Dealing with your child’s first day at school

People often experience a general state of worry or fear when confronting something challenging such as an examination, driver’s test, job interview or making speeches.  And children are no different.  The start of a new school year brings along lots of excitement and anxiety.  Whether it is the first day at “big school” or whether the child has progressed to a new grade, the child may be experiencing some anxiety. Parents may feel anxious because their little one is no longer so little.  Parents now have to trust another adult (teacher) to take care of their child.  Parents may feel that they are losing some power/control of their child’s activities. When parents acknowledge their own feelings, they may assist the child to verbalise hers.

There are guidelines which indicate when a child is ready for school.  Children need a certain amount of physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills to be developmentally ready to succeed at school.  Children have to be able to use the toilet independently; they should be able to share; they should be able to clean up; they should know that they should not take items which don’t belong to them, etc.  These are important social skills.

There are ways for parents to attempt to reduce the child’s anxiety. Talk freely and regularly about starting school.  Allow the child to share their fears and feelings.  Normalise the feelings of nervousness, as everybody does feel nervous at some time.  Listen and acknowledge her fears and do not try to make her feel better by saying (making empty promises) “You will make many friends”  “Your will have a nice teacher”.

A child who has progressed to a higher grade, may be anxious of a new teacher as they already have pre-conceived ideas of the teachers’ attitude.  Do not use the teacher or school to instill fear in the child. Explain the new routine, i.e. who will drop child at school, who will be picking her up and at what time.  If the child is very anxious, try to visit the school before the first day. Try to include the child when buying school requirements as it gives them a sense of ownership.

Children need enough sleep to be able to concentrate during the day.  A healthy breakfast and snacks/sandwiches for lunch is important to keep them active. When the day arrives, expect some tears but remain calm.  Do not compare your child to another by saying “You a big girl now. Look Cindy is not crying”

When it is time for you to leave (and leave you have to), Don’t hang around at school or prolong the goodbyes.  Never sneak out, tell her that you are about to leave.  This helps you to build trust in your relationship.  It is vital as you do not want your child to feel abandoned. During the child’s initial years, parents teach and guide appropriate behaviours and attitudes.  Starting school is challenging, but as parents we need to trust our children have the ability to learn and succeed.

By Carmen De Vos

Social Worker

The Parent Centre Cape Town, South Africa

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