Sweaty palms. A pale face. A trembling bottom lip giving way to full-blown sobs in the playground. And that’s just the parents. Starting a new school can be an anxious time for all. For many children the first day at a new school can be daunting. And for parents it can be an equally tense time as they worry how their offspring will cope in this new environment.
For some children, this will be more of an ordeal than others. “There is no exact method for figuring out which child will happily wave and run off to play and which one will take one look at the new surroundings and superglue himself to a parent’s leg,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution.
In these situations, knowledge is power, so talk about the school and take every opportunity to visit it before D-Day (Drop-off Day). Some schools have taster sessions for the new intake during the summer term. These can be invaluable in removing the fear of the unknown and getting your child used to the layout of the school and the lunchtime routine. Use the summer holidays to prepare children for the coming term by shopping together for school uniforms or arranging play dates with other newbies so there are some familiar faces on the first day.
When January comes, try to co-ordinate your walk or ride to school with another family or meet a friend at the school gate. “Having a friend to walk into school with can change the dynamics of the drop-off routine dramatically, making it more fun and less stressful,” says Pantley, a mum of four. She recommends creating a short but specific parting routine for drop-off. “It can be a special handshake, a hug and a tickle, or some other ritual. Use this special goodbye each morning as you part.”
Even the best preparations can’t safeguard you from a playground meltdown, however. This is the time when parents have to put their own feelings to one side to provide the strength and reassurance their child needs. Step one is to ignore other parents.
”Put on blinders and tune out the other parents and children so you can focus on your child only. You can be most helpful when you convey your peaceful demeanour to your child,” says Pantley.
Don’t hang around too long, though. “It’s probably better for your child if you go sooner rather than later,” says Sarah Ebner, editor of the education blog School Gate and author of The Starting School Survival Guide. “Teachers with years of experience find that it’s disruptive to have parents in the classroom for too long.”
With your child safely installed in the classroom, you can relax your guard and cry if you have to. The chances are you won’t be the only one blinking back tears on that first morning.
“I was very lucky with my children as they both settled really well,” recalls Ebner. “My son, in particular, just bounded off to his classroom, but then again, he did know a lot of the children in his class already and he was used to the premises as he’d been coming there for years to pick up his sister. It’s often easier for younger children, but of course it does all depend on personalities. I found it harder with my younger one, as it was such a demonstration of how he was growing up and I had no more babies left at home.”
Mum of two Sally Crighton found it hard when her oldest daughter started school. “Even though Anna was one of the youngest in the year, she went in on the first day with no problems. It was me who found it emotionally difficult; I felt real separation anxiety and lack of control,” recalls Sally, whose younger daughter is about to start at the same school. “I feel a lot calmer about Evie starting school although I’m sure I may have a wobble when it actually happens.”
It’s important to remember that older children, while seemingly robust and independent at the grand old age of 13, are also likely to be feeling increasingly anxious as the summer holidays draw to a close. Jenny Alexander, mother of four and author of Going Up! The No-Worries Guide to Secondary School, says this is a really big change, even for children who are completely ready for the move. “Bullying is the most common anxiety for children starting high school, because suddenly they’re going from being the biggest in a small environment to the smallest in a big one,” says Alexander, who has also written a helpful book on handling school ground politics, called Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends.
Alexander says it’s important that parents take their children’s worries seriously. “Even a high-achieving child might feel anxious about not being able to do the work at high school. A sociable child might worry about making new friends, although you know she’ll be fine, because friends are very, very important to her.”
This can be a difficult age: your child is not quite a teenager but they are no longer a little child. Involve your child in all the decision-making so they feel some sense of control: look at the school website and research transport arrangements together and discuss uniform and lunchtime options.
This is also a time of year to be really prepared so there are no last-minute panics. Double-check they have all the books and equipment they need and make sure they arrive on time, ideally with a friend, either travelling together or meeting at the school gate. Jenny Alexander recommends “the wisdom of sheep” for the first few days. “It can be helpful for your child to stick together with friends from their old school or tag along with some new people. Then, if they get lost, they’re not on their own.”
Remember, this is a big change in your child’s life and they may need extra support and reassurance for some time while they settle in to the new school. Provide opportunities for them to meet their new classmates at weekends or holidays, help them get to grips with the realities of homework by providing a quiet study space, and find opportunities for down time, where your child can open up about any worries. Finally, be positive and find reasons to celebrate this latest milestone in your child’s life.
Sally Whittle, journalist and author of the Who’s The Mummy blog (www.whosthemummy.co.uk), found herself in emotional turmoil when her daughter Flea started primary school.
“Flea started school a few days after her fourth birthday so I was fully expecting her to be very nervous, but she was mostly excited, about buying new shoes, and having a blazer, and being one of the ‘big kids’. But I felt awful. I thought she was so young and I wanted to cry when I first saw my little baby, who’d been three a week ago, in a pinafore and tie.
“I had agonised about which school to send her to, choosing the one we did because it has very small class sizes, but I still had lots of meetings with the head before she started about how Flea would cope, what if she got too tired (at that time, she was still sleeping 15-plus hours a night) and that I didn’t want her pushed academically. They probably thought I was completely neurotic – which I was – but they were very understanding about it.
“New children arrive at 10am on the first day so it’s less hectic, which I think helped. What they also do, which I think is lovely, is have one of the nursery nurses from the pre-school move up into reception to be the classroom assistant for their class – so there was a very familiar face waiting for them on the first day. Still, there were lots of mums weeping at the classroom door, which I don’t think helps anyone – it just made Flea feel there was something to be worried about and she got a little unsettled.
“I was fine, actually – I knew she’d be very well looked after and comforted if she was upset. And when I picked her up, she was full of having gone into the dining room for lunch, what they’d had for lunch, who she sat next to at lunch – for the first year, most of our school-related conversations featured lunch.” – Sunday Independent.