This is a guest post by Ryan Lowe, Clinical Director at The Therapeutic Consultants.
In this country we start children at school very early in comparison to many other countries. By itself this isn’t a problem, but we also don’t pay much attention to helping children settle in to new settings and learn to feel safe in large, unfamiliar groups. Children have very strong survival instincts, and at this age their instinct tells them to keep close to the carer they trust as they know they are not big and strong enough to look after themselves in a situation of danger. So when we then take children to a school they are unfamiliar with and ask them to stay with people they have never met, these instincts come in to play and they can cling to us rather than be happy to let us go.
The first thing of huge importance is preparation. It’s important to talk to your child a lot about the new school in a very casual and matter of fact way. If you are driving past the new route you will take to school then point out the road you will walk down. If you are arranging activities then talk about what time you will pick them up from school, or how tired they might be on the first week while they get used to it.
Children will definitely take their cues from the parents. The same instincts which make them cling will cause them to look to parents and closely read their faces if they sense danger, so the way you talk about school will make a difference. Many parents feel sad and anxious about leaving their child at school for the first time and that is really understandable. If you feel this way then it is important to talk to your child about it as they will read it in your tone or voice or expression anyway. It’s better to have it out in the open and then perhaps they can talk to you about their own worries too.
However, by the time the first day of school comes it is essential to have worked these things out for yourself and your child and be able to start with confidence. As I mentioned, your child will take cues from you; if you are wavering or anxious they will think there is a reason to be scared, and when you are scared you should definitely cling to your parent. At this point you need to be strong and give your child the gift of your strength. As long as your child is relatively emotionally stable and healthy they will be fine at school and your confidence will help them know this.
If you feel that your child isn’t going to manage for any reason—there has been a trauma in the family or they are particularly anxious—then this is something to discuss with the school beforehand and put a plan in place with the teachers. It may also be helpful to speak to a professional about it so you can feel confident that whatever your plan is, it is a solid one that’s right for your child. If you are clear that the plan you have is good then you can help them carry it out with confidence. If you are wavering then your child will sense it and cling to you all the more tightly.
The last thing to bear in mind is that school can be a wonderful and exciting place for children to make social links and become part of a wider social community in which they foster their strengths and learn about themselves. If you can help them start with confidence it’s a great beginning to their journey of discovering the wider world.