Starting school – what you need to know

As your child transitions from nursery to primary school, find out what skills they'll need, the uniform you'll need to buy and how you can prepare them for the change - plus how to ease their first day of school worries or nerves (as well as your own)


Your child starting school is a huge deal, and an amazing milestone moment – one that comes with lots of pressure, mixed with lots of excitement, anxiety and nerves, especially for the first day.


It’s likely you’ve been talking to them about starting school for a while now, but there’s lots you can do to get ready for and prepare them for the change.

There’s lots you can do to ease your own anxieties and worries, and make sure they don’t rub off on your child, too 😊

In this guide to starting school, we’ll talk through:

You can skip ahead to any of these topics by clicking the relevant link, though if you’re worried about your child starting school, we’d suggest giving the whole thing a read 😊

Here’s everything you need to know about your child starting school…

Is my child ready for primary school?

ready for primary school

All children are different – so though they all start ‘big’ school around the age of 4 or 5, that doesn’t mean they’ll all be at the same stage of development.

There are lots of things you can look at – which we’ve detailed in our starting school checklist – to help make sure your little one’s ready for the change.

Lots of these checks will be done by your health visitor when your child’s around 3.5 years old (depending on your area) – but you can always keep tabs on certain things yourself.

Signs to think about include:

  • Can they see and hear well?
  • Can your child hold a pencil easily?
  • Can your child speak in 4 or 5 word sentences?

Don’t worry though, they don’t need to be able to count to 38372925 to be ready, says reception teacher Karen R.

“Parents often believe that their child must be able to read, write, count and know their letters and numbers when they start school, but actually the first 6 weeks are spent settling children in and getting them into a routine.”

Checklist: Is your child ready to start school?

Shopping for starting school


With so many emotions to contend with, shopping just feels like another hurdle to overcome.

Luckily, we’ve got your shopping list sorted for ya: here’s every piece of uniform your child will need for the year.

And here’s the ultimate guide to 2018 school uniform options from the major UK supermarkets, so you know where you’re going.

Top tip: go for uniforms that are simple (if your school allows it), i.e. easy to pull on trousers, elasticated skirts, avoid button downs and opt for velcro-fastening shoes.

You probably won’t need much in the way of stationery for a child going into reception – though you will need to get them a water bottle, lunchbox, and school bag:

One of the banes of school life is losing possessions – and something will inevitably go astray. Introduce the idea of having belongings and remembering to put them back in their bag.

When it comes to labelling clothing, ask your child to choose a special symbol that is a unique mark – perhaps a smiley face or a star – to help them recognise their things at a glance in those fraught early weeks when everyone’s items may look identical.

Lastly, you’ll need to think about buying the first pair of school shoes.

Give yourself plenty of time to buy these, as you’ll likely need to pop in store to get your child’s feet measured.

If you can afford it, find a good quality shop like Clarks or John Lewis to get it done. There are ways to tell if your child’s shoes are fitting right just at home, too…

  • A quick and effective way to check if your child’s shoes fit properly is to draw round his foot on a piece of paper. Place the shoe on top of the outline
  • If the shoe doesn’t cover the whole outline, they’re too small for his feet
  • The toe area should be foot-shaped and of sufficient depth which will allow the toes to move freely
  • The heel height should be no more than 4cm with a broad base of shock absorbing material
  • The shoe should fit snugly round the heel area, held on by laces, Velcro or a leather strap.

Buying school shoes – the ultimate guide

Preparing your child for the school routine

school routine

Ahhhh, the school routine. It’s key to try and ensure your child is as prepared as poss for the big change that’s about to take place in their little schedule – especially in the mornings.

To get the day off to a good start, practise the morning routine together – getting dressed, having breakfast and going for a walk (ideally to the new school).

Give your child plenty of opportunity to practise dressing and undressing, especially.

“It’s tempting to do the hard bits yourself – sometimes you haven’t got the time to wait for him to do it – but whenever possible allow your child to do these little tasks independently,” says Dr Likierman, co-author of Prepare Your Child For School.

“If you can, choose items of uniform that are simple: elasticated skirts, T-shirts rather than buttoned shirts, or Velcro-fastening shoes.”

“I used to send my daughter to school every morning in cute little woollen tights,” Bath-based mum Maria told us.

