Helping your child prepare for school
School holidays are a great time to be with your kids and have some fun together. Unfortunately, the reality of heading back to school or work after the break comes around too soon. Over the holidays, some routines may slip and transitioning back to school may become challenging or worrying for some children (and even for some parents). Starting school for the first time or returning after the holidays signals a time of transition for any child: adapting to the school routine all over again, coping with a new classroom and different teachers, and forming new friendships.
Kids often take a week or two to settle into the school routine, which is understandable given that they have had weeks of freedom and fun. Most children experience some degree of anxiety when returning to or, indeed, starting school for the first time. While this anxiety typically subsides once settled back into the school routine, some children require a little longer when adjusting to these changes.
Schools and teachers know all too well that some students may feel nervous, and they typically do a good job at helping their new students (or returning students) feel as comfortable as possible. For new students, most schools do this by holding an orientation day towards the end of the previous year. Parents often report that this is a good opportunity for them and their child to attend an orientation and tour the school grounds and classrooms before the first day of school. Breaking the ice early on is one of the ways to calm your child’s fears and familiarise them with their school environment. It’s also a great opportunity for your child to meet peers with whom they will share a classroom so they feel more comfortable on their first day.
While this is a good start, there are other useful strategies that families can consider to help make the back to school transition a little easier.
Develop a consistent morning and evening routine in the lead up to the new school year
Ease your child back into the school routine gradually. It is often more beneficial to start putting a new routine into place a week or two leading up the return to school. By establishing a consistent morning routine your child will come to know what to expect before school returns.
Whether you are going out for the day or just spending the day at home, keep following the same routine. Wake up at the same time, have breakfast, get dressed, make lunches and pack bags in the same order each day. Where possible, have lunch at the same time that your child typically would when at school.
Start to increase the structure of your routine gradually over the final weeks of the school holidays. It is hard for some children to fall straight back into a highly structured environment, even more so following a holiday period where they may have had more freedom and choice. Setting an activity schedule for the day may help your child adjust to the increased structure of the school environment.
Evening routines are just as important as those that occur in the morning so it’s important to re-establish the bedtime routine at least one week before school starts. Go through the nightly rituals: free time, dinner, shower, brush teeth, reading and bedtime. This will help your child to get the right amount of rest when school starts and develop regular sleep patterns to alleviate fatigue.
Routines are easier to follow if they are presented in a visual way. It may be hard to expect your child to remember every step of their routine off the top of their head. Create a visual routine chart with pictures to help motivate your child and ensure that it is simple and easy to follow.
Familiarise your child with their school, teacher and classroom
Where possible, familiarise your child with their school, teacher and classroom before the new term starts. Some schools do this in the final term of the year by allowing students to have a meet and greet with their teacher for the following year. If this is not available to your child, look on the school website for a photo of the teacher or request a photo so that your child knows who to look for on their first day.
For new students, tell your child about the teacher’s role and how they can help everyone who is in the class. Remind your child of classroom etiquette, such as putting up your hand to get the teacher’s attention.
Show your child around their new school and where their new classroom will be. If it is not possible for your child to see their school firsthand, then familiarising them with pictures of the school is the next best option. If possible, download a map of the school grounds and show it your child. Show them where to find their classroom, pick-up zone and play areas.
While you are still on holidays, consider driving past the school to show your child where it is and what it looks like. This will be particularly beneficial if your child is attending that school for the first time. Where possible, drive through the drop-off zone and rehearse the drop-off procedure with your child.
Try on the school uniform. This is more important for new students as opposed to returning students. Show them what they will look like more often than not, new students are highly motivated to wear a uniform for the first time. Allow your child the opportunity to get used to how the uniform looks and feels when they are wearing it. If necessary, you may even consider having a practice at putting the uniform on in the mornings to assist with the transition into a new morning routine.
Prepare your child for the subjects that they may be taking throughout the year. Obtain the school supply list and purchase all textbooks and writing materials prior to the commencement of the school year. Allow your child to choose their book coverings, favourite coloured pens or notebooks in order to increase their motivation towards the return of school. Having the right tools will make your child feel more prepared.
Help your child to familiarise themselves with their classmates
Most schools release a class list prior to the recommencement of school. Identify core friends from this list who may be in the same class as your child. Where possible, schedule play dates before the return of school to help your child refresh relationships with peers.
Play dates are also a great opportunity to notice if your child has any problems interacting socially, such as being too bossy or too shy, so you can identify any problems and work with them on solutions.
Encourage your child’s curiosity for socialising and learning. Invite your child’s new friends to your home to play or work together on an assignment. A great way for your child to meet new friends is by joining an extracurricular activity that may be of interest to your child, such as a team sport. This will help your child form new friendships and encourage them to mix with others outside of school.
Remember that it is normal for children to take time to find friends and get along with others. There are often several different personalities within a classroom at any one time, so social difficulties are bound to occur from time to time. Try to avoid the temptation of jumping in straight away to solve the problem for your child. Instead, try spending time with your child discussing ways to solve problems. By trying out the ideas that you have discussed, your child will become more empowered and confident in resolving personal challenges with greater independence.
Review school policies and procedures for bullying.
Rehearse and discuss ways in which your child can cope with bullying while they are at school. Emphasise the importance of asking the bully to stop, walking away and telling a teacher, before considering further strategies if required.
The first step in reducing the impact of back to school anx
iety is to ensure your child is well prepared, and following some of the strategies listed above may help to achieve this. However, if your child’s anxiety persists, consider following some of these helpful tips.
Identify what specifically your child is anxious or worried about, and invite your child to discuss these concerns with you and/or their teacher.
Prevent avoidance of anxiety-inducing activities. The successful completion of activities that caused anxiety in the first place will promote self-confidence and reduce symptoms of anxiety for your child.
Be empathetic with your child. Make an effort to try and truly understand your child’s anxiety. Allow them to feel as though they have been heard and that you understand their experience.
Model non-anxious behaviour. Children often look to their parents for guidance. Display calm and positive behaviours to show your child that there is no need to feel anxious and that their environment is safe. This can be particularly difficult amongst the rush of getting out the door on time.
Be patient. Try to be as consistent and patient as possible to reinforce the message to your child that their world is a safe place. Overcoming any form of anxiety can take time.
If your child is still finding the transition difficult, professional support and advice may help your child to develop their confidence in returning to school.
Psychologists are trained in supporting families to cope with life adjustments that naturally occur and often support children who experience difficulty during their transition into or back to school. Psychologists provide education to children and parents about anxiety and ways in which to overcome it. This may include general school anxiety or more specific anxieties such as exam anxiety or social anxiety. In addition, psychologists can provide support by developing social skills for children, including ways in which to manage being bullied. Psychologists may also help families to establish family routines and behaviour management strategies to assist with school transitions.
Other allied health professionals such as child occupational therapists and speech pathologists may also offer additional support for children who are starting or returning to school. These professions may provide support if your child experiences difficulty with handwriting or holding their pencil correctly or if your child experiences delays with their expression and understanding of speech and language.
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