As a Reception/ Kindergarten teacher with nearly 10 years of experience in helping children and their parents settle into starting school for the first time, I’ve always considered this area one that I am really comfortable about with giving advice and support. However, I finally find the shoe on the other foot with my firstborn starting school for the first time this September and I thought I’d write a Top Tips style post about starting school, very much keeping in mind that this is now all new to me too from the other side, finally being the parent instead of the teacher. So, if your little one is starting school or preschool for the first time this Autumn, then let’s do this together! Here’s what I’ve learned so far, but I know there’s so much more for me to learn this year!
Lots of the following ideas will obviously depend on the character of you and your child and the flexibility and communicative nature of the school they will be attending. Just choose the bits that are helpful and leave the rest!
Lots of kids (and of course their parents!) are very anxious about this big new change of starting school. It may be the cause of a huge bag if mixed emotions, both the excitement about growing up and moving onto the next step, and the sadness at watching them become more independent in the sense that they don’t need us as much. Ultimately it’s a wonderful thing that they will be growing, learning, developing and building character but it’s definitely a whole new world. [Side note before I continue, this isn't a post about home-school vs state school and I very much admire and love the whole concept of homeschooling, just in-case anyone had concerns on that issue!]
- Visit the school together and ask to be shown the places that are really important to your child and their settling in process ie the toilets, where to get snacks, the self-registration area, the coat racks etc. You may be excited to see the ICT suite and the art studio, but your child needs reassurance about the more immediate and fundamentally important areas at this stage! Trust me, knowing where the toilets and sinks are has been the number 1 concern of every single child I have ever taught, bar none, and rightly so!
- If possible, meet the teacher together and encourage your child to say hello and share a few things about herself that the teacher might like to know. Not how clever she is or that she’s the next musical genius (they’ll soon discover that for themselves.) Let your child share a special toy or lovey, talk about how they love swimming or supporting the Chelsea football team. Ask simple questions about the school day and what sorts of things your child will be doing in the settling in period.
- Lots of schools now offer a home-visit to allow the teacher to see the child in their own home setting, which is fantastic. Certainly take them up on this is offered. They are not coming to check out your home, they want to get to know your child in a more relaxed environment! If allowed, ask to snap a photo of the teacher in the new classroom and then take this home and stick it into a little homemade book or on the wall near the table so you can talk together regularly about it in a natural way.
- Borrow lots of Starting School books from the library and read them every day over the summer break, picking out the fun and exciting activities that are going on in each one and using them as starting points for conversations. If your child seems worried about starting school then use books to draw out these fears and reassure them. Most fears are related to not knowing what is going to happen and where things are, and these can be talked though thoroughly to the best of your knowledge.
- Go on a special and exciting trip together to buy uniform and essential items for starting school, such as a lunch box, new shoes, coat and stationery. Make it into an adventure rather than a chore and try to do it 1 on 1 without other little ones to distract attention.
The following are some lovely story and sticker books about starting school that I would recommend:
- When you go on your uniform shopping trip (above) make sure not to go too early otherwise your child may very well have grown by the time September comes around! But obviously don’t leave it too late either incase everything is sold out in the shops. A few weeks before should be perfect timing, prehaps leaving the shoes to a week or two before. If possible it is advisable to pick up some spare uniform from a second-hand sale that the school might be running, as they will be getting dirty every day (hopefully!)
- Buy iron-on labels with your child’s surname on and label EVERYTHING. Yes, even their underwear and socks (you don’t want to know how many of those ended up in lost property after PE each year!) Hats and scarves should also be labelled and gloves strung onto elastic and threaded through coat sleeves, just like Granny used to do. It’s so much easier.
- Write their name inside their shoes with permanent pen. There are only so many pairs of school shoes available in the shops and there are often multiple pairs the same in each classroom. While you are there, draw half of a smiley face in the left shoe and the other half in the right (or a butterfly, football etc), so that when they are held together they match like a puzzle. This is a quick and easy way to help your child know which foot each shoe goes on. You’d be amazed how many kids go home wearing their shoes on the wrong feet each day!
- Where possible, whether your child is going to a uniformed school or not, buy clothes that are easy to put on. This sounds a bit simple, yet it’s amazing how many kids are sent to school with fiddly buttons, buckles, zips and fasteners that actually end up being the cause of tears of frustration every time they need the toilet or to change for PE lessons. Most schools offer jogging bottoms these days, and even if you don’t think they are as “cute”, they really are the simplest for your child to manage alone. Some skirts also have elasticated waists and those are fabulous too.Similarly, buy them shoes with velcro and not with laces. It really is hard work for them and they take their shoes on and off more often than you would think. The same applies for bags and boxes that are easy to use and open independently.
Preparing Academically and with Life Skills:
I use the word academically very lightly as clearly I don’t mean you should teach your child everything they are going to learn in school before they attend, unless they want to of course! (My Cakie has learned a lot of the Reception learning objectives already but only because she has wanted to and has been really keen to learn. They’re all different and there’s no rush, it’s not a race.) Preparing for school is SO much more about their dispositions and emotions rather than their achievements and abilities. Sending a confident, independent and happy child to school is the true aim and most important emphasis.
This is more a brief list of areas that would really be helpful for them to have tucked away securely before they start and a place to begin if your child is ready and keen.
