The first day of school

Happy at school … preparation is the best medicine.
Happy at school … preparation is the best medicine. Photo: Adam Mclean

The most important lessons in preparing your child for school start years before they actually don their new uniform and pack their school bag for the first time.

But the great news is the skills that will make your child confident and excited about their first day are also the actions that make being a mum or dad a rewarding experience, says parenting expert and the director of the University of Queensland's Parenting and Family Support Centre, Professor Matt Sanders.

Professor Sanders, founder of the Triple P Positive Parenting Program, says parents who lay down strong social and emotional foundations for their children in early childhood are the best prepared.

"Most of the preparation work that needs to be done is not something that occurs around the immediate first week at school," he says.

"It's the social and emotional foundations being laid down during a child's earlier development that ensures the child can cope with separation and has the key skills they will need to settle in quickly to the new routine."

In psychological terms, the behavioural and survival skills that children need to have mastered to do well at school are often things parents just don't think of.

The increasing number of children now attending child care, or who have had multiple carers, has made separation anxiety for preps and kindy kids less of an issue over past years.

"The separation experience isn't the same big deal as it used to be," Professor Sanders says.

"But getting children used to and comfortable with separation is really important, so if your child is a bit clingy or apprehensive, parents need to get them used to being cared for by someone else in the months before school starts."

In psychological terms, the behavioural and survival skills that children need to have mastered to do well at school are often things parents just don't think of.

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"Being co-operative and learning to follow directions and instructions is really important, he says.

"Children who are not under instruction control struggle at school because they don't know how to do things. They need to be able to listen and then follow through what they were told to do."

Sharing and taking turns is vital, as are strong communication skills and good social interaction skills.

"Pushers and shovers, biters and those who are aggressive; these children can find it hard to make friends and keep them," Professor Sanders says.

"In one sense, it's about parents teaching kids life skills so they can handle this next stage of their life.

Modelling the right kinds of behaviour is also key stress and anger and taking an approach that kids should do as I say, not as I do just doesn't work.

"When parents learn positive parenting skills and where skills encourage this, there is less anger, less stress and less behavioural problems," he says.

"If a child is going to school and they have already been yelled at four times and there has been a fight over breakfast, the child enters the day being upset. Getting dressed, getting ready, getting organised without the parent having to nudge every stage is where it can become a battleground learning skills to ensure this doesn't happen can make a huge difference to both kids and parents."

Modelling good behaviour to your children by being involved in the school is also an extremely effective way of helping them to feel good about school.

President of the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW, Di Giblin, says parents need to be open and positive about their children's school and try to make time in their lives to contribute to school life.

"What schools are beginning to realise is that it is not just a transition for children, it is also parents who need to adapt to the changes too, Ms Giblin says.

"It can be quite daunting as a parent because you're handing the child to the school and you're no longer the expert.

"Suddenly there are a lot of other adults that are experts in their lives you need to accept that and embrace it."

Ms Giblin recommends parents need to keep communication channels with teachers open.

"You need to build a positive relationship with the teacher. Let them know the space that your child is in when they are up or down.

"Yes, school is about education and making sure they have got their hat on and remembered their lunch and got sunscreen on but it is about knowing that you and the teacher can talk openly and honestly about your child's progress."

Reading and maths programs that require adult assistance can be a great way to be part of your child's school life and to follow what is going on at the school but both Ms Giblin and Professor Sanders warn against being "hover" parents. Be prepared, they warn, to discover "things are different nowadays".

"Classrooms have changed enormously since parents were at school," Ms Giblin says.

"Our children are very adept at the new technology already. They don't know life before mobile phones or internet. These expectations are part of a child's experience and they are incorporated into their learning.

"Nevertheless, parents have lots of resources that schools don't have. Share your networks and become involved as much as you can. Becoming involved in the classroom allows you to share some of your own knowledge and expertise with the school."

If you want to have an input into the schools decision making, its no good harping on the sidelines. Join the Parents and Citizens association in the school or other committees.

Also be prepared to set aside time to help out with the school fete or fundraising.

"Fundraising is not just of economic assistance to the school but also builds a sense of community," Ms Giblin says.

Time pressures make it difficult for some parents. But that doesn't mean you cannot be involved in other ways. And trivia nights and school discos they're all an important investment in school social life and being part of a community.

But be prepared, Professor Sanders says, to let go as constant hovering can be bad for children's development.

"Show an interest in the school and be prepared as a parent to be involved," Professor Sanders says.

"But hovering parents make it difficult for the child to learn to separate and for the school to handle them. You are on the same team as the teacher and it is about doing things that promote your children's learning and engagement at school."

Practical tips

1. Be positive. Tell your child what you enjoyed about your school days and talk positively about starting school.
2. Talk or read to your child about starting school. There are some great books on starting school available at your library or book store.
3. Make your child familiar with the school. Show them where the toilets are, where to eat their lunch and the playground.
4. Enrol in an orientation program. Many schools run these the year before school begins and include information sessions for parents, practice in prep and kindergarten classrooms and the chance to meet friends so there is a friendly face on the first day.
5. Get them enthusiastic. Involve your child in buying things such as stationery, school bags and uniforms.
6. Get into a routine. Show your child how to be independent by getting themselves out of bed in the morning and getting ready so you can leave at a set time each day without stress or anger.
7. Make bedtime a reasonable hour.
8. Be organised. Get everything you and your child may need ready the night before.
9. Label everything. Put something distinctive on your child's bag like a large key ring, tag or ribbon. This will help them find their bag.

On the first day

1. Let your child know you'll be there on the first day. Most schools now allow parents to stay with young children until they are settled.
2. Be unobtrusive. Gently prompt your child to engage in classroom activities.
3. Say goodbye. Be prepared to explain when you are going, say goodbye and leave.
For more information visit www.education.vic.gov.au/about/publications/newsinfo/welcomeschool.htm

Discuss your child's first day at school with other nervous and excited parents in our Education forum.