Starting school involves a big change for children. It’s normal for children to have strong feelings as they start to think about these changes, such as excitement about the prospect of going to school as well as nervousness about what lies ahead.

Some children may also feel sad, angry or anxious about leaving their early childhood service.

Understanding and supporting your child to handle the feelings associated with starting school will help to reduce their stress and develop positive coping strategies.

Here’s three ways to help children cope:

1. Understanding common behaviours and what they mean
Understanding how your child is feeling and why they are behaving in a particular way can help you work out how to support them, emotionally and practically.

Young children often have difficulty explaining in words how they feel. Instead they may show their feelings through their behaviour.

During the transition to school you may notice the following behaviours emerge or increase in frequency: clinging behaviour, restlessness, withdrawing, being anxious, sleep difficulties or aggressive behaviours.

As it can be difficult for children to explain how they are feeling, it is often up to the adults around them to help work out what feelings and emotions may be underlying a child’s behaviour.

When you notice a change in behaviour you might ask yourself:

  • What is my child feeling?
  • Why might they be feeling that way?
  • Have they behaved this way before?
  • How did I support them previously?

When you notice these changes in behaviour, you will still need to reinforce or set clear limits for your child while thinking carefully about what it might be telling you.

Watch our video on understanding behaviour 

2. Talking about your child’s feelings
During this transition period, children may benefit from some extra nurturing and understanding to help them feel secure and confident. 

Putting aside some special time with your child will give you an opportunity to talk with them and help them express their feelings about starting school.

Being open and receptive to how your child is feeling as well as providing comfort and attention when needed will help to support them through these changes.

Some useful ways to prompt these conversations include:

  • Sharing a story about when you have started something new (eg. a job) and some of the feelings you had. This may help your child to feel more comfortable to express how they are feeling.
  • Using open ended questions that elicit more than yes or no answers (eg. “What did you like about school today?”).
  • Using prompts and encouragement or gestures like smiles and nodding to show your child you are interested in what they are saying.

3. Helping your child to recognise and express their feelings
One of the first steps in helping children understand and manage emotions is labelling feelings.

Once children understand what particular emotions feel like in their body, they can start to use words to describe them and begin to work out how they might manage their feelings. 

Here’s some useful ways to help children recognise their feelings:

  • Label and name your emotions. This helps children to put a name to the expression you are showing: “I’m so excited to go to the park with you”, “I feel frustrated that I have lost my keys.”
  • Help label your child’s emotions. This will help your child match how they are feeling with the name of the emotion. This can be beneficial when your child is not yet able to describe some of their more complex feelings (eg. worry). “I can see that you’re worried about making new friends.”
  • Invite your child to describe their feelings. “I feel disappointed it’s raining and we can’t go out to play. How about you?” “How do you feel when you go to visit Sara?”.
  • Talk about feelings in stories you read with your child. Pinpoint some of the characters’ feelings and relate them to what is happening in the story. “Aisha looks a bit sad about going to school.” “How do you think Aisha is feeling about starting school?” At times, you could extend this to relate it to your child’s own experiences (eg. “has this happened to you?” or “have you felt that way?”) to help your child make links to their own experiences.

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