- As mentioned in the preparing emotionally section, the best way to prepare a child in life is to read to them. Einstein said “If you want your children to be intelligent read them fairy tales.” I’ve always said to parents that if you have time for only one thing each day with your kids, forget the plethora of activities and games out there and simply read, read, read. Read a wide variety of books, both stories and non-fiction, comics and recipe books- anything that takes their interest! For a child starting school it’s a good time to introduce reading longer chapter books aloud to them, as well as the usual picture books. If you haven’t already started attending a library regularly, this is a great time to start!
- Teach them to recognise their own name. This is step one and if you only have time for one thing, do this. Write their name out and type it out, then stick those up for them to see or let them play with them. Ask them to find their name amongst lots of other words. Make it fun and playful.
- Teach them to write their name independently. In the UK it’s crucial you teach them to write their name using a capital letter at the beginning and lower case for the rest of the name. I know in the US and some other countries there is an emphasis on learning all uppercase to begin with, and those are just simple variations in teaching methodology. But here in the UK please teach them mainly in lowercase. There are SO many fun ways to practise name writing in a fun way and without even using a pen or pencil (something that some kids are just not ready for at this stage.) Browse our name writing ideas here.
- Being learning the alphabet and the sounds that each letter makes. In school your child will be taught a phonics learning programme with the emphasis being on the sounds that the letters make rather than the letter name itself. Teach them the ABC song, bu then quickly move onto the sounds they make. Play games to help consolidate this is a fun way [browse our phonics and alphabet learning games here] and if possible, avoid giving them workbooks and sheets to complete. Some kids love these and that’s fine, but many do not and are quickly put off wanting to learn this way. Fun, practical and playful learning is what this blog is all about!
- Teach them how to use the toilet and to clean themselves afterwards independently. I still have vivid memories of a little girl in my Reception class who would walk in from the bathroom after each visit, pants around her ankles, shouting “someone come and wipe my bum right now!!” Of course the teachers and staff will be there to help, but with lots of kids in the class and lunch and play time periods too, they need to learn this essential life skill fast!
- Explain the importance of hand washing and teach them how to do it properly, using soap, washing both sides of their hands and in-between their fingers, before drying. In the first year of school there are lots of new bugs that go around and kids pick these up so easily from each other due to close contact and poor hygiene, which is inevitable to some degree but this really helps them out.
- Encourage them to talk to other children by looking at their eyes and smiling, asking what their names are and introducing themselves. 99% of all children’s worries in the first week is that they don’t have any friends yet, and we need to give them the skills to independently get to know each other. Most kids are fantastic at playing with new people anyway, but there are some who are not as gifted in this area and can be very shy to start with.
- Encourage them to take all concerns and needs to a grown up and not be worried to speak up about anything. Children get upset about lost coats, a missing drawing, a child who knocked them over accidentally etc and teachers can and will resolve these problems for them if they let them know.
[Here’s a favourite alphabet and name writing activity: play dough and beads letter impressions!]
On the day:
- If your child is particularly anxious, give them a little token to remember you by or bring their favourite teddy or blankie to school. The teacher should be fine with this.
- If you are allowed into the classroom come in and show your child around, helping them to find something they want to play with and staying only as long as is really necessary. Help them find their coat peg and anything else that might be theirs e.g. a name tray, cubby hole etc and remind them of where the toilets are. The quicker you leave the easier it is for them to settle down and take their bearings on the new set up.
- Try not to cry in front of them as this will upset and confuse them, especially as you’ve been telling them how great big school is and that they will love it! I now know how hard this will be myself, but hopefully if you’ve been to visit and are feeling reassured yourself, this will be far easier. If needed, say goodbye and go and have a good cry outside with a friend!
- Say hello to the other parents and arrange a meet up as soon as possible (maybe straight away for coffee!) All the other parents are in the same boat and also feeling a little unsure, and many will be looking to make friendships too. It’s just as important to build solid relationships with the other parents as it is for the kids to become friends, after all, you will probably be together for many years if the class progresses through the school together!
As the year progresses:
- Ask the teachers if there is a way to volunteer in the classroom and help out by reading to small groups, playing with children, setting up table tops activities or supervising in the playground. You will most certainly have a skill hat would be so useful for the school eg gardening, art, building, DIY, book binding, reading etc. Teachers value this sort of involvement SO much and would love to have you come and help.
- If you can’t come in due to work or smaller babies at home, try asking if there is something you could do at home to help eg fixing broken books and resources or laminating items for displays. There may be committees or parent rep schemes you could volunteer for or joining the PTA also really helps increase involvement with the school.
- Keep inviting a wide range of kids back to play at home or in the park, generally just one at a time, so lasting friendships can develop. This is particularly important if it turns out that your child is shy or taking longer to settle in social terms.
- Keep some of the best drawings and photos of the projects and shows your child completes, in a “My First Year of School” scrapbook, which both you and your child could scribe in together. They can add more of their own writing and drawing as their ability develops, which in itself will be a fantastic record of achievement! Be sure to add the photo of them on their first day and finish off with another on their last day. They will have grown so much and it will be a wonderful memory keepsake to treasure of this very special time in their life!
I hope your little one settles into school really quickly (I’m certain they will!) If you want some fun and exciting ways to engage them in learning activities over the summer or as the new school year starts, here are some ideas to browse:
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