How do you help your kid get a good start at school?

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 21 June 2018

How a child feels in their very first months of school can set the tone for their academic and social future, says speech and language therapist Christian Wright.

father and son

Photo: 123RF

On their first day, it's a really good thing if they already know someone else who will be in their class, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

"Research shows that children transitioning into a classroom where they already knew a child are significantly better off – they feel a sense of belonging."

If they're lucky enough to know someone starting on the same day, Wright suggests arranging a few playdates with the other child ahead of time and perhaps planning with their caregiver to arrive at the same time that day.

A child's relationship with their teacher is the second biggest influence on their school start.

New entrant teachers have one of the most difficult and important roles in the school, and those who do the job will take time to get to know the child – work on building a strong rapport, identify their learning level and focus on their strengths, Wright says.

A child's learning and wellbeing will be significantly affected if they lack friends at school, and those who start out with skills in turn-taking, co-operative play, empathy and the ability to express feelings (i.e. 'I felt angry when…' or 'I felt sad when..') will be at an advantage.

It can be helpful to make a calendar to countdown the days for the week before the first day at school, he says. A week is enough for their sense of time.

He also suggests taking photos when you do a school visit before the first day.

Ask the teacher if you can take a photo of them and also take photos of the classroom, where the child will hang their bag, where the toilet is and where you'll pick them up. You can put these photos into a book that you'll look at together in the lead-up to the first day.

On the school visit also do some playing with your child – both on the playground and in other parts of the school, i.e. 'Race me to the library, race me to your classroom, race me to the toilets'.

Before their first day, familiarise them with concepts like 'mat', 'desk', 'pencil' and 'counting'.

three school children

Photo: 123RF

On the day, arriving 10-15 minutes before the school bell rings is ideal.

If you arrive half an hour before the bell, the child will get too used to you being there, Wright says.

"That's a long time being there with your child when they're not sure when you're leaving, so it can ramp up the anxiety."

When the bell rings, you leave.

"Kiss them, say goodbye, remind them where you're picking them up, and leave. Don't look back. You've got to just walk away. Often there's that temptation to just go back and cuddle him one more time that'll help him. And it doesn't. What his brain registers You're going to rescue? No, you're not, you're leaving again. You've just re-traumatised me'.

Boys – who mature later – are at greater risk for challenging school starts because they are less socially and emotionally prepared, Wright says.

Kids living in poverty and kids with special needs (including speech and language problems), behavioural problems and low cognition also often have a harder time.

If your kid has intense emotional difficulty with separation, most schools will accommodate extra school visits before their first day, Wright says.

Many also offer 'staggered school starts' in which a child starts off by going for a couple of hours, rather than a full day.

"You don't have to drop them off and leave them for an entire six hours if there are extenuating circumstances that mean that's not such a great idea."

Finally, remember your child doesnt need to legally be at school until they are six, so you have a year to work with if necessary, Wright says.

Explore more Nine to Noon stories about family life –​ It Takes A Village.