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What to Expect When Your Child Starts School – A Parent’s Guide

by Hazel McKenzie
Registered Psychologist
Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre

I am an emotional mother. There we are, I’ve said it. I own it. I am a mother first and a psychologist second when it comes to my family and children. I could write for hours about pregnancy, birth, sleep deprivation, infancy and developmental milestones but unless you have lived through it you will be looking through frosted glass. And it’s usually rose coloured. A first child’s, first day at school is one of those frosted glass moments that I never really understood until I was there. We all spend so much time on how to prepare our children for school, what about the parents?

When you are handed your squirming bundle of awesomeness, obstetricians and midwives often point out there is no manual. I disagree. I was given a myriad of manuals on how my unborn was developing and growing –weekly updates were insufficient for me, I wanted daily and they were available at my fingertips. After the safe arrival of both my children I read up on how they were supposed to behave, sleep, feed – I was disappointed that they didn’t tell me that two babies could be DIFFERENT. I had human ‘manuals’ offering me advice everywhere I turned, during every ‘phase’ that I ruminated over and sleepless night that I had.

So when my first born started school, I expected that I would be furnished with advice and a ‘What To Expect When Your Child Starts School’ manual from mothers who had walked the walk before me. Instead I got uncertainty.

I have worked in schools and with children and their parents for over 15 years. I have worked with thousands of children and comforted parents and children alike on those first tentative days of Kindergarten or at a new school when it feels like they are about to be thrown to the lions. My advice to parents has not changed much over the years:
–          emotionally prepare yourself for the day
–          say goodbye quickly
–          don’t show your child that you’re feeling anxious
–          smile lots
–          reassure them that they are going to have a fabulous day
–          DO NOT let them see you cry

All sounds pretty straightforward? Yes, that’s what I thought too.

The emotional rollercoaster can start early at the school induction, an essential part of the process for children AND parents. The little Kindergartens sing a song about mateship and how great a school they have. Tears. The Principal talks about the opportunities and exciting things that your child is about to experience. Tears. The band plays out of tune. Tears. The thought of the first day and letting go of a hand. Tears.

Buying the school uniform can be the most emotional shopping trip since buying the pram. Get ready for how emotional you may feel when your child emerges from the change room drowning in stripy material two sizes too big. The colour will be bold, strong, independent…maybe the opposite from how you see your child. Tears. School shoes one size too big. Tears. Ads on TV for back to school stationery? Surely that couldn’t tug a heart string?

Many schools advise a countdown for new Kindergarteners and this can be helpful for you too. Visit the school frequently so that you all feel comfortable there. Look at the school website for information on procedures, before and after care if you need that, P & F meetings, canteen menus. Each day do something practical that will make you and your child more comfortable about the whole experience. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Your job as a parent is to support the development of your children to independence. That needs to be your long term aim; that these small significant steps are all paving the way to the well balanced independent adult that does not miraculously emerge if they have been sheltered in a parental cocoon for 18 years.

When the BIG day arrives some mindful meditation before you wake your child will help you to steady your own anxiety. Pack lunch together, take lots of photographs. DO NOT arrive too early at school if you think you’ll be emotional. Better to take them for a milkshake or special breakfast first rather than standing around wringing your hands. Do not be late either though. This will cause your child anxiety. Make sure you’ve adequate time to park the car if you’re driving. Arrive there without rushing so that a relaxed mood is set.

Meeting your child’s first teacher is very special. It is good not to overwhelm them with information about your child when they may have up to 30 others in varying states of emotion to tend to. The children have to come first for the teacher at this time, your needs are secondary. If you have special information – learning needs, allergies –  that should all be passed on BEFORE the first day. Success and positivity is the teacher’s goal for the first day. Your child will idolise this person and remember them always. Even if you are unhappy with them do not speak about them in a negative way in front of your child. This sends the wrong message about how we resolve issues.

Kindergarten classrooms are magical. Full of colour, enthusiasm, innocence and potential. Parents, myself included, can be transported back to their own first day at school in a flash and this can take you by surprise. Be ready. You could have shared this experience during the last day or so with your child. If the experience wasn’t positive for you, talking it through with a friend or partner can help you to work through this. To avoid a trend occurring you should not project your own anxieties or negative experiences onto your child.

As you stare across a sea of fresh faced enthusiastic anticipation and realise people are leaving it is time to go. Practice beforehand. When you say goodbye at preschool pretend it’s the first day. Visualise some possible scenarios beforehand. This can be a very difficult moment and parents hang around wanting to reassure themselves that their child is okay. They will be and if they are not you will make it worse by prolonging your departure. I know this is easier said than done. Tell them how proud you are, that you love them and you’ll be back soon. And go. If you are crying, or about to, do not look back and do not let it go until you are out of sight. Let yourself have a moment, it’s big day for you too.

Other parents can be judgemental, supportive or apathetic. Friendships formed at the school gate can be lifelong and generally last longer than the children’s passing infatuations with one another. Try and offer your support to others and share stories. Keep busy, have things to do. Do not go home to an ‘empty nest’. Reach out to others and make friends. Before you know it you’ll be back to collect your child and guess what, they are still the same! They still love you, need you, hug you.

We’re not all ‘naturals’ at everything. Some children simply thrive at school, some don’t. Some parents find this easy, some don’t. Being emotional at my child starting school doesn’t make me a failure as a mother. Empathy and emotions are two of my best strengths. I wasn’t ready to let go of my baby, and yet somehow I’d done a good enough job that she WAS ready. I’d like to think things will be easier with my second, but I know they’ll probably be worse. That’s OK. I’m a work in progress. We all are. My new bestseller ‘What to Expect When You Don’t Expect To Be Emotional ’ will be on bookshelves soon. Catchy title, eh?


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