When my youngest child started school, I couldn’t have hotfooted down to the adult education centre fast enough, to see what classes I could enrol on, whilst scouring the local paper for part time jobs in anticipation of my new found freedom. But emotionally, my heart ached at lunch time particularly, as I had no little mate to share marmite sandwiches and make flapjacks. I missed the chatter, I missed the noise and I missed the companionship. For ages, I would avoid being at home at lunchtime. In the flurry of fitting school shoes, buying unicorn pencil cases and her excitement at joining her siblings at “big school”, I had forgotten to prepare myself emotionally for the end of an era. This in retrospect was to become a common theme, right upto the loss I felt when the first born went to University.
Our Parenting journey encompasses those milestones for us and our children that bring a swirl of emotions, including excitement, pride and relief on the one hand, but often flavoured with anxiety, dread, sadness and grief. As one door to their childhood closes, another opens that involves planning, preparation and adjustment.
In this blog I hope to share my top tips for helping your child adjust to a new life at school, but in tandem with my take on how to invest in yourself too.
Some children will take to school like a duck to water, some will plod after the initial frolic, while others will be a fish out of water. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not developmentally expected for a 4 year old to love school. In Finland children start school at the age of 7 and they not only outperform us in the league tables but have been voted the happiest nation by the UN, despite reduced daylight hours.
This is what is developmentally normal for a 4 year old:
- They are still driven by the sense of self rather than others
- They are still driven by the motivation to play
- Enjoy playing with other children and can separate from you more easily
- Are spontaneously kind and caring
- Are able to show and verbalise a wider range of emotions
- May still have tantrums because of changes in routine or not getting what they want
- Whilst the limbic system (right hand brain) is formed, the pre-frontal cortex (left hand brain/executive functioning) is developing from ages 3-6.
Preparation for School:
It really helps if you can put yourself in your child’s shoes on this one, by considering what we refer to in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is our children’s “meta models”. Meta models are the filters and preferences of our brains. What makes a great school for them, won’t be what it is for you. If your child is really excited about starting school, this will be easy to find out what they are most looking forward to, and could mean that they are a “move towards” (meta model) character. But if they are more of a shy, introverted, “go away from” (meta model) character they will need more re-assurance. If they are a “go away from”, you can talk about all the things they didn’t like before, that they won’t have to do anymore. This may work well if they have grown out of nursery and are ready for a new challenge.
If your child likes process, it will help if you make lists together of all the things they will need for school, and run through what a typical day will involve.
Starting school is a big adventure, and whether your child has bags of confidence or not, you can remind them of all the skills they have and what they will be able to do with those skills.
It can really help to make some mantras together e.g I am kind, I am friendly, I am helpful, so that you can ask them if they were able to show that on a day that they might be struggling.
Being at school requires a huge amount of brain energy in responding to new expectations of behaviour and routines, to build new relationships and adjust to a finding their way in a new environment. If sitting still, impulse control, having to pay attention, navigate the toilet on their own, be quiet and be good is not hard enough for 6-8 hours a day, the fear of getting lost, containing emotions, forging new friendships, and trusting a new adult means that their “thinking brain”, which has only just started to develop aged 3 can experience overload by the end of the day. The left hand brain responsible for decision making, language and sequencing is still very much under construction. Enter the pre-dominance of the right hand brain at the end of the day, a display of emotions and dysregulation as soon as you’ve picked them up from the school gate.
Dealing with the School pick up and beyond:
Expect tantrums through tiredness and an under-resourced brain. Don’t take it personally. Understand the reasons for the meltdowns which may include:
- Having to sit still for extended periods of time
- Less play
- Trying to hold emotions together
- Missing you, missing their siblings
- Jealousy that siblings are at home with you
- Changes in routine
- Less one to one connection
- Difficulties in adjusting to learning, particularly if your child is not auditory led
- Not feeling safe
- Encountering other personalities/types of behaviour in their class
Don’t ask questions about their day. If their brain is overdone, they won’t want to explain things, or think of things to say. Children of this age aren’t very good at recall or expressing themselves on something that is not of the moment.
What they need:
Acknowledgment and Validation of what they are expressing, rather than distraction, ignoring or trying to fix.
Physical nourishment in the form of a healthy snack, ideally which contains an element of protein.
Emotional Nourishment in the form of connection in a non-verbal way. Hugs always speak louder than words. If your child’s love language is Physical touch, they will really miss your “physical presence” in their day.
Time: Try to plan your 10-15 minutes of un-interrupted time (excluding bedtime reading)by looking at your schedule at the beginning of the week . Even if you can’t manage this everyday, if you’ve planned it, you’ve got a fighting chance of it happening.
Space: once home to offer space which is led by them to reset and recharge, whether that’s time outside, alone time, being with you. Meet them where they want to be met.
Consider extra-curricular life carefully at this point. Try not to pack in too much after school. The most important consideration is asking yourself if your child is getting enough Play, downtime and sleep
I can still remember my sons having to be peeled away from me when they first started nursery. The guilt would sit with me all morning, whilst, I was re-assured that their protests were soon allayed by the Brio train set. Years later, I now understand that this is a sign of healthy and secure attachment.
We can fall into some unhelpful language patterns at drop off if our children are distressed, which dismisses their emotions. A great way of acknowledging and validating their distress, but kindly asserting a boundary is saying something like,
“You are upset because I have to leave, I’ll be back at home time and I look forward to giving you a huge hug then”.
I’ve written a separate blog on the hectic and often wobbly Morning routine, you can find it here:
I started this piece with the swirl of emotions that will accompany the beginning of school life. So give yourself time to recognise and accept these feelings, knowing that they will ease as you find your new groove and routine. While you do this being mindful of any adjustments in your flow that you could make to help you.
You may want to look at ways you can Delete, Delegate, or Simplify (DDS)anything that could interfere with you not being fully resourced to cope with the change in schedule or the increased tantrums or un-coperation that may occur in this settling in period for your child.
You are merely human, not superhuman, neither are you a robot, or a need fulfiller for everyone else. Unfortunately there is no reward for martyrdom. To avoid developing “rushing parent syndrome” have a Family meeting and discuss how you can run your family as a team with shared ownership of your home. Developing a “Get ready for school” plan and a Chore Timetable takes the pressure off you and promotes your childrens’ personal responsibility .
Here is a list of some tasks that developmentally most 4/5 year olds are capable of helping out with:
- Help with Laundry
- Dust or sweep floor
- Hang up coat
- Help put food on plates
- Clear & Clean own plate
- Prepare cold cereal
- Put away toys/books/clothes
Finally remember to fully fuel and Resource yourself for school pick up. Make sure you are fed and watered and have given yourself the space in the car journey/walk/train journey to “park” your work/business head, to switch to Mum head so you can fully connect and be fully present with what’s thrown at you after school.
Quick Summary: High five
- Acknowledge your feelings and Adjust your flow to steady your emotions
- DDS: Delete, Delegate or Simplify your schedule outside and inside the home
- Give space to you to re-connect with your “Mum head” after work. Re-fuel to re-resource
- Give space for your child by not asking questions
- Expect tantrums, un-co-cooperativeness or grumpiness due to brain overload and tiredness
You can find my blog on handling tantrums here
If you feel that your child is overly anxious as a result of starting school, I will be running another how to help an anxious child workshop this Autumn. Details of all my workshops can be found on my facebook page here
I leave you with one of my favourite pieces of writing which comforts me when I’m feeling sad with “empty nest syndrome”.
All my best wishes for the start of term.