First school term: How to survive

The first sign may have been the Thomas train hurled across the room; the book slammed shut; or the lovingly prepared pasta pesto on the floor: it’s early September and things at home are not as they should be. Your darling – just starting nursery, primary or secondary – is struggling. Welcome to the world of a child in their first term of an educational step-change. The symptoms are remarkably similar across the ages: exhaustion, sulks, the occasional tantrum. And that’s just you. Imagine what it’s like for your poor kid.

For all those struggling, we’ve pulled together a first school term survival guide with tips from teachers and educational experts.

Let’s face it, we all do the prep: we read starting-nursery picture books with our toddlers, we play word games with our four-year-olds, and we practice the bus route with our 11-year olds. But no matter what we do, there’s always a moment, however brief, where we think, is this the new reality? The answer, obviously, is no; but here are some tips to refer to in the next month or two.

FROM HOME TO NURSERY

First school term: How to survive

Moving from the security of home to a room filled with at least a dozen other two- and three-year-olds is a shock to the system.

1) Manage the separation sensitively.

If the nursery offers a period of transition, where you can sit in the room while your child gets comfortable, by all means, take advantage of it. However, at some point, you will need to leave, and for many kids, anticipating that moment is the hardest part. “Every teacher will tell you that [a child] will keep crying as long as his or her parent is in sight,” says Sabine Hook, former primary teacher and early years educational consultant at Holland Park Tuition and Education Consultants. Give your little one a kiss and cuddle and make your exit quickly; if you’re worried call the nursery later to check in. In most cases, children settle very quickly once their parent leaves. Ask if your son or daughter can bring in a special toy as a transition object.

2) Keep an eye on how tired your child is.

It’s not unusual that children have to drop a nap when they start nursery, so allow your son or daughter to miss a day occasionally if necessary. If childcare doesn’t permit that, go for an early bedtime. Regardless, just being at the nursery can be exhausting, so be as flexible as possible. “You want it always to be something to look forward to, so play it by ear, and see how they are handling it,” Hook says.

3) Encourage independence.

Children are empowered by small acts of independence: maybe it’s putting on their shoes, or their coats, or simply parking their scooter in the scooter park. Those small moves can go a long way to making the child feel in control. You’ll also likely be reinforcing what they are being encouraged to do at the nursery.

4) Remember, it’s nursery, not school.

Not a few parents worry that nursery isn’t academic enough. Sarah Raffray, the headmistress at St. Augustine’s Priory, an all-through girl’s school in Ealing, says, “We’re not looking at the output when they are so little. The nursery is about learning through play, about learning to learn.” Hook adds that every school introduces reading and phonics at Reception, so don’t worry too much about anticipating that in the Nursery. “When they’re ready, they’re ready,” she says, adding that I-Spy and reading picture books together can lay a strong foundation for phonics and reading.

FROM NURSERY TO PRIMARY

Change

This can be an easier transition, particularly if the child is going to primary in the same setting as their nursery; or if the child has an older sibling at the school. Still, it can be quite a change.

1) Talk to your child about how Reception is different from the nursery.

Ask your child’s teacher if you can have a copy of the weekly timetable, and talk to your child about what the plan is that day, Rebecca Leviston, Head of Lower School at Ravenscourt Park Preparatory School (RPPS), recommends. In some schools, children may travel to a different room for an art class – and the simple act of navigating a bigger space can seem overwhelming.

2) Keep an open line of communication with your child’s teacher.

“It’s best to open up and talk to us about your child. It’s really important that as teachers that we really understand them as people,” Leviston says. She points out that some children make it very clear that they are struggling, which can make a teacher’s job easier. However, others keep their emotions in check at school and express them at home. Make sure you raise any concerns to the teacher.

3) Keep increasing your child’s independence.

Make sure that their toilet use is as independent as possible; go back to old training routines should there be any regression, Leviston says. Also, encouraging the use of a knife and fork at home can increase confidence at school lunchtime.

4) Remember they all get there in the end.

Reception is really about physical development, communication, understanding rules, and working with others, Hook reminds us. Be patient with the academics: some children gallop ahead while others take it more carefully. Raffray cautions parents not to compare their children to others. Advancing through the reading scheme, for example, “is not trophy-hunting,” she says. Educators also advise to not worry too much about homework. “You can actually hinder their learning by putting that subtle pressure on children,” Leviston says. Again, the message is, trust the school. “No matter what your child goes through, we have seen through a diversity of experiences that they always get there in the end,” Leviston says.

PRIMARY TO SECONDARY

The move to secondary marks a dramatic shift in independence, which can make for a tricky transition for both child and parent.

1) Big kids are small again.

The most obvious change in secondary is physical. “A lot of youngsters come into secondary having been a big fish in the small pond [at primary]; they are suddenly swamped in terms of the size of the school and the size of students,” says Camilla Smiley, secondary school consultant at Holland Park Tuition and Education Consultants. St. Augustine’s Priory’s Raffray agrees: “Moving up is a challenge. It’s the sense of being one child in the midst of hundreds.” Add to this that now your Year 7 child is moving from class to class for different subjects, and they are often overwhelmed. “The learning curve is very sharp,” Smiley says.

2) Help your child get organised.

Here a little help goes a long way. Help them get their backpack ready the night before. Smiley recommends printing out a copy of the timetable and hanging it near where your child stores his or her bag so they have it to hand when they pack. Help them think through what homework is due the next day, later in the week and next week to foster basic study skills.

3) Be proactive with the teacher.

Compared to the cosy relationship that you may have had with your child’s primary teachers, secondary teachers are necessarily much more removed. For one, your child has different teachers for each subject; and secondly, as your child is likely to be getting to school on their own, you don’t have the daily interaction of drop-off. Smiley recommends reaching out early to the form teacher by email or in person to establish a relationship.

4) Keep an eye on homework.

Year 7s tend to be very keen to get things right in all aspects of school (Smiley says not to expect this to last past Year 9!) and can overwork their homework. Most teachers will recommend an amount of time to spend on a particular assignment. Review that timetable with your child, and speak to the teacher if they consistently go over the recommended time.

By Christmas, hopefully, you’ll have been through the worst of it.

In fact, as often as not, the simple act of returning after the first half-term makes what was once so strange and scary seem familiar. Regardless of when it happens, though, remember, as Raffray says “Every child really is unique; that’s not just the school talking.”