Lessons in emotions

A class of school children. 'PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.
A class of school children. 'PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.
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A trouble-free start to the school year is possible if parents take pratical steps to prepare their children, says Lisa Salmon

Shiny new shoes, pencil cases and rucksacks all lined up in shop displays are proof positive that it’s time to get ready for the new school year.

But while parents can hardly miss what they need for the start of the new term in a practical sense, some may forget the more emotional and functional preparations.

These preparations of course vary depending on the age of the child, but generally the younger the pupil, the more important they are. Reception teacher Alison Sherratt, in-coming president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), says many parents, particularly those with reception-age children, are anxious about their children going to school. But she says one of the best ways to help young children starting school is to make sure they can manage their clothes.

“Can they put their coats on by themselves, are they sufficiently toilet trained?” she asks.

“And are they socialised and able to cope with being with lots of other children?”

She suggests that parents take young children to places where there are lots of other children before they start school, so they get used to sharing.

“Many children can get quite upset when they’re asked to share things, and there’s a lot of sharing and socialising needs to go on in a class of 30 children,” she points out.

Another idea is to talk about the school and teacher to youngsters.

They may have met their new teacher at the end of last term, but Sherratt says it’s worth talking about them as the new term approaches, and also discussing school and what a good time they’ll have there.

Sherratt says a nice tip she got from one parent was to get a child to help put labels into new school clothes, and perhaps mark the labels with a sign that’s recognisable to the child, such as a red triangle, so they feel involved in the ‘getting ready’ process.

She also highlights how important it is to take your child out and about before school starts.

“One of the things we try and encourage at our school is to get parents to take children out somewhere and just experience things.

“They can share those experiences with the other children at school.”

Words speak as loud as actions too, and Sherratt points out that simply chatting a lot to children is a great preparation for the new term. “The sad truth is that mums and dads are so busy and often working, and finding time to just sit and chat with their children can be tough. But just talking about themselves when they were at school, and the things they did, can be good for children.”

Talking about lunchtimes is also a good idea for younger children.

Help them to balance and carry things so they’re ready for carrying their meal tray, ask them to help prepare packed lunches (if that’s what they’ll have at school) and make sure they can do things like open yoghurt pots on their own.

“When they’ve just started school and they’re really tired by lunchtime, the packed lunches and school dinners can be a really frightening thing for them,” says Sherratt.

Parents also need to be aware of bedtimes, and getting young children to bed early in the weeks before school starts to prepare them for early mornings and tiring days.

Reasonable bedtimes are also important for secondary school pupils, and they need to start getting into a routine of going to bed and getting up at decent times at least a week before school starts, says Niamh Sweeney, a secondary school teacher in Cambridge.

“Along with that bedtime and getting up routine, they need to get into the habit of having breakfast again,” she says.

“Pupils’ sugar levels drop at about 10.30am, which is normally the time they’d be getting up in the holidays. So they need to get used to having breakfast early, and when they do start school give them a healthy snack so they don’t hit that hunger wall, when you can see their concentration levels drop.”

Parents of children starting a new school should help them plan a route if they’ll be walking on their own for the first time, and stress to them that they should always follow that route so parents know roughly where they’ll be at any given time.

It’s also a good idea for parents to get kids to reduce their time playing on computer games, says Sweeney, so it’ll be easier to be without them when they go to school. Instead, they should use the time to read, or go outside and get some fresh air.

For younger children, writing postcards or a diary in the weeks before school starts can help them get used to writing again.

“Kids think about their new uniform and getting their pencil cases before the start of the new term, but they might not think about getting ready to sit in a classroom for 50-minute blocks.

“That can be a big shock, and that’s why getting into bedtime and eating routines and getting mentally stimulated can really help.”

But whatever the back-to-school shock for kids, the new term is often a relief for parents, insists Justine Roberts, founder of the parents’ social networking site Mumsnet.

“For most parents back to school time can’t come soon enough - after weeks of trying to keep boredom at bay, school becomes a welcome relief.”