As 2023 rapidly draws to a close there are many kids and parents starting to get exited and maybe a little nervous as they embark on their journey into formal education. AKA 'BIG school.'
The excitement builds as we farewell pre-school with end of year concerts and as we purchase new uniforms, huge backpacks, and new name label stickers for drink bottles and lunch boxes. We say 'bye' to daycare fees (hooray!) And hello to school readers and a whole new system of doing things. However, for many kids and parents the anticipation of big school can have us a bit nervous.
The nerves make sense. For parents it’s a big step into our child being more independent, and it can be emotional seeing your baby, in their new uniform, hidden under the enormous school hat and huge backpack that you can’t ever imagine will fit them. We worry – will they fit in? What if they need help, will they be able to ask?
For our kids it’s a time of much excitement and some apprehension. They really don’t know what to expect so it’s very much a leap into the unknown. So, what’s the best way to prepare us and our kids for the beginning of their school journey?
In days gone by the biggest consideration of readiness for school was a child showing interest in reading or, being able to write their name. It is now widely accepted that the social and emotional skills needed for kids to navigate school is by far the bigger area that supports a smooth adjustment into primary school.
This time of year often has me reflecting on what kids really need as they start big school.
Here are my top FIVE tips to assist with the social and emotional adjustment into school for kids that involve DOING less for your child, not more, as we head into the final weeks before many little kids start BIG school:
So simple it’s easy to overlook: Can your child open their own lunchbox and drink bottle? Can they remove a jumper unassisted? Or get a shoe back on if it comes off? Can they go to a communal toilet and use it independently? These are the skills we tend to overlook when thinking about school readiness and its these seemingly little things that can turn an ordinary day into struggle city for a little five-year-old navigating kindy or prep. The more confident your child is with the basics the more they can focus on the other aspects of adjusting to school.
The answer lies in practice. Serving lunch in your child’s lunchbox in the weeks before school, assisting them to learn how to dress independently, and even working on their skills at opening a pack of ‘rice wheels’ will mean that when your child is at school, already navigating so much learning they won’t feel lost when it comes to basic eating or self-care.
2. Let them play
As famous child psychologist Jean Piaget said, "Play is the work of children." Or in the words of Fred Rogers, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning."
It might be tempting to get out the educational apps to prepare a child for seated learning, but evidence shows that working on their gross and fine motor skills outdoors makes a much bigger impact on readiness to learn. Additionally, through a wide variety of outdoor and indoor play kids can work on their ability to share, take turns, and practice winning and losing. Essential skills for navigating the classroom and the playground.
When my eldest son (now 13) was starting kindy, the principal told us to ‘go home and play lots of UNO over summer – and make sure that sometimes you let your child lose’. While that can sound harsh, she explained that many kindy starters hadn’t has much experience with loosing or missing out…. According to her there was only one pink pencil in the pack and 23 kids in each class. So, most kids will have to face the disappointment of missing out on their choice many times a day.
The answer lies in play: Playing games where kids get an opportunity to miss out, or lose, with the emotional support and safe base of their parents give little kids a chance to practice navigating these ups and downs, and result child who is more resilient when small disappointments happen at school.
3. Talk less (and listen more)
Much like preparing our little ones for other big transitions in life (like becoming a big brother or sister) sometimes we talk a bit too much and this can add pressure to our kids.
When we ask our kids over and over if they are excited? If they feel ready? Or tell them stories about how much they will LOVE school and how much fun they will have - it can add pressure or set them up for unrealistic expectations.
Same with playful threats about the expectations of school or saying “you won’t be able to carry on like that when you’re in big school” …. This is probably more about our worry as a parent than our child readiness and will generally add an element of stress that isn’t helpful in the weeks before school.
The answer lies in letting them know we hear them: asking open questions and listening to your child’s concerns. If your child expresses a fear about school, sometimes what they need is to be heard. As much as our instinct is to make it better or tell them everything will be fine, there can be such a relief in someone saying “I hear that you are worried, that makes sense. Starting school makes lots of kids feel worried”.
From there our child feels seen and heard, and less alone with that worry. It is from here that we can work on strategies to help with the nerves like having a connection ritual, or talking though who their teacher is and how they can ask for help if they need.
I don’t want to alarm you but the adjustment into kindy for some kids takes a while. You might be thinking they will be tired for about two weeks and then they’ll adjust right? For many kids it takes a lot longer and your beautiful together five-year-old may suddenly be having meltdowns after school you haven’t seen since they were three.
The answer lies in patience: For many kindy kids (and more so for boys) the adjustment to kindy and all it entails really takes about a year. For one year they are the smallest fish in a big pond. Learning the rules, making friends, navigating the playground, remembering to sit still, and on top of this learning to read and write. It’s a LOT. And for most kids it will show. You are not getting it wrong, and neither are they, it just takes time.
In 12 months, when your school starter can walk into school with confidence as they know the lay of the land, they will look so much bigger in that uniform, carry that bag with ease.
Before you know it your tiny little school starter in that oversized uniform will be marching through the gates into year one, and you will spot the teeny tiny new starters and wonder how that year went so darn fast?
Gen Muir is Parent educator, maternity social worker and mum to four boys with a passion for helping parents in to understand behaviour and emotion in kids.
With the experience of working with over 40,000 parents though her work at the Mater and privately, Gen has a great understanding of the real challenges facing modern parents.
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