Many children experience some anxiety during the transition to school but in most cases it dissipates in the first few weeks of term. Here, clinical psychologist Dr Celeste Merrigan looks at how parents and carers can help their child adjust to the school day routine and shows you who to talk to for extra support.
Making a positive start to school is important for children. There is good evidence that a child's readiness for school and a positive transition has a very positive flow-on effect to positive adjustment in the school setting and positives in their academic and social development.
It's equally important to note that many children may feel some anxiety or challenge initially – this is normal and in most instances these challenges will dissipate in the first few weeks. Educators are very skilled at supporting young children and their parents at this time. So if a parent has any concerns, I recommend talking about it with your child's teacher – they will reassure, guide or direct you to an appropriate source of help.
Parents and carers play an important role in supporting children starting school. Children constantly look to their parents as their guide in regard to any new experience. So it is important that parents exhibit a calm, positive and matter-of fact response when a child is starting school. Children are sensitive to their parents’ anxieties, so even though it is normal for a parent to be a little anxious, try to keep this in check, otherwise it can create unnecessary anxiety for a child.
Many parents worry that their child will not be able to cope in a larger playground or eat lunch without prompting. Others are concerned the jump to school and long days will be tiring and that they are handing their children into the care of others.
Remember that going to school is an important life experience filled with opportunities for growth, skill development and fun. Like any new experience there are challenges for both the child and the parents. Schools support children to cope with the playground, ensuring they are safe and they enjoy their snack and lunch. Many schools have modified timetables and practices to assist children to gain confidence and independence in the social aspects of school.
Parents and carers often have competing emotions at this time – joy that their child has reached the milestone of school entry, but maybe also a little sadness or anxiety as they have less time with their child. These feelings pass quickly for most people as they see their child adjusting and they experience time together after school, on weekends and during holidays.
It can be helpful to share these feelings with others and you may then realise they are very normal. If negative feelings persist, speak with a trusted friend and perhaps your GP and they can help you decide if it would be helpful to speak with a mental health professional.
Here are my top tips for parents and carers to help children enjoy the first week of school:
- Embrace the change as it’s an exciting and very positive step for your child and the whole family.
- Be matter-of-fact, calm and reassuring. Try not to talk about school too much as it can create anticipatory anxiety. If the subject comes up incidentally, be positive about it.
- Relax – there is nothing that can’t be managed.
- It’s okay if a problem occurs. In fact, it’s an opportunity to practise problem solving techniques.
Celeste features in our Starting School videos. Watch the videos to learn about her experiences getting ready for school, understanding behaviour, practising coping skills and managing a change for the whole family.