How to have a great first day at school

The first day at school is a BIG event for any child – and parent. Here's how to get through it with as few tears (from them AND you) as possible...

Four year old girl with plaits and blue check dress holds a handwritten chalkboard sign that says, "First Day of School".

The first day of school is a seriously big day in the family calendar for both your child and you.

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And there’s a fair chance you’ve been thinking about it (a lot!) in the run-up to the big day: wondering how your child will get on, if they’ll make friends, have a nice teacher, fit in and so on.

And while you can’t prepare for everything that might happen or hold their hand through the whole day, there are a few things you can do to make sure they’re as ready as they can be to start their new adventure…

Practise key independence skills

Way more important for school than knowing your ABC, is being able to manage personal tasks, like getting changed and going to the loo, by yourself.

Zoe Y, one of the mums in our Facebook community, says: “I trained as a teacher and my son is about to start school in September. To prepare him for school we’ve been teaching him personal skills. These include:

  • Getting water from the tap to drink
  • Getting dressed and undressed
  • Zipping up coat
  • Cutting up food
  • Going the toilet, flushing it and washing hands
  • Being kind, thoughtful and sharing

“It may have been tempting to do the trickier bits of these tasks yourself up until now,” says school counsellor and a clinical psychologist Dr Helen Likierman, co-author of Prepare Your Child For School, especially when you haven’t got the time to wait for for child to do it. But now’s the time to encourage your child to do all of these tasks independently.”

Being able to get dressed and undressed independently is definitely a good skill for your child to practise before the first day at school: there will probably be some clothes changing for PE lessons and, anyway, it’ll make the morning rush before school much easier to manage.

You can help make dressing/undressing easier for your child by choosing school clothes/uniform that’s not too fiddly to put on/take off. “If you can,” says Dr Helen, “choose clothes that are simple: skirts or trousers with elasticated waists, T-shirts rather than buttoned shirts, or Velcro-fastening shoes.”

Get your child confident with going to the toilet by themselves – wiping their bottom, pulling up pants, flushing, washing hands – is also something to aim for, as navigating the strangeness of school toilets can sometimes be a challenge in itself, as mum Mum Sarah D in our Facebook community discovered.

“Billy always sat down to do wees at home,” she says, “but, when he started school, the toilet seats were often damp from where other boys had ‘misfired’.

“This really upset him, so he started holding it in until he got home. When I found out what was bothering him, I taught him how to wee standing up. I felt awful: he must have been in agony!”

Get in synch with school-day timings

Above view of little girl in bed.

Ahhhh, the school routine – and the before-school and after-school routines that you’ll need to put in place to go with it.

To help ensure your child is as prepared as possible for the big change that’s about to take place in their little schedule, it’s a great idea to get them used to the school-day routine for a week or 2 before they start.

So, every day, aim to get up, get dressed, have breakfast, brush teeth, put shoes on and be ready to go out of the door at the right time for arriving at your child’s new school in time.

And if you’re planning on walking or taking the bus to school, it’s wise to have a few days when you ‘practise’ the journey with your child at the right time of day – partly to make sure you can get there on time and partly to get your child used to the route and the routine.

On the same ‘getting in sync with school’ principle, try to tweak your child’s day, so that lunchtime’s roughly when their school would have it, and afternoon snacks, supper and bedtime all fall into line for a child who’ll be getting home, tired out, at about 4pm.

Prep for the classroom learning experience

guided reading in primary school

Yes, it will help if your child can count a little and ‘read’ their own name but their teacher won’t be expecting much more ‘academic’ prowess than that. Instead,  focus on preparing your child for the kinds of activities their school day will probably be broken up into.

You can do this by…

  • Helping your child learn to concentrate. Give them short, structured activities, such as puzzles, cooking or painting, and encourage them to complete the tasks
  • Encouraging a love of reading. Read to your child every day to help develop language skills, a love of books and an awareness of print.
  • Talking about the school day routine. There are some fab books about starting school that cover this in lovely, reassuring detail.
  • Taking time to show your child how to hold a pencil and make marks on paper. Encourage your child to do lots of drawing and colouring.
  • Encourage your child to talk to you. Ask them to tell you about things they enjoy – to exercise their conversational skills.

Smooth the path for a good first day (for both of you)

shoes

When the big day arrives, take a deep breath, and try to relax (easier said than done, we know).

All being well, the first ever school drop-off will be a lovely moment, with your little one will be bounding off all excited to start their new adventure. Just try and remember the following:

  • Get organised by packing their bag and prepping their uniform in advance, avoiding unnecessary stress.
  • Give yourself plenty of time in the morning, so you can stay calm and relaxed.
  • Try not to show your tears. This may be unavoidable but it’s best to keep things positive around your little one.
  • Don’t be too disheartened if your little one isn’t upset, and rushes off to school without a 2nd glance in your direction. It might sting – but it’s a sign they’re excited, comfortable and raring to go.
  • Know that the school will phone you if your little one does get really upset, and that they’re used to dealing with it – they do it every year!
  • Make plans and keep busy while your child’s away. Hopefully, you’re able to do something relaxing. Focus on the positive, too. Shopping will be much easier – no buggy or little voice saying ‘need a wee’ or ‘want a drink’.
  • If you’re working, perhaps see if you can book a day’s leave? It’ll give you a few hours to process everything – and hopefully enjoy a bit of ‘me time’.
  • Remind yourself (regularly) that this new stage of parenting will be just as rewarding as the baby stage – only more fun.
  • Take pictures!

How to deal with any post-first-day problems

firstdayofschool

You’ve done all the prep, and you’ve sent them off – and now they’re home and feeling a little downhearted.

First off, remember that they’re probably exhausted. And the need for attention and cuddles, or the tendency to bust into tear or tantrums, may be more about tiredness than hating school.

So, the best thing to do, usually, is stay positive and hang on in there. Most children do adjust within a few days.

Sometimes, though, the adjustment takes a little longer. And, if that’s the case for your child, these are 3 most common scenarios you might come up against, according to Dr Helen:

1. They’re simply saying they don’t want to go

“Some children seem to settle easily at first,” says Dr Helen, “then, a fortnight later, decide they don’t like school. Establish that there’s no underlying reason, then firmly but gently explain he has to go. If tiredness is a real issue, tell his teacher, who may suggest your child goes home earlier for a few weeks until they settle down again.”

2. They say they don’t have anyone to play with

“This is a common thing for children to say,” says Dr Helen, “but the situation is usually less serious than it sounds. The school will let you know if there’s a real problem.”

3. They’re too scared to go to the toilet

“Many children are shy at this age and don’t want to draw attention to themselves by asking to go to the toilet,” says Dr Helen. “Have a word with your child’s teacher who can then encourage them to put their hand up if they need the loo. If your child’s anxious about what will happen if they have an accident, reassure them that it happens to plenty of children and the teachers will deal with it kindly.”

About our expert Dr Helen Likierman

Dr Helen Likierman is a school counsellor and a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is the author of Prepare Your Child For School, Top Tips for Starting School, and a parents’ guide to Dyslexia. She is the parent of 2 teenage children.

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