For many parents and children this is the time of the summer break when the worry begins to start about any pending changes in September. Whether you are the parent of a 5 year old who is due to begin their schooling journey, or you are the parent of a 12 year old who is preparing for a move to big school, it is important to remember that you are not on your own. These are significant transitions that your child is about to make, and like any thoughtful parent it is understandable that you want to get it right for them.

In the case of the child starting primary school it is often the parents who are more worried than the child at this stage.
The reason for this anxiety is not just about your concerns of how your child will be on the first day, but it is more likely to be because you are about to hand over the control of your child’s learning to someone else. Up until this time you have had ultimate influence over what your child experiences, and despite their involvement with childminders, creches or Montessori schools, this experience as vastly different.

You may worry because they are entering into an environment where they will share a yard with bustling 12 year olds with smart phones and Instagram accounts, and you still see your child is only a tot compared to them and worry how they will cope and what they will learn. But most significantly, they have to do it WITHOUT YOU. This is the biggest challenge. Not being able to see how they get on or not being able to remove them from the environment if they are struggling is a challenge. You have to place your most precious possession in the hands of someone else for 30 hours per week and for the next 14 years of their lives and this can be scary.

In fact, there’s no need to be scared.

This is a very normal developmental transition that your child needs to make and in most cases they benefit hugely from it. What a child gains most from starting school is the autonomy and enjoyment that they can do something on their own and this is to be encouraged. It is better that your child learns to manage stress and cope with it rather than being persistently spared of any discomfort.

Despite your anxiety on the first day, you must let them do this on their own. Get them settled, say your goodbyes, wish them well and leave. Many parents will feel the urge to hang around, especially if the child is anxious or upset. My advice still remains the same, you need to leave. In most cases children settle quickly enough and in fairness most teachers are really used to these episodes and will contain your child soon after you go.
Many parents have challenged this advice to me over the years and asked, what is wrong with staying? “They will feel better if I am there”. However, in reality, they won’t. By staying around you are communicating to your child that there IS something to be scared of. The message you communicate by staying is, ‘I don’t trust these guys either’, which will only make your child feel more anxious and uncertain. Remember, often short term anxiety reducers create longer term problems.
Leave the child to manage on their first day, let them know you trust they can manage and they will be safe. If you feel upset, bite your tongue and go. By all means get upset out of earshot of your child whether that’s at the school wall or in your car, but in front of your child be strong, confident and contained.

In terms of getting them off to a good start there are some ‘quick wins’ that can help:

1. Make sure they can do tasks autonomously, like unbutton their coat, use the bathroom independently and open their bag and lunchbox. Practice this over the summer.
2. Go and visit or pass the school over the summer and sell it like an exciting and cool place to go.
3. Be available to talk about the start of school if your child wants to discuss it. Acknowledge their worries but reassure them that they will be ok
4. Teach your child to be able to recognise their own name written down. Often their names will be on desks etc and so being able to spot it will help them feel more able.
5. Manage your own anxiety
6. Wear in their new school shoes, you don’t want your child hobbling around with cut heels because they have only worn trainers up to this point. Start them wearing the shoes a few weeks before school starts.

Dr. Colman Noctor, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services

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