The start of school can be an exciting yet daunting time for everyone. As parents, it’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed when your child starts school, whether that’s related to an overload of information or concerns about how your little one will manage their day. I am sure you have a lot of questions and thoughts flying around in your head about your child starting school. Will they be able to cope with the full days? Will they eat any lunch? Will they find the loos in time? How long will it take for the teacher to really know my child? Will they be able to share, make friends, stand up for themselves? Will they thrive or just about cope? Let’s not even start with the academics. I can assure you that all of the questions above are completely normal.
Over the years I have seen lots of children and parents go through this transition and every experience is completely unique. One thing I can guarantee is at the start of the new year there will always be children that practically run into the classroom, some that need a gentle nudge and there will be others that will need to be gently unclipped from their trusted adult. It’s safe to say you never really know how it’s going to go– even the most confident, “social butterflies” can struggle to settle into life in Reception.
Transitions can be hard, tiring and challenging for everyone and it’s likely it’s the first one your child remembers. That’s why I firmly believe equipping parents with practical advice, at the right time, is key for a successful transition. By empowering parents, we are empowering children for a positive school start. Being a part of this process you learn so much along the way and I hope my knowledge and experience will help make it a smooth transition as possible. Remember that you are your child’s first teacher, best resource and support system. Therefore if you can appear confident and feel prepared then it will help ensure starting school is a positive experience, that will set them up for life.
Preparing for school readiness
It seems that today, school readiness can mean something very different. The focus has shifted to more measurable skills such as phonics, reading homework and counting beyond 20. As a result, this causes us to overvalue academics and undervalue key foundational aspects. By solely focusing on academics we naturally push truly important skills, such as social emotional skills, to the periphery.
What we know for certain is that children who struggle with communication, emotional regulation or basic independent skills will find school challenging. Whilst it’s important your child has a good “academic foundation” what’s more important is knowing how to support them emotionally, foster their independence and ignite a love for learning. The reality is those first few weeks are all about developing quality relationships – between teachers, children and parents, acquiring key practical skills and a growing level of independence.
Another big focus is understanding their new routine and behaviour expectations. Schools can have a very different ‘feel’ to a previous early years setting. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the adult to child ratio, as most Reception classes will have 30 children and two adults. So it’s key to remind ourselves of how much change is happening all at once for our little ones to manage, as their ‘safe and secure’ world has been interrupted and replaced by a new complex environment.
As they settle into their new classroom routine and adapt to the changes, it can be common for their behaviour to change at home, as they reach new levels of tiredness. From sleep regression, fussy eating, to an increase in accidents – basically anything that a child has control over, we might see changes with. This is why we need to provide as much stability and consistency as we can, during the build up and during the settling in period.
How to get ready for school
The most effective way to help prepare for school is to think about the whole child holistically. I like to break down school readiness into five main areas, and it is these foundations that will ensure they not only enjoy school, but thrive. Once we have these as our foundation, we can start to think about the more formal aspects of learning. In order for children to learn and progress, they need to feel happy, safe and secure. Without emotional stability there is simply no room for any learning to take place.
Communication and language has to underpin all other aspects of learning and most of the first year of school is done through talking and listening. It can be easy to overlook these, but good communication can have a positive impact on other areas of their development and wellbeing. It’s worth noting that poor communication skills can be a barrier to so much, including building friendships or accessing learning. A large part of a child’s day at school is based around friendships and interacting with peers, so focusing on social skills is essential. They need to know how to share games with others, work alongside peers, and resolve issues independently. This is something children can find really hard, especially in the first term when they are new, tired and have so much to think about at once.
Physical health is an area which can also hugely impact a child’s experience at school. School is physically demanding. Children need stamina and good core strength to manage the long, fast paced days. It also supports a child’s ability to focus, concentrate during tasks and pay attention. We need to focus on independent skills, particularly self-care and the ability to dress and undress themselves. It’s vital that children can organise themselves and take responsibility for their belongings. Mastering these key practical skills first will not only boost their confidence and self-esteem as they learn to navigate the realities of a busy classroom, they will also provide a better platform for independent learning and problem-solving skills.
School readiness and academics
So onto the “academics”. Firstly, it’s important to highlight that here is no expectation that children should know all their letters (let alone read) and be able to recite numbers to 20 before starting Reception. It’s not only a teacher’s job to do this, but it is their job to meet your child where they are developmentally. So please don’t fret if you feel that they aren’t ‘academically’ prepared enough.
