Starting School is daunting, exciting, emotional, and I’m not even talking about the kids here! It’s a big logistical change to a routine you’ve probably had for a few years now, and a new prospect for your child and you as a parent. But don’t worry, I’m here to help guide you through it. I first started this website when Ewan, my eldest, was 3 but starting school in the September. He would have only turned 4 in the June and be into proper school just a few short months later - it felt like madness and I often lamented the loss of my baby. As an ex-teaching assistant working across early years I knew what I needed to do to prepare him but as usual I was limited on time and energy. I also had Florence at home, who at the time was a very determined and typical toddler. So I started doing bits and bobs, five minutes a day, to help get him ready the best way I knew how. I’ve written out my tips below but since those early days I have written two books about this very topic. I feel as I’ve been both on the school side and the parent side I have a helpful insight to support those that might feel overwhelmed by this big new adventure. If you’d rather hear me chat through these ideas than read the article below then here is a video of me talking through all things starting school - WATCH HERE.
1 - Support and encourage them to get dressed on their own
This is a big change to their independence. Unlike nursery staff, the ratio of adults to children in a school is often very different and they don’t have time to help every little person zip up their coat or put their trousers back on after PE. So ideally your wee one needs to be able to do as much as they can themselves. Here are some ways to play and develop these skills:
- A coat race with a grown up using the “Dip and Flip” Method shown by Florence here.
- Socks and tights – buy slightly bigger sizes to practice with, or let them try with yours. Put them on chair legs for fun or teddies and dolls. Ball them up and hide them around the house and do a ‘Sock hunt’ – they have to find them all, un-ball them and peg them to something. Put them on their hands and rub out chalk letters off the kitchen floor.
- Shoes – put a sticker inside cut in half so they can match them up to make left and right. Show them how to open them right up first, then how to do them up. Always let them try first before you step in to help. The Tales of Me website has some fabulous shoe stickers.
- Zips and buttons – play games designed to help with finger strength and fine motor skills like The Washing Line or the spraying game here or pushing pasta through small holes in a box. If you have my first book Give Me Five then look for the games with a pencil tab at the top as they are all designed to develop fine motor skills. Play dough and Lego DUPLO are also brilliant for building hand strength. Let them do your buttons and zips up – obviously at home – no one wants to be flying low or flashing a tit in soft play!
- Dressing up clothes – if you have these at home, get them out regularly as an activity. Or pop to a charity shop and let them choose a “fun outfit” of their choice to play with at home.
2 - Going to the toilet independently
I recommend, throughout the months leading up to starting school, regularly having five minute chats about their new school. Little and often is always best. And during one of those chats explain that in school they might need to ask a grown up to use the toilet and there won’t be anyone there to help them wipe their bum or remind them to flush the chain and wash their hands so they need to learn to do this on their own. Here’s the method I used to reach my two:
- Bum wiping – I use a method I call “3×3” – I say they need to use three squares of tissue, three times to wipe their bum. We count together. At the beginning they do one wipe, and I do two. Then once they’ve got the hang of that they do two wipes and I do a final one, then hopefully after that they should be able to attempt all three. Mind you, this isn’t skid-mark proof - those are just part and parcel of parenting. Lovely.
- Hand washing – here’s our hand washing song we sing which means they soap and scrub for long enough. (To the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat)
Wash wash wash you hands, scrub them nice and clean, in and out and round and round, make those handies gleam!
3 - Asking for help
This is quite a hard skill to teach but in my opinion probably the most useful one to do if you prepare them no other way. Like I said before, chatting regularly about school is useful and mentioning that they can always ask a grown up for support or help with something is a very useful regular reminder. Even when they are older - my two still sometimes forget! How I started to encourage this in the build up to my two starting school was by doing this:
- It’s really tempting when you see your child struggling to do something to just step in and do it for them. We all do it as adults, it’s a natural caring response. But in the months leading up to starting school I was mindful to not always step straight in and to let my children attempt things on their own as long as they could (and my patience would allow!)
- In any of the games we played or when learning something new, whenever my little one’s got frustrated at not being able to do something, I would always calmly explain there’s no need to get cross if you can ask for help. And then I explain all they need to say is “can you help me please?” and I ALWAYS will. Then I wait for them to say it. The second they do, I smile and say “of course I will help” – but only if they have tried first! I keep relaying this message time and time again whenever they get stuck with something or frustrated and just hope they will remember it at school when the time comes.
- Praise the effort not just the result. Try to ensure you are always saying things like ‘I saw how hard you tried to do up that button yourself” even if they didn’t actually manage to do up the button, the trying is the bit we want to praise to encourage them to continue to do so even when the outcome wasn’t quite what they wanted. Ewan tried to do up the top button on his polo shirt for about six months after starting school. Every day I said ‘wow you’re getting closer’ and ‘I love how you always give it a go before asking me’ and one day he did it and his elation was just wonderful to see!
