Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Starting school - advice for all..

In my guise as editor of School Gate, I wrote a piece for the Times Body and Soul section on starting school

You can read it by clicking on this link or by reading on.....(the one below has a little bit more detail)

What you need to know before starting Reception
By Sarah Ebner.

Julia Stokes has spent much of the summer preparing her son, Oliver, for school. He doesn’t know his letters, nor is he already taking lessons in Kumon maths. Instead, Oliver Stokes has been practising putting on and taking off his plimsolls and learning to wipe his own bottom.

“Because I’m a teacher I know about the practicalities of school,” says Julia, 39. “He’ll soon learn his letters, I’m not bothered about that. I’m worried that he’ll get stuck getting changed for PE or that going to the toilet will be an awful experience for him because he’s so used to me helping him out.”

Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of four (and a few five) year olds will start school for the first time. It’s a nerve-racking time for them – research from the Economic and Social Research Council suggests that children show signs of stress for three to six months before they actually start Reception - and also for their parents. Many a mother or father has needed a tissue after dropping their child off for the first time.

But is there anything parents can do to best prepare their children – and themselves – for school? The answer, fortunately is yes. And these tips can range from buying shoes with easy fastening (your child will need to get them on and off himself) to preparing yourself for no news (young children are absolutely brilliant at not giving information. “I don’t know” appears to be the stock answer to the question “What did you do today?”).

Anju Chauhan has been the Reception teacher at Dane Royd school in Wakefield, Yorkshire, for 13 years. She thinks that parents have a practical, as well as emotional role to play, and agrees with Julia Stokes that helping a child develop some independence can definitely help.

“Try to work on things like helping your child get dressed on their own, put their coat on and learn to use a zip,” she says. “It’s also helpful if they have learnt to tidy up games and toys at home and if they can write their name. That gives the child ownership.”

Anju’s also convinced that getting children involved – in shopping trips for uniform and bags – helps build up their excitement and motivation. “You must talk to them about it,” she adds, apparently stating the obvious, until she explains that some parents don’t do this. Their offspring can be somewhat shellshocked on the first day!

Catherine Hanley, editor of Raising, agrees that preparation is important. And like Julia Stokes, she flags up toilets as a key issue.

“Children don’t necessarily verbalise it, but they really worry about this,” says Catherine. “Find out where the toilets are, and if there is a class policy on when to go. You don’t want them coming home cross-legged.”

“Kids are very anxious to fit in,” adds Catherine. “So you can also help them by finding out about school policies, such as what is and isn’t allowed in lunchboxes. If you give children something particularly unusual, they won’t eat it.”

Mother of three Paula Collar will soon be settling her middle son, Thomas, into Primary One (the Scottish equivalent of Reception) in Stewart Melville school in Edinburgh. However, she feels better prepared this time - having gone through the experience once before with Jonathan, now six and a half.

“Parents worry about how their children will manage,” she says. “But I would flag up one thing in particular – how absolutely exhausted the kids will be at the end of the school day.

“Don’t bother planning loads of after-school activities,” adds Paula, 37. “It’ll be too much for them – and you. So hold off on those Mandarin classes or face their wrath!”

Dealing with very tired children is just one consequence of their starting school. Another is competition with other parents and children, whether intended or not. You’ll soon spot this type of parent, as they’re the ones who ask you lots of questions, such as what level of reading book your child is on. But you need to remain stoic in the face of pressure. Reception class is not a race.

“All children are different,” agrees Paula Collar. “So don’t worry if yours is not immediately holding a pen properly, or if their cutting out takes a while longer than the other kids. They are still growing and developing at a phenomenal rate; you’ll be amazed by what they can do at the end of the year.”

In other words, everything is transitory. Your child may not be able to read in September, but hopefully by July, he will (if not, then perhaps you should flag this up). She or he may cry when you drop him off in the mornings or find it difficult to make friends, but all these are stages. Starting school is a big change and your child may well need support and comfort. But the stress and the tears will (or at least should) pass.

However, school is still a complicated place. It’s somewhere children go to learn, but also to socialise, to develop and make friends. With up to 30 children in a class, you need to warn yours that he or she will have to wait for a teacher to answer a query.

When they start school, children also enter a different world of play dates, which you, as their parent have to negotiate. Remember, you can’t choose your child’s friends. If they make friends with someone who you don’t warm to, then you’ll just have to make more of an effort!

In other words, starting school can be hard for parents too. Not only do we lose a lot of control over our child’s life, but we too have to make new friends - or at least acquaintances – amongst the parents. This can be hard if you’re shy and is harder if you work and aren’t at school drop off or pick up. Try, if possible, to be there sometimes. It will probably make life much easier and help you and your child.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that Reception or Primary One lasts a year, not a day or week. So focus on settling in your own child, and don’t worry about how everyone else is doing. And keep those tissues handy.

Five practical tips for settling in:

1) Label everything
- your child is sure to lose almost every part of his uniform. If it is labelled, you at least have a chance of getting it back. Include shoes!
2) Make sure bedtime is not too late on school nights
- otherwise your child will be even more exhausted and ratty, so finding it hard to make friends and enjoy their new school.
3) If the school has a uniform warn your child
- lots of parents forget to do this, and find that their daughters won’t wear trousers or their sons won’t wear a particular colour.
4) Don’t buy all your uniform in one go
- Children grow. If you buy a summer dress now, the chances are that it won’t fit your daughter next May.
5) Check your child’s book bag for any school correspondence
- letters are often popped in here, but children usually forget to tell you

Sarah Ebner edits School Gate, the Times education blog.