Starting primary school – what you need to know
The first day of school is a real milestone for any child. Here's how to prepare your child – and yourself – for what lies ahead: what you need to think about, what you need to tell your child, what you need to get ready, what you need to buy and do
Scared? Worried? Nervous? Stressed? And goodness knows what your child is thinking!
Starting primary school is a big thing – for you, as well as your child. But there's absolutely no reason why it should be a bad big thing for either of you. Whether your child's already in the nursery or preschool attached to their primary school or has never set foot anywhere near it, there's lots you can do to prepare the both of you for the days ahead in Reception or P1.
Here’s everything you need to know – and do – when your child's starting primary school…
Top tips for preparing your child
The more you know about something, the less scary it seems. So spend the weeks before the start of the first term helping your child understand as much as possible about school life – what happens throughout the day, how they'll be expected to behave, what they'll be expected to do. In particular, you can...
1. Talk your child through the school day
Your school should already have sent you a simple outline of the school day (if not, ask for one or look on the school website). Tell your child the name of their teacher (they've probably met them already, either at a home visit or on a settling in/orientation/taster day) and that he or she will always start the day by taking the register (explain what this is). Then you can describe, in general terms, what happens at playtime, at circle time and at lunchtime.
2. Read reassuring books about starting school
There are some really brilliant, nerve-settling starting-school books – some of them focusing on the routine of the school day; others focusing more on emotions and making friends. Find a couple you like and read them with your child regularly.
3. Familiarise your child with the school building
Walk/drive past it often, pointing out the playground, the hall, the classroom (if you know where it is). Of course, if your child's been at nursery/preschool in the same building as their new school, they'll be familiar with the building already – although maybe not their new classroom.
4. Try the uniform on (if the school has one)
There are so many strange new things to deal with on the first day: cut down the list down by getting your child to put their uniform on (and take it off), so they're familiar with what goes where, how any buttons and fastenings work and what the fabric feels like.
5. Explain the hands-up rule
Your child may already be used to this if they went to nursery or preschool and they had the 'rule' there. If not, now's the time to talk about how, at school, if you need something or want to answer a question, you put your hand up in the air – and that shouting out isn't allowed.
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6. Work on key practical skills
Make sure your child can do the things that most children should, by the time they start Reception or P1, be able to manage (more or less) on their own.
- Hang their coat/school bag on a peg
- Go to the toilet, wipe their bottom, flush and wash their hands
- Use a knife and fork
- Carry a tray
- Take their shoes off and put them back on again
- Tidy up their toys (or at least understand the notion!)
- Blow their own nose (or at least know how to wipe it)
- Take turns and share (most of the time)
- Follow simple instructions (such as "sit down" or "put your book on the table")
That said, don't panic too much if your child can't quite get the hang of everything on the list: Reception/P1 teachers are quite used to dealing with children who can't manage one (or several) of these skills yet. If your child is really struggling with something, though, it's wise to flag it up with your child's teacher early on.
7. Sort the wee extras
A word to parents of boys: if your son wees sitting down, now's the time to teach him the art of standing to wee. Toilet seats in the boys' loos tend to get very wet, so they're no fun to sit on.
8. Make sure they know their last name and recognise their written first name
Your child will have a peg and maybe a box/tray for their stuff, labelled with their name. So they'll need to be able to recognise their written name, even if they can't read properly yet. Remember: the name will be the name you filled in on your school application – so an Ollie may find his label says Oliver, for example. It helps also to check your child is aware of their last name: if there are two Ollies in the class, they'll need to know which one they are when the teacher calls the register.
9. Talk about your own starting school memories
It can really normalise the whole school thing if you share with your child a few stories about what it was like when you started school. Don't airbrush it – it's fine to say you were anxious or shy at first, for example – but, if you actually didn't have the best time of it, you probably want to edit those details a bit. Do dig out some old pictures of those days, if you have them: your child will find them fascinating – and probably hilarious.