4 - Coping with Anxiety
Feeling anxious is totally natural and lots of children might feel daunted about starting a new school. The firs thing to do is validate those feelings in your little one telling them that is OK to feel that way and it’s totally natural and there are lots of things we can do together to help ease those nervous butterflies and worries. In my Starting School book, written for the children to read - I talk about this at the very beginning so children understand what those feelings are and why it’s completely OK and how they can help soothe themselves. Here are some of the tips to help with anxiety:
- Hearts – draw a little heart on the palm of their hand or wrist. Draw one on yours. Explain anytime they are feeling worried, they can press their special love heart and it sends a magic cuddle to Mummy or Daddy and they can send one back. Practice while sitting together, pressing hearts and giving cuddles. Do this a couple of days before school and remember to draw one on that morning. A little magic cuddle button and visual reminder they are loved and connected to you even when you aren’t together. The Tales of Me website also has these share a hug pins designed to support this exact concept if you’d rather have something more permanent. They are really lovely!
- Talking calmly – every few days or so, when you get a quiet moment with your child. Switch off the telly or any distractions and just have a little chat about all the lovely things they will do at school. Mention their favourite things – painting, football, playgrounds, dinnertime, home corner. Whatever your child really enjoys tell them those things will be there and ask them what they think they will find too. Tell them what you enjoyed about school, as hearing you explaining that you went too and liked certain bit will help them to discuss things. When we share with our children, they are more likely to interupt you and share back!
- Read a starting school book together - now obviously I’m going to recommend my own one (blow my own trumpet much?!) but choose the one you think your child will enjoy most. Go to the library together or a shop and pick out a starting school book they like the look of if you like. There are lots out there. I wrote mine specifically to reflect a modern day primary school including lots of the things I experienced as a teaching assistant and a parent.
- Watch a school TV show together – CBeebies have done a Time for School series – check it out on iplayer with your little one here. Watch it with them and talk about it
- Walk to school – do the walk or drive to school as a practice. Explain that’s what you’re doing. If you walk, point out things you see that will still be there come September so that they feel familiar. It nice for them to know what to expect and to be able to start to picture it. Take a little treat for the journey home again so it feels like a positive experience for them. If they are walking along chatting about school and eating chocolate buttons it will seem like a nice and happy time – and they will associate this with school.
5 - Recognise their name
Now you might have thought at the beginning of this post that there was going to be a lot more about introducing the alphabet and numbers in these top tips but there aren’t for a reason. The teachers will start phonics and numbers off from the very beginning from day one. So although it’s obviously wonderful if your child can count to 10 or 20 or beyond or can perhaps write their own name or more, this isn’t necessarily something they need to have nailed before their first day. There is plenty of time for learning to come. What IS useful however is if they can recognise their own name written down, or even just the first letter. There will be things in school with their name written on just for them like their peg, so it’s lovely for them to spot this. Also knowing the letters of their own name is a great place to start when it comes to learning the alphabet and getting them excited about all the learning to come.
So how do we do this? Well, it’s all through fun and play of course. Five minute games. Making it short, sweet, silly, funny and all about their favourite subject - THEM. Here are some pages on my website to visit to help you get started:
So those are my top five preparation tips. Hopefully nothing too scary or overwhelming about those. It’s mostly about lots of chatting, little and often is best. Start once you know your school place, mentioning it every so often, then as you approach a month or two before try and have a chat every couple of days or so. When my two were both getting ready, I booked a special day in with them. We went out for a day of their choice, just me and them, and did a few things to get ready for school like buy uniform or get shoes and then we went for a lunch together with treats. It felt like a nice way to kick start this new adventure.
What to do once they’ve started
Once they have started you might feel completely baffled by all the terminology coming at you! Don’t panic, my other book Time For School is a guide through the first few years of school including tips on how to get your kids to tell you about their day, assessments and SATS, chapters on reading, writing, spelling, times tables, numbers bonds etc etc etc. I’ve included it all. All those things basically that you either haven’t thought about in 20 plus years or haven’t heard of at all (turns out in education things change!!)
- When they start it’s a really good chance to get into good habits. During those first few weeks show them how to empty their school bags, put their shoes and coat away and bring you any letters they got to bring home. Get in a new routine now…this is your chance!!!
- Snacks! A fellow parent told me this one and it’s served me well. Turn up to the school gates with snacks as they are always ravenous after a day at school, and a little boost goes a long way during those first few months when they come home utterly exhausted from all the information overwhelm and sensory overload. They might have danger naps and be especially emotional during this time. That is OK, and totally normal as they try to figure it all out. Hugs and time work well.
- If you’re worried about ANYTHING at all speak to the teachers. You are on the same team. You both want your little one to succeed and be happy in school. They are there to help.
There we have it. I hope there might be a few helpful nuggets in there for those of you with school starters. Mainly just stay positive. Tell your little one how much YOU are looking forward to it. Keep upbeat with them (then sob at photos of them as a baby at night when they are asleep!) and remind them and yourself it’s the start of a new wonderful adventure. Oh, and don’t forget the tissues…! GOOD LUCK. oh and p.s. if you want to have a proper sob about how fast they’ve grown up watch this!