Thanks to improved communications between nursery and reception classes, good preparation work by staff on both sides, and progressive programmes of tours and visits, most children have a clear idea about what they are moving on to and make the transition from nursery to reception class smoothly and easily. They’ve often met their new teacher, spent time in their new classroom and seen where they will hang their coat and eat their lunch long before the day arrives when they actually start school.
In addition, children in state schools continue within exactly the same educational framework that regulated their pre-school life. Independent schools have more freedom to choose their curriculum, but most teachers and schools now agree broadly on what makes a good education for the under-fives, so they are unlikely to spring any big surprises on their youngest pupils.
In fact it can often be the parents who are most traumatised! How is it possible, they think, that the newborn baby they held in their arms just a minute ago, is now a fully fledged schoolchild? Sometimes it can feel far too much like a chilly harbinger of all the separations that are to come.
Other problems can arise when a child, although looking forward to their new school, hates the thought of leaving a much-loved nursery and its familiar staff.
If that’s the case with your child, help foster a happy leave-taking of the pre-school years by encouraging them to start making a memory book, including photographs of friends and staff who matter to them, and always reassure them they will still be able to see their old friends and visit their old nursery if they want to.
At the same time, start talking early about the new school that lies ahead. Be matter-of-fact, calm and positive about this so that your child feels it’s a normal step and something to be looked forward to. Be sure to hide any anxieties that you might have, and don’t ever say anything – however jokingly – that could make your child feel guilty about going. Children are incredibly sensitive to their parents’ moods, and quickly pick up on feelings like sadness and loss. Mopping your eyes with a tissue while sniffing, “Whatever is Mummy going to do without her little Pudsy-Wudsy to keep her company?” will not help your child voyage off to their new school with a glad heart and resolute step! On the other hand, don’t go too hard the other way and big up school as if it’s a technicolour combination of Disney World and non-stop CBeebies. If it isn’t, your child could feel that it’s somehow their fault that they aren’t enjoying it as they are supposed to.
On a practical level, make sure your child’s skills are firmly in place. Can they go to the toilet by themselves, manage their clothes and wash their hands? Can they put on their own shoes and socks? Hang up their coat? Eat with a knife and fork?
And when it comes to social skills, do they understand when to speak and when to listen when having a conversation? Do they feel comfortable around a range of different adults? Can they share and take turns easily? And do they help to tidy up and put things away?
In fact, it’s always worth double-checking these things, especially if you’ve had to spend time away at work and haven’t been around to see how things are going at home. I’ve heard reception class teachers complain bitterly about children who demand that their teacher hang up their coat for them, or do up their shoes, because this is what the au pair has always done at home. I’ve heard, too, of pupils who have to be taught how to eat with a knife and fork because they have always eaten pizza on their lap in front of the television, and of little boys standing sodden and sobbing in the toilet because they haven’t been able to figure out how to undo their new uniform trousers quickly enough.
Of course, the odd muddle and mishap is a normal part of daily life in reception classes, and absolutely nothing to worry about, but the more you can ensure your child is socially and physically prepared for school, the more they are free to enjoy making new friends and learning new things.
To help this process along, make sure any outings to buy uniform and school supplies are light and enjoyable, and encourage your child to take new steps in independence, maybe by paying for things in shops or deciding what they would like in their lunch box.
Don’t be surprised if your child is unusually quiet after starting school. Think back to how it feels to start a new job. We all get exhausted and worn out by trying to absorb new names, routines and challenges. Your task now is to provide a long, gentle wind-down to an early bedtime, making sure there is no screen time for an hour before bed. Instead go for a warm bath, allow lots of time for a story, and a bedroom that is dark and well-ventilated to promote sound sleep.
In the morning, your child needs plenty of time to enjoy a good, healthy breakfast, get their things ready and get to school promptly. Again, many reception class teachers will tell you that frazzled children who arrive late to school after an early morning of shouting, hassle and hurry take a long time to settle down and be fully present in the classroom. Try to develop a routine that builds in more time than you need, so that you aren’t thrown by morning emergencies such as lost gloves or having to scrape ice off the windscreen.
As a reception class parent, don’t immediately bombard your child or the school with too many questions, or expect new friendships to form overnight. Everyone needs time to adjust and take stock. On the other hand, if you feel that it is not going as well as it should be, have a quiet word with the teacher to see what’s what. And do communicate clearly about any special issues you want the school to know about.
Get involved with your child’s new school – everyone will benefit – and start practising the art of asking gentle, open questions, so your child will feel comfortable talking to you about life in the classroom. Not, ‘Did you have a good day?’, but maybe ‘What’s the best thing that happened to you today?’ This basic coaching skill will be invaluable both now and in all the school years still to come.
Hilary Wilce is an education writer, writing tutor and life coach. Her books Backbone: how to build the skills your child needs to succeed and The Six Secrets of School Success are available on Amazon
- words: Hilary Wilce
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