First Day at School: Easy Tips for Parents to Calm First Day Anxiety
As thousands of children start their academic journeys the combination of new routines, meeting new people, forming friendships, adapting to classroom structure, changes in environment and learning can all present an overwhelming experience for children starting school for the first time or changing schools.
Dr Maite Ferrin Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health believes in the importance of preparing a child emotionally before starting school, to support their enjoyment of school in the foundation years. ‘Planning and preparation is key in helping your children transition as smoothly as possible into their new routine and environment leading up to the first day and adapting within the first semester.’
Below Dr Ferrin shares her tips for parents
Facilitate the bonding with the new environment (the school)
It’s advisable for children to get an idea of the school environment before they start, especially when the school is new for them. Many schools hold open days for children to visit the school, see the classroom and playground as well as meeting the teachers. If this is not possible, information is readily available online that you can review and discuss with your child.
Facilitate the bonding with the teacher
The teacher will be the person to provides a safety net for your child at school. If the child has the opportunity to meet them in advance this will provide a familiar face which may help reduce the initial anxiety. The teacher will be also responsible for identifying worries or anxiety in the school environment, so it is also good for parents to form a relationship and maintain close contact. Bear in mind that the teacher can also inform you if your child is not making appropriate progress in their social functioning or if they noticed any difficult situation with your child (e.g., peer bullying)
Facilitate bonding with other children.
It is essential that children feel bonded with other children in the same class. Support children and encourage them to foster friendships with their classmates. Play games with your child that help them with sharing and taking turns before they start school. This also gives them a repertoire of games to suggest when they play with friends. The personal wellbeing and the social aspects of school are just as important as their academic development. Playdates either at home (making pizza or baking cakes are good activities) or having ice cream or picnics in the park are great ways for children to form friendships, without feeling they are being forced.
Maintain the bond with home during the first days
Little reminders of home such as photos of the family, pets and toys as well as little post-it notes of pictures or motivational wishes can all act as a reminder of home and ease anxiety. Tell your child you will be thinking of them and give reassurance that their teacher will contact you if something is not right.
Establish a good routine
Establishing a routine before your child starts school such as waking up, dressing independently and having meals and snacks on “school time” as well as trying on the school uniform will all help first day nerves. Buying the new stationary/uniform can also provide a practical way for children to engage in the new start. Make shopping a special and exciting experience for them.
Create a calm household routine with early bedtimes and stress-free mornings. Children who aren’t well rested or don’t have enough sleep won’t have the internal resources to cope with stressors and anxiety and they are more likely to struggle during the school day than children who have rested and slept. Early bedtimes are essential so children can deal calmly with the morning rush and with the rest of the day.
Finally, make sure you’re a few minutes early to pick your child up from the school on time. That will definitely reduce their anxieties.
While you provide the comfort and safety of a good routine, also help young children to be more independent and to gradually build on their resilience. Encourage your child to do everyday tasks such as introducing themselves to new people, asking for help, managing their own clothes and shoes, packing school bags and eating independently. Prepare children to learn new skills in case of an unexpected event (e.g., going to school with other people, moving from class to class, having the right books and materials for different lessons, changing into different uniforms, or managing pocket money). This will also help to reduce their anxiety.
Foster positive attitudes
Engage with the excitement and the most positive attitude toward a new experience. Have something at home to look forward to on the first day back; it might be their favourite food or treat. Make sure you talk about the day and their experiences, including what they did and didn’t enjoy.
Maintain a positive attitude and encourage children to persevere towards their goals. Gentle and positive coaching will foster the understanding and self-esteem to try hard and be determined even when something is difficult. Perseverance should be recognized and endorsed much more than the success of the end result.
Calm their worries and fears.
Don’t dismiss any worries or concerns that your child expresses; allow them to ask lots of questions and answer them openly. There are many causes for worry of children starting to school for the first time. Most of the anxiety around school is usually caused by worries that adults might find silly, such as the fear that something bad can happy to their family while the child is at school. Reassure your child that you’ll be absolutely fine.
Help your child express their anxieties
Allow your child to vent their worries and anxieties. Give them as many opportunities as possible to express their emotions and concerns. Encourage laughter and giggling, it is a very healthy way of releasing anxiety.
Be alert for other signs on your child
In most cases, children adapt to school very well after the initial couple of weeks as routines are established and friendships are formed. But occasionally, if they have not adapted, their unhappiness might indicate a more serious issue, like being victim of peer bullying, or some academic difficulties. Ask calm questions about the everyday life at school both during the class and on the playground, listen carefully, and reflect on what your child is trying to say. If you sense something is happening or not going the right way contact the teacher to address your concerns.