“At half term, the teacher took me to one side and revealed that Ava’s tights were so fiddly to pull on after the class PE session, that Ava was always the last to get dressed and it was upsetting her.”

It’s also a good idea to set up routines for mealtimes and bedtimes, so your child starts each day fresh and ready to learn, and is used to the idea of a similarly-structured day.

Preparing your child for the classroom

primary school

The classroom’s a brand new environment, and suddenly your child will be faced with lots of new situations that they’ve never dealt with before.

We’d say some of the key ones are:

  • making friends
  • eating lunch on their own
  • going to the toilet totally by themselves away from home
  • learning to concentrate and dealing with learning materials.

Well, firstly, if you know of other children in your area who are starting at the same school, arrange to meet so they can play games for an hour or so each day that require sharing, then sit down for a mid-morning snack.

In between play, schedule in time to eat lunch – including unpacking a lunchbox. Can your little one open his own lunchbox? Is he used to eating with other children or trying new foods?

School dinners vs packed lunch – everything you need to know

Also, “think about the small things that will make your child feel comfortable,” says writer Sophie van Gerwen.

“Get them to practise going to the toilet by themselves – wiping their bottom, pulling up pants, washing hands – as these are a common source of anxiety.”

Try to avoid clothes with fiddly buttons – elasticated trousers will make life a lot easier. Practising toilet time in advance can help avoid problems, as new school mum Sarah D soon discovered.

“Billy always sat down to do wees at home but at school, toilet seats were often damp 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!”

Finally, there’s lots you can do at home to get them engaged with their new learning materials:

  • Help your child learn to concentrate by giving them short, structured activities, such as puzzles, cooking or painting, and encourage them to complete the tasks
  • Read to your child every day to help develop language skills, a love of books and an awareness of print. There are some fab books about starting school, too
  • Encourage your child to do lots of drawing and colouring, especially of shapes as that will help to develop maths concepts and early writing skills
  • Encourage your child to tell you stories about things they enjoy, to exercise their conversational skills.

Preparing YOURSELF for the first day of school

crying woman

Your child was BORN ready to move on to big school, it seems – but you? You’re a blubbering mess, riddled with anxiety and fear as your little one steps out into the unknown 😭😭😭

So, how do you keep it together and ensure your freak-outs don’t impact how your child’s feeling?

  • Talk to the school, you child’s teacher and DON’T be afraid to ask questions
  • Ask the school if you can watch the CCTV in the office after you’ve dropped them off, so you can watch them settle – solid advice from Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association. Knowing you can might help relax you a bit
  • Get organized by packing their bag and prepping their uniform in advance, avoiding unnecessary stress
  • Try to distract yourself with things you enjoy, especially when the time comes to drop them off for the very first time at the gates…

Making sure the first day of school runs smoothly

school entrance

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 excied to start their new adventure…

  • 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 its 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 second glance in your direction. It might sting – but it’s a sign they’re excited, comfortable and raring to go
  • Remember: 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!
  • As long as you’re contactable, 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 due at work right after your first ever school run, 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.

Dealing with post-first day problems

sad school girl

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

You may find your little one has a few teething problems when it comes to getting used to their new school.

Even if they LOVED it and can’t wait to go back, they may still be shattered and:

  • After attention and cuddles
  • Prone to tears and tantrums. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem – they may just need extra reassurance for a while
  • Really tired, and if that’s the case, bring bedtime forward by half an hour until they adjust.

The best thing to do in this sitch is simply to stay positive and give your little one support.

Like it or not, kids do pick up on our moods. If they can sense that mum or dad are worried about day no 2, it’s likely they’ll start worrying, too.

We hope no child ever has a tough time adjusting to school, but we do know it happens. Here are a couple of common scenarios you might come up against:

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

Some children seem to settle very easily and then, a fortnight later, decide they don’t like it. 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 he settles down again.

2. They don’t have anyone to play with

This is a common feeling that children often express but the situation is usually less serious than it sounds. The school or nursery 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. Have a word with his teacher who will encourage him to put his hand up.

If he’s anxious about what will happen if he has an accident, reassure him that it happens to plenty of children and the teachers will deal with it kindly.

Share your stories and advice

We think we’ve covered a lot of the basics, but are there any tips you’d add for mums and dads about to send their little ones off into the brave new world of primary school?

We’d LOVE for you to share your stories and your tips on Instagram, Facebook or in the comments below

Images: Getty Images

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