10. Practise the PE change
At some point (usually a couple of weeks in), your child will have PE and, generally speaking, that involves changing out of their uniform and into their PE kit. Clearly, the class teacher cannot help 30 children undress, so your child will be expected to manage largely on their own (there is usually very little time to actually do PE in Reception/P1 PE lessons, as you can imagine). Help your child – and their teacher – out by having a few practice changing sessions at home before school starts.
11. Get into the school rhythm before term begins
Ok, so this sounds like a bit of a downer to do over the summer but it honestly does help and you don't have to do it all summer – maybe just the last week or so before your child's due to start school. The main aim is to get your child (and you) in sync with the school-term rhythms ahead of time, so that it's not something they have to deal with at the same time as all the other changes that will be coming their way in the first weeks of school. 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 (even if you don't actually go out) at the time you're going to need to start the school run. On the same principle, try to tweak the rest of your child's day, so that lunchtime's roughly when school will 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.
12. Do a dry run of the school run
Whether you're planning to walk, drive or take public transport to your child's school, it's worth 'practising' the journey with your child at the right time of day – partly to get your child familiar with the route and the routine but mainly to make sure you've got your timings right and, if you're driving, you can suss out potential parking spots/parking charges. Do bear in mind that, if you're doing your dry runs in mid-summer, the roads will be way busier when you're doing the journey for real.
13. Don't fret with reading and counting
Should your child be able to count to 10? Or 100? Is being able to chant their ABC enough or should they really be starting to read? The truth is, there's an enormous range of ability in every Reception or P1 class – as you'd expect when some of the children will be almost a year older than others. Teachers are trained to build on what each child knows and to compensate for what they don't. So, if your child can already read and write, great – but it definitely won't be expected, and you certainly shouldn't push your child to get to grips with either. Reading has nothing to do with intelligence, and is actually more about the ability to de-code and concentrate. And writing is almost impossible to master until a child has developed the fine-motor skills required to form letters.
Important note: if your child is super-keen to write and/or learn letters, do make an effort to find out how they teach this at school – it's almost certainly changed since you were 4. If you teach your child a different way, they'll only have to 'unlearn' it all and start again from scratch.
14. Talk positively about school but keep it realistic
Don't oversell school as a fun factory. There's no reason why your child shouldn't find school fun, of course, but going to school isn't the same as going to Legoland.
The starting-school stuff you need – and don't need – to buy
If your child's school has a uniform, you'll probably have a list of clothes they can wear, and even if the school doesn't have a uniform, it'll probably have a dress code of some sort. And then there's all the extra bits, like pencils and rubbers and lunchbags and rucksacks. But before you rush off on the world's least exciting shopping spree, take a breath and separate the stuff you must buy from the stuff you don't need to buy and the stuff you can buy later...
15. Shop early for uniform
Buy the school uniform you need as early in the summer holidays as you can. If you leave it till the last few days before the start of term, you run the risk of the sizes you want being sold out.
16. Shop smart with uniform sizes
The old cliché about buying a size up in school uniform is actually not a bad one, as many children do have a massive growth spurt in the first year of primary school. Alternatively, don't buy too much and plan to buy more later in the year in a larger size.
17. Shop smart with uniform styles
Remember that the weather at the beginning of the autumn term is often quite warm, so you may want to buy a summer dress/shorts now – it may well be in the sales, which is a bonus.
Whatever you're buying, go the styles that are as simple to get on as possible (within the school rules) – so easy-to-pull-on trousers, elasticated skirts, easy-neck shirts and jumpers and Velcro-fastening shoes.
- If you check our article on School uniforms: tried and tested, you can see what our tester families thought about the fit, wash and wear of uniforms from all the main high-street and supermarket shops.
18. Choose school shoes carefully
In an ideal world, you'd get your child's school shoes from a shop where you can have your child's feet measured and then a suitable pair of shoes fitted properly. But this option can be expensive – and, if you leave it to the last minute, you'll be sitting in the world's longest and most fidgety queue for the shoe fitter.