In terms of more specific skills for school, I would focus on the following:
- Establish a regular reading routine. Spending time reading will not only support their listening and attention, but also their phonological awareness.
- Expose them to a range of stories and texts, engage in everyday conversations and interactions, build their confidence to ask questions, share their ideas, and explain thinking or give an opinion.
- Work on building number fluency and ensuring they have good number sense. Aim to explore maths in their own environment to support their understanding and confidence with numbers to 10, shapes, patterns and maths language (e.g. spotting shapes on road signs or counting parked cars on the way to the shops).
- Ensure a basic understanding of key mathematical concepts (same/ different, big/small, full/empty, etc.). Help them to make links in their learning.
These may sound fairly general, but as adults it’s our job to teach children how to learn, not what to learn. We need to ensure children have skills set to be creative, flexible, resilient learners. They are going to grow up in a world where at least one third of jobs don’t even exist yet, and are heavily based on getting on with others and problem solving. So a child that learns to cope with stress, make friends, and yet is realistic about the world has a set of life skills needed for the future.
Over the summer, spend time engaging in meaningful experiences and different challenges as this will help ignite a love for learning and build their curiosity, awe and wonder. Of course, if your child is showing interest in more formal aspects of their learning, then of course it is fine to practise. But please avoid workbooks and, where possible, let this be child-led, practical and fun. If they get bored or lose interest then stop, and definitely never force them to finish. Some practical and important activities like recognising and writing their name will definitely help, or if they know a few sounds or numbers.
Understanding progress and timelines
Whether it takes a whole month or a whole term to settle, we know children will do things when they are ready. As difficult as it might be at times, we must avoid comparing our children with their peers, with their siblings or how you were when you were little. We do this so often without realising.
Instead, try to stand back, be present, trust the school, teachers and the process and keep communicating. It’s okay not to do the set homework, or have a night off reading, and please don’t rush. Don’t rush their reading levels, don’t rush to correct their homework, and don’t rush to help when they get stuck. As hard as it is to watch them struggle at the time, we know standing back and allowing children time and space to think is one way we can always support their learning.
We know something tangible helps us track progress and ensure learning is happening, but rushing through book levels isn’t an indication for future academic success (and in fact can be counterproductive). Please remember that progress isn’t always visible or linear and every child will experience different phases of motivation. It’s about over-learning, mastering skills and helping children enjoy the learning process.
Whilst we cannot ‘speed’ up the settling in process for our children, we can do everything in our power to manage the change, the unknowns and the ‘what ifs’ to help create a positive start to school.
Tips for school readiness
Here are some helpful tips to prepare both you and your child:
Best preparation for kids:
- Spend time talking about school with your child. Discussing school in a positive light is one of the best ways you can help your child and alleviate any feelings of angst, uncertainty or anxiety.
- Reading ‘starting school’ theme books will help them know what to expect. There are so many books that go through different aspects of starting school, and also specific books that focus on separation anxiety. So it’s best to buy a few or borrow from the library and enjoy reading over the summer.
- Allow plenty of downtime and avoid over-scheduling or signing up for lots of clubs in the first term. Their days will be exhausting, perhaps even overwhelming, and this unstructured time after school will really help.
- Make time to play. It is escapism, time to recharge, feel in control, be mindful, but it’s a chance to learn. Children will really need this time to relax, especially during those first few weeks as they manage so much change. We know it helps release stress and anxiety, and process big emotions experienced.
- Help build their confidence by giving them responsibility and supporting their independence. Not only in self care and dressing themselves, but with their ideas and asking why they might think that. This will really support their problem solving skills
- Role play schools, whether that’s with siblings, toys or teddies. Practise different scenarios, e.g. unpacking their school bag, taking the register, saying goodbye, putting their hand up or even show and tell. Don’t be afraid to role play ‘what ifs’ and problem scenarios too.
- Practise separation. Build up confidence saying goodbye, practise mixing with different people, old friends, new friends, siblings and cousins – it’s all good practice.
- Consistent and clear routine. Children need firm boundaries, especially in times of change. Visual timetables of each day of the week will really help gain ownership (especially if they have a phased start to the term).
- Create a goodbye routine. Not only is it fun to create a special handshake or secret gesture, talking about how, when and where you will say goodbye will ensure they know what to expect. Predictability is essential.
