It's estimated 300,000 children will experience their first day of "big school" this year, however the reality for some is that they will be starting school solo, without the security of a familiar face. My son is one.
In order to soothe my stress over this (as well as my son's) I sought the advice of Marie Hirst, psychologist and national coordinator for KidsMatter Starting School at the Australian Psychological Society, as well as KidsMatter Ambassador, Tracey Spicer. Denyse Whelan, an experienced educator of over 40 years, and former deputy principal and principal also shared her words of wisdom and together helped devise five strategies for both parents and children to cope when starting school solo.
'KidsMatter' can help
Possibly the best place a parent can turn to if they are worried about their child starting school solo is the government funded initiative, KidsMatter.
"KidsMatter is a national mental health and wellbeing framework especially developed for early childhood education and care services and primary schools," explains Hirst. "Our Starting School campaign aims to support children and their families make a positive transition to school by providing lots of practical ideas and strategies that can be used before, during and after the first day."
Ambassador for KidsMatter, Tracey Spicer has a lot of empathy for parents who find themselves in this situation, highlighting why she was eager to be involved. "My son, when he went to preschool (which is attached to the school he goes to now) didn't know a soul," she tells me, reminiscing how emotionally draining that day was for her. She sees KidsMatter as the perfect antidote for parents and children facing this same solo issue.
"I think it's a wonderful resource," she enthuses, describing the various formats on offer on the site. "There's video if that's the way you prefer to get your information, or there's written resources." She encourages both parents and children to check out the videos, information sheets and activity books, all designed to alleviate the apprehension that can coincide with starting school solo.
Talk to the teachers
School teachers have lived through many "first days", so if anyone will have an insight into what will work best for parents and children starting school solo it is they.
With her vast experience, Whelan has seen it all. The good news? Your child won't truly be as alone as you fear.
"This child will not be the only ‘solo’ child starting school I can state that unequivocally," she reassures.
"What a school that is looking out for every child’s needs on day one will do is to ‘notice’ every child. Not always in a direct and over-the-top kind of way because teachers are long-experienced observers," Whelan explains. They will also ensure socialising starts via introductions between children as well as settle children into small groups.
"There will be less than a day for your child to have had someone to sit next to, share a game with or go to the toilet. They may not be called ‘friends’ yet anyway, but your child will not be alone."
Practice makes perfect
Starting school - solo or not - represents a huge change for children and their families, but with some planning and practice, confidence can be nurtured.
"Thinking about and practising the new school day routine ahead of time is one way to help reduce any potential stress in the mornings," Hirst suggests. "Planning ahead will mean that you can all start the school day feeling calm."
Hirst also proposes they rehearse how to make friends. "Help your child feel more confident by talking through and practising some strategies for what they might do to get to know the other children," says Hirst, such as reminding them how they did this in situations in the past. She also recommends the KidsMatter Starting School information sheet – Coping skills for children to help them navigate the highs and lows in emotion they are likely to encounter.
Spicer also weighs in, offering the advice that this be approached in the same manner adults would an important work project. "The more preparation you do the more calm you feel," she wisely says. "This is a big change in their lives; the more planning you do the smoother it will go."
Communicate with your child
Ensuring all lines of communication are open with your child will go a long way in helping them to feel more at ease starting school sans familiar faces.
"Check in with your child and find out how they are feeling," Hirst suggests. "It’s good to do this when they are feeling relaxed so joining in their play, drawing a picture or reading a story about going to school can be a good opener for a conversation."
Whelan has the perfect book to recommend; Starting School by Jane Goodwin and Anna Walker. "It’s very relevant as it’s set in Australia," she says.
Hirst also reminds us that we should always answer a child's question honestly and always be ready to provide reassurance when necessary.
"Let them know it's okay to feel nervous – other children will be feeling nervous too," she counsels.
Keep your own emotions in check
Often children who are nervous about starting school sans friends feel this way because they are feeding off their parent's anxieties.
"Monitor your own stress levels," warns Hirst. "Children can pick up on how you are feeling so try to talk positively about school."
Whelan couldn't agree more, commenting that fear can be contagious. "I am of the belief that our kids can catch our emotions and I would be keeping mine in check - as best I could!"
She also mentions that unless we make a fuss, the child will not know there is something for them to worry about. "To be honest, a young child has no real concept of starting school and being alone or knowing no-one unless his parents, caregivers or others have made a big deal of it."
Spicer asks you to think long term, because promoting positive emotions will do you a favour down the track. "Research shows if kids start out enjoying school early on it's more likely they will enjoy it ongoing."
The final word on coping goes to Whelan, who wants to reassure this: "I can’t quantify how they cope but I do believe it’s part of our parenting role to see that they can be left to manage themselves," she says."We’ve grown these little people to be people. It’s about taking more steps away from us, just as we did and our parents let us do."