Whether it’s at pre-school or ‘big’ school, day one is big news both for parents and children. Carolynne Dear asks pre-school principals and experts how to ensure everything runs smoothly.
I can remember my own first day at school vividly. I cried and cried when it was time for the parents to leave. I don’t think there was much in the way of child psychology or student mental wellness back in the 1970s, but I must have been ok because I hold only happy memories of my primary school years.
When I became a mother myself, after the hectic years of entertaining a baby, then a toddler, then a pre-schooler, I approached the first day of school with a mix of emotions. I was hopeful that it might lead to slightly less frenetic weekdays – the bliss of a grocery shop without a tiny dictator demanding lollies at every turn – but also sad that I was losing the small person who had been the focus of my life for the last four years.
But sad that I was losing the small person who had been the focus of my life for the last four years.
In the event, she ran off with her new friends, turning momentarily to let me know that I could “go home now” if I wanted. And that was that. She was gone. And that made me cry too as I was secretly a bit gutted that she had been so keen to move on. There’s no pleasing some mums.
But it turns out a range of emotions is perfectly normal, both from parents and students.
Getting used to school
Of course these days most children experience their “first day” at preschool. So how do littlies deal with their first encounter with schooling?
“They are often shy and quiet,” admits Abigail Carr, head of Mount Kelly preschool which opened in Hong Kong earlier this year. “Many confidently walk into a classroom holding their parent’s hand, but when it becomes clear they will be staying without mummy or daddy, there are often tears. Experienced teachers come to expect a few days of upset in their classrooms.”
And many students will be entering a Hong Kong school as a newbie from somewhere else. As far as older children are concerned, “we see everything from excitement to apprehension and anxiety,” says Lisa Kipfer, lower school vice principal at the Canadian International School (CDNIS). “There can even be some confusion as the returning students know the routines, the building and the teachers and already have friends. For a new student, these things are challenging to learn and earn. Yet most will follow the social cues of their classmates… The more confident the child, the easier they will adjust and feel comfortable.”
And if you do end up with a weeping child? Malvern College Pre-School principal Jacqueline McNalty empathizes with parents. “As a mother myself with two young boys, I know that it can be very difficult to leave your child when they are crying, but rest assured, children do normally settle very quickly once parents have departed.”
But it is very normal for children to cry and they usually settle very quickly.
“But it is very normal for children to cry and they usually settle very quickly. Parents are encouraged to discuss a transition process and strategies that meets their child’s individual needs. Some children may need their parent to stay for a slightly longer orientation period, or bring a toy from home. Music and songs are often an effective tool used by our educators to engage children and distract them from any tears.”
Forming a routine
According to Carr, formulating a routine is the order of the day. “This could include helping the child put away their school bags and books and take their jacket off, then telling them it’s time for mummy or daddy to go and that you will see them when they have finished playing at school. Give them a kiss, say ‘I love you’ with a smile, and then allow the teacher to take over. And walk away still smiling – if your child sees that you are anxious, they will feel anxious too.”
Other tips to get your children ship-shape for the big day include reading storybooks about starting school, spend time playing with the school bag and school items if there are any, talking about the uniform and practising opening and eating from a lunch box if that is how they will be consuming lunch.
“Parents often say they need to change their routine because of school timings and school buses,” says Carr. “Parents should slowly change the routines over the summer to get children used to getting up, eating or napping at different times, so it’s not a big shock all at once. Most schools offer a progressive start so parent and child can orientate themselves with the school and timetable – this is a very important time and I highly recommend parents listen to the advice from the school about this.”
It’s time to say goodbye
Carr adds that if parents stay too long, or linger outside the classroom, it’s harder for the child to adjust. “Teachers will use distraction techniques and we usually find children settle once they are immersed in an activity.”
“There’s no magic length of time for adjustment to take place, I have seen children walk in on day one without a care in the world, and some children still sniffing when they come into school six months down the line. When in doubt, talk to the teacher. But it’s important to remember that all children settle eventually.”
There’s no magic length of time for adjustment to take place.
“Parents shouldn’t become frustrated or angry if it seems to be taking a long time for the child to settle,” warns McNalty. “Instead, talk openly with the child and reassure them that their feelings are normal. Be patient and empathize. Support the process with playdates at home or in the local park to help the child make new friends.”
Kipfer agrees. “In terms of preparation leading up to the day, parents need to calm themselves and be comfortable with their child attending school. Children take cues from parents and tend to ‘sense’ their feelings, so the more a parent is calm, excited and encouraging, the easier it is for the child.”