervised, being in nature and nature-play teach kids cause and effect and how to assess risk. They learn that if they climb too high in a tree they will need help getting down or that if they get some friends to help, they might be able to move a big heavy log that they can’t shift on their own.
Safe risk-taking is vital. In the Junior School at Wesley College, they have Stick Land. It is exactly what it sounds like. It is a supervised area where children can play with sticks of all different sizes and textures. They can build cubbies and forts and construct other worlds. There are rules in Stick Land about being aware of other people and playing safely, but nobody ever says, “Be careful”. They say, “Is the stick too close to your friend’s face?’ or “What will happen if you leave that stick at that angle?”
Mrs Hodges says that “Watching a child begin school and struggle is heartbreaking. It happens when kids are not exposed to the things that most of us would expect as simple and fundamental. The heartbreak is completely avoidable. They are all such little steps but they make such an enormous difference to the way a child copes.”
In partnership with the school, you can make this milestone a really exciting time. The world is so full of wonder and school is your child’s first step into creating their little niche in that world beyond home.