If you end up buying shoes online or somewhere measuring's not offered, draw around your each of your child's feet on a piece of paper and place the shoe on top of the outline: if the shoe doesn't cover the whole outline of each foot, they're too small. Other things to look for include a toe area with sufficient room for all the toes to move freely, a broad low heel and a snug fit around the back of the heel.
Wherever you buy, we strongly recommend Velcro fastenings (if the school allows), so your child can dress quickly and independently in the morning and for/after PE (see tip no 9), and a style robust enough to withstand some heavy pounding and scuffing in the playground.
19. Label everything
Put name tapes or labels on absolutely every item that's going anywhere near school: shoes, pants, lunchboxes, hairbands – the lot. You wouldn't believe what a (almost) 5-year-old can mislay on a daily basis.
20. Go easy on other school stuff
Resist the urge to buy pencil cases, rules, pens and pencils, folders and calculators. The first year at school is still very play-based – and most schools supply pencils and papers when they're needed, anyway. Hang fire on all that till you know they're needed. What is worth buying before term starts is a backpack (if your child's school doesn't give you or require you to buy a specific school bag), a drinks bottle (check what the school allows) and, if your child's not having school dinners, a lunchbox.
Top tips for the first day of school
So, the Big Day has finally rolled round. How are you going to handle the emotionally charged journey from front door to classroom door? It'll all go much more smoothly if you...
21. Give yourself plenty of time
You really don't want to be yelling and your child to hurry up and brush their teeth on this day of all days.
22. Don't spend too long on pictures (but do take them)
Obviously you want an adorable shot of your child on the doorstep, all spruced up and slightly too small for their brand new uniform, but don't spend so long snapping away that your child gets tired and irritable or teary.
23. Think positive
You've done all the prep. It's all going to be fine. Remember: your feelings guide your child's feelings...
24. Follow the teacher's lead
Some schools don't allow parents into the school building, let alone the classroom; others are fine with parents of first-day newbies coming in to help their child find their peg and work out where the toilets are. If you don't know already what the policy is at your child's school, be ready for either and do whatever the teacher recommends. Either way, be prepared for the goodbye moment to come much quicker than you may be ready for!
25. Leave decisively
The teacher will tell you when the moment's come. Let your child know exactly when you're picking them up (some schools start with half days for the first week), give them a big smile and then go. Reserve all sobbing and wailing for the street outside.
26. Don't (necessarily) expect tears/clinginess
Your child might be a little teary or clingy but, equally, they might be absolutely fine – which, after all the build up, can take you slightly by surprise. You wouldn't be human if it didn't sting just a little to see your child rush off into the classroom without a second glance in your direction but comfort yourself that it's a brilliant sign of how ready and comfortable they are.
27. Be early for pick up
Make sure you're on the school premises before the end of your child's day. You don't want them waiting inside, scanning the playground anxiously, looking for you.
28. Come equipped with a drink and a snack – and no plans for the rest of the day
First days are very energy-sapping: your child will need something to give them a blood-sugar boost. Even after that, they may still well be worn out. Don't plan on doing much more than getting home and chilling out.
- See more ideas on establishing a stress-free afterschool routine
29. Don't press for information
Your child may be bubbling over with all the things that have happened. More likely, they'll be too tired to give you a blow-by-blow account of their school day. Just let them be quiet for a while. You'll get the details when they're ready.
Other starting-school know how that really makes a difference
It's not just your child who has a load of new stuff to get used to; you do, too! It can be quite a challenge for the both of you to adjust to the demands of the school routine – and to keep track of all the special events and activities and meetings that are happening at school. that has to get used to. The key to keeping on top of it all? Here are 12 small but crucial tips...
30. Get everything ready the night before
The last thing you want to be doing on a school morning is running around looking for their reading book.
