How to prepare your child for their first school experience

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Is my child ready for school life? It's a question many parents ask themselves before their child ventures through the school gates for the first time.

And rightly so, this is a significant milestone for both you and your child.  

Having worked with children and families for more than 30 years, here are some evidence-based ideas to help you prepare your child for the ups-and-downs of this new adventure.

1. Create a social connections map

This is a fun activity. Ask your child to write their name or draw a picture of themselves in the middle of a large piece of paper, then draw some lines out from it. At the tip of each line, name or draw the people in your family, as well as any pets, friends (particularly someone that might be attending the same school) and other important people in your child's life.

Add to this the name of your child's future teacher and other important people at the school, such as the principal.

While creating the map, ask your child questions like: "Who do you like to play with?" "Who can you go to if you're feeling sad or scared in the classroom or playground?" "Who can you talk to about your feelings that happen at school when you're not there?"

Asking these kinds of question along with developing the social connections map will help your child see their support network and understand who they can talk to when they need to.

2. Keep it predictable

Maintaining daily habits and routines makes it easier for children to be resilient in the face of change, as they adjust to school life. Structure and consistency makes life predictable for your child, which helps with confidence because they know what to expect and when to expect it. Routines will also help keep life organised, creating more time for you to have fun and relax with your child. 

3. Make time for family time

Creating space for family time can help your child feel safe and secure when their world is changing. You can build this time into everyday routines, like dinnertime, bedtime, or walking to school. It can be with the whole family or just one parent and one child.

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Family time creates happy memories, builds strong relationships and provides the opportunity for your child to talk about their joys and worries.

4. Develop those problem-solving skills

Whether it's in the playground or at home, problem solving skills and coming up with alternate solutions can lead to an increased ability to cope with stress and exercise self-control. There are five steps to problem-solving which you can help your child practice:

  • Identify the problem by asking your child questions like: "What is the easiest way to say what is bothering you?" "How often does it happen?" "How does that make you feel?"
  • Help your child list on a piece of paper different ideas about how they can solve the problem. You can make suggestions, but it's important the child has ideas of their own, and it's okay to include unhelpful ideas.
  • Evaluate the ideas with your child, and help guide them to choose the best ones – they can draw a smiley face or star next to the best ideas.
  • Help your child choose an idea that is the most practical and achievable. You can them things like "What idea do you think is most likely to work?" "Is there one that stands out more?"
  • This is the time to help your child come up with a plan for putting the idea into action. Help them identify potential barriers that might stop the solution working, such as people or situations, and how they can might overcome them. Some things you can say are: "What needs to happen first?" "Who can you ask for help?"

It's a good idea is to practice this process together to help make problem solving second nature for your child. For example, it could be used to make a plan for how to get ready for school on time every morning.  

5. Provide descriptive praise

The key to descriptive praise is being as specific as possible when praising your child. For example, "You really studied hard for your spelling test, and your results show you tried. You practiced your words before your test, and it really worked it. I was proud to see you practicing writing the words in your bedroom."

This kind of praise can also encourage your child to persevere with tasks that they find difficult or unenjoyable.

Above everything else, be sure to celebrate this exciting step in your child's life. Wishing you all the best for the school year ahead and beyond.

Leith Sterling is the Executive Director, Child and Family Services at The Benevolent Society.