Bumpy road ahead: How to support your child through their first year at school

Kinderling News & Features

Hands up whose Facebook feed is an endless scroll of gorgeous melt-your-heart photos of excited small people all dressed up and ready to go to their first ever day of Big School?!

And behind every camera, recording this momentous occasion, is a newly minted school mum or dad, who’s probably facing this school life journey with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Because the first day of school is a big thing for everyone!

So how do we make the transition to school and the first days and weeks easier for our kids? On Kinderling ConversationShevonne Hunt spoke to Karen Young, a psychologist from Hey Sigmund about how we can best support our children as they get used to the school life.

Kicking goals on the first day of school

The first day of any new experience is BIG! And when that first day comes with a strange school uniform, new kids you’ve never seen before, a new teacher, new rules and big playground chock-full of big kids rushing around, the first day of school is momentous.

So don’t expect too much from your kids on that first day, says Karen. “If they get into the car and they drop their bundle, it's totally okay. Just acknowledge what a big day it is and be ready to hear about it or just be ready to be there for them.”

“And on that first day, do whatever you can to make it a really easy afternoon and also give them as many opportunities as you can to feel like they're in charge - because they've been in an environment where they're having to sit still and listen and follow rules and … that can be really taxing. So when they get home, we just want them to have the opportunity to feel in charge.”

If your child has a wobbly start to school

No matter what you do to ensure that their start to school is nothing but gold stars and rainbow stickers, some children will be slow to find their happy place in the classroom. Whether it’s because they can’t find that one special friend, or they’re working really hard to follow instructions, or the playground just feels very big, not every child will be kicking goals from day one.

So what can parents do to help? 

“First of all, don’t panic! When they start at school, there's so much for them to learn and take on. It can take months and months and months for them to settle into a friendship group,” Karen says. “If they're still struggling with making friends, it's an idea to talk to the teacher. Sometimes the teacher can organise for them to sit beside someone, or when they have activity groups, to be in an activity group with kids who they might feel comfortable with.”

Organising playdates with the kids who the teachers say they seem to be getting on with at school is another way to help your child form friendships.

When the wheels start to fall off later

For some lucky parents, the transition into school can feel seamless – new BFFS are discovered, teachers are loved, and the school environment seems to be one in which your child is thriving.  

But months down the track, things can start to go a little pear-shaped.

No matter how easy the transition into school may appear, it’s important to remember that school life is stressful when you’re new to it – and for many kids, when they’re trying so hard to be good through the school day, it should come as no surprise when you start to see a few cracks in their behavior at home as the school year progresses.

To combat this school fatigue, Karen suggests turning up the play opportunities. “It’s about giving them plenty of opportunities to still have fun and play. So if there's a term where they're feeling tired … cut out those extra things after school; the extracurricular stuff and just give them opportunity to play. Play is just as valuable as any structured activities that they're involved in.

“What they need is the opportunity to realise is that there's still plenty of opportunity for them to have fun and for them to do the things they want to do, even though there's school,” she explains further. 

“I don’t want to go”: Coping with school refusal

When the love affair with Big School has faded a little, and the reality of the long school year ahead dawns on them, it’s not unusual for kids to start dragging their feet on the school mornings. So what’s the best way to deal with school refusal?

Karen says it important to validate their feelings and direct their attention onto something they can look forward to. She explains, “So this directs them to think [about] things that actually can make them happy. It's really important that we don't support the avoidance because what they learn then is that the only way for them to feel safe or feel happy or settled is to avoid the tough stuff.”

Ultimately kids will learn to feel comfortable and happy at school so they can thrive, and the more we can do to support them along the way, the faster they will get there.