31. Go through their school bag each evening
Many schools have online info or send weekly emails about what's coming up in the days ahead but the school bag is still often the place where you'll find notices, notes from the teacher, homework tasks, forms to fill in, and even invites to a classmate's birthday party. Check it daily: there's nothing worse that discovering the note about Dress-As-Dinosaur Day on the day itself...
32. Have system for noting important school dates
Whether you put reminders in your phone or write notes on a wall calendar, find a way to note down all the school events, term dates, class assemblies, parents' evenings that both you and your partner can keep track of.
33. Expect a blip
It's not uncommon for your child to trot happily to school for a couple of weeks and then, just when you're congratulating yourself on on a transition well done, throw a wobbly and not want to go any more. This is all about the novelty of school warning off and the realisation that this is a permanent change kicking in. Be kind but firm (no skipping school) and the blip won't last long.
34. Be ready for sibling shock
You're probably so focused on settling your oldest child into school, you haven't thought about how all this may affect their younger sibling(s). Some will barely register the change but others, particularly if they're now going to nursery/preschool on their own, may feel all at sea for a while. Be understanding.
35. Don't expect tons of classroom intel
"What did you do today at school?" "Nothing" That's pretty much the full script of my interactions with my children after school pick-up in the first weeks. I learnt quickly that, after a drink and a snack, I stood more chance of a multi-syllabic response if I asked specific questions - like ""What did you have for lunch?", "Who did you play with a break?" or "What's the best thing that happened today?" Sometimes, though, your child will still be reluctant to say much. Don't nag. One thing I found really useful was to invite a classmate to tea and listen to the conversation the two of them had – always very revealing!
36. Teach your child hat and gloves 'etiquette'
When the weather gets colder and your child needs a hat and gloves, tell them how to put both in their coat pocket when they get to school. Hats left on pegs fall off or get forgotten. And it's really annoying on a frosty morning when you find they only have one glove.
37. If you can walk to school, do
It's a great way for your child to burn off some restless, early-morning energy before they're expected to sit quietly for registration. And it give you a chance for an undistracted chat. If you have to drive, you could perhaps find a place to park a little way from the school and walk the rest of the way.
39. Don't worry about accidents
Most primary schools expect Reception/P1 children to be potty-trained. So, if your child isn't, they will need to know in advance. But no one will bat an eyelid if your child still has the odd accident (more likely, of course, if they're getting used to a new routine and environment) or needs to wear pull-up pants occasionally. Most schools will have a stock of spare clothes for just this reason – although you may want to make sure your child has a spare pair of pants in their school bag, too.
40. Hold fire on after-school excitement
After a full-on day of school stuff, your child's not going to be in the most upbeat and sunny of moods when they get home. In fact, they might even act up or misbehave in ways you haven't seen since they were a toddler. So now's not really the time to invite round the kind of visitors who'd expect tip-top child politeness nor to sign your child up to a new after-school activity. I'd recommend not banking on doing much after school for the first couple of months at least.
41. Get to know the other parents
Try to get to know the parents of your child's classmates. This is less easy if you're working, we know, but even just smiling and asking people's names when you drop off or pick up can establish connections you can build on over time. These people may well become valued friends over the next seven (or more) years – and a useful knowledge pool if there's some key school thing your child's forgotten to tell you. A quick word of caution here about parents' WhatsApp groups: they can be a lifesaver ("What were the spelling words for this week?") but they can get uncomfortable if some people start discussing particular teachers or issues with the school. You may well want to mute notifications at this point...
42. Always dress before breakfast
Make it a rule that no one eats breakfast in their pyjamas in term-time. Children wake up hungry and hunger's a powerful getting-dressed motivator. Much more effective than, "Come on, we're going to be late for school!"
Pics: Getty Images. This article contains edited extracts from Helen Brown's book Parenting for Dummies.
Helen is author of the classic advice book Parenting for Dummies and a mum of 3. Before joining MadeForMums, she was Head of Community at Mumsnet and also the Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby.
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