- Plenty of 1:1 special time. Even if it’s five minutes every day it will be really important for your child (and you) to have this time together to play and connect (this means phones away and no siblings).
Best preparation for parents:
- Speak to your child’s nursery/key worker and ask about target areas. Find out any areas of concern that you may need to focus on over the summer with tips to support you at home.
- Join Facebook groups. If you don’t know many people starting school at the same time or you are new to the area, Facebook groups can be a very useful way to build your community
- Label everything that goes into school, even socks, underwear and shoes. It’s amazing what gets misplaced even with clear labels on.
- Organise meet-ups in the parks for class. Over the summer, try to organise play dates and park meet-ups with friends from your child’s new class.
- Be organised – however that looks to you – and get things ready the day before, including lunch, bags and folders. Use visual calendars and be kind to yourself if and when you forget something! Be prepared for the overload of information – there will be a lot of communication coming your way, and it may help to work out a plan of managing this school admin / logistics.
- Learn how to put on a brave face. Your child will pick up/mirror on how you are feeling and it’s important to show them we are in control and confident.
- Get to know the teachers and trust the school. The quicker you can build a rapport with your school, the better. Open communication is a great starting point.
- Make plans for the first day of school drop-off. It’s always a good idea to be busy and have something ready to distract you in case you’ve dealt with a difficult and emotional drop off.
- Trust your gut. Usually your instinct is right about whatever is niggling you. So if there’s something on your mind, it’s always worth exploring and you know your child best.
- ABC: always be curious. There will be natural phases where we see little progress, or lack of motivation. While it may just be that, it’s always worth paying attention to length of time and asking why, particularly if it’s been going on for a while. There is no harm in starting a conversation with the teacher or GP.
School readiness checklist
Here is a checklist to help you find out how independent your child really is. Please note that your child does not need to be able to do all of these things before starting school. This guide will help you find out what your child is working on next. As teachers, our hope is to see a growing level of independence for each child. We know that this will look different for every family. So please ask if you need more support in any of these areas and please know your child will always be looked after and a teacher will always be there to help when and or if they need it.
- Do they have the ability to dress and undress themselves properly? More specifically, clothes inside out to the right way round, doing a zipper/poppers up. Tights on swimmings day can cause problems to the best dressers. Try without time pressures at first, using bigger items will help too and know that a sand timer can help speed them up, and make a game of it where possible.
- Can they put their shoes on the right way round and do them up? Even velcro can be tricky when the tongue comes out. Please avoid laces unless they really know how to do them.
- Can they use the toilet and wipe themselves properly and know how much tissue to use? Are they out of nappies and stopped shouting ‘ready’ when they finish? (Really, it happens!) Do they remember to flush the loo? Put paper towels or dirty tissues in the bin? Are they able to wash their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for the correct amount of time? (No need to mention how important this one is).
- Can they tie back or clip back their hair if it comes loose or know how to ask for help from an adult to redo their hair?
- Are they able to put on an art apron, coat or an overall on independently, and with the sleeves inside out? So that their jumper sleeves don’t ride up? This is a hard skill to learn and can affect if they want to engage in an activity during the day.
- Can they follow a two-part instruction in any order? For example, “First put your water bottle away, then line up for playtime.”
- Can they communicate and express to you, or an adult, when something is wrong or they feel upset or worried about something? Are they able to ask for help in different situations? For example, “I cannot find my coat, it’s not on my peg, please can you help me look for it?”
- Can they feed themselves and use a knife and fork effectively? Are they able to open a lunchbox, hold a tray? Could they open a yoghurt lid or biscuit packet? Can they pour water from a jug into a cup? How are their table manners? There’s more of a time pressure here as lunch times are never that long.
- Have they been on playdates, both with and without you? Are they used to saying goodbye to you positively and calmly?
- Are they able to ask for a toy, share their toys, play alongside others and take turns? This does not need to be perfect by the way, as this will get better. How they play with their siblings isn’t always an indication of how they will play with their friends!
- Can they recognise and write their name? For example, on name label, peg label, capitals, cursive?
- Are they able to use the correct grip for writing and scissor work and do they know how to safely hold scissors? Manipulating smaller tools efficiently requires lots of different skills and can take time, but if they have the correct grip it will come with lots of practice.