Helping Your Child on the Emotional Journey to School

Starting ‘big school’ represents a huge change for children and their families. The start of school is a time when a child experiences a range of different emotions and these need to be processed carefully to ensure a smooth transition to school. Some children thrive with the new school environment, learning new academic skills and trying to establish new relationships with their peers; while other children will need extra support to settle in. For some children, they will feel proud to be a big kid. For others, the start of school can be a mix of stress, anxiety and nervousness. It is normal for children to fear the unknown and experience stress about leaving the secure and nurturing home environment or preschool.

Children at this age may find it difficult to tell us how they feel so it is normal for them to express themselves through a range of behaviours. At a time of major change like starting school, some of these behaviours are not unexpected. Some behaviour is easy to identify, such as tantrums and crying; while others can be much more difficult to notice, like being quieter and even more withdrawn than usual. It can be difficult for children to explain how they are feeling, so it is up to parents to help work out what feelings may be underlying their child’s behaviour. This doesn’t mean ignoring challenging behaviour – you still need to set clear limits. However, understanding how your child is feeling and why they are behaving in a particular way can help you work out how to support them emotionally.

What parents can do to help

It is very important for parents to be positive and encouraging. While learning new academic skills is important, focusing on the positive emotional development of the child is more important when they first start school. A happy and well-adjusted child is more likely to learn better and achieve success at school.

Your child will inevitably have some questions or concerns about starting school. Although it is tempting to quickly reassure them and move on, it is important to let your child know that their worries have been heard. Talk about what your child can expect when starting school and be calm, reassuring and positive with them. Do not dismiss or ignore their feelings but explore those feelings with them well in advance of their first day. A child’s fears will arise from not knowing, therefore discuss the new things that will happen and reassure them. Let your child know it is normal to feel happy, sad, excited, scared or worried. It is important to normalise their feelings by explaining that starting something new can feel scary and lots of people feel this way. Let them know it’s okay to feel nervous – other children will be feeling nervous too. It can be helpful to share a time when you started something new and how you felt. When you allow your child to share their worries, you can help them think through how to deal with them.

Preparation is the key

Discussing what the new school day routine will be like ahead of time can help to reduce any potential stress. Most children will start school not knowing many other children, so it may be useful to rehearse how to make friends. Your child will feel more confident by talking through and practising some strategies for what they might do to get to know the other children; reminding them how they did this in situations in the past can also help. This is a big change in their lives, so the better prepared your child is, the more calm they will feel when they start.

Once they start school, check in with your child and find out how they are feeling. The best time to approach this is when they are feeling relaxed. We should always answer a child’s questions honestly and always be ready to provide reassurance when necessary.

Keep your own emotions in check

Often children who are nervous about starting school feel this way because they are feeding off their parents’ anxieties. Monitor your own stress levels. Children can pick up on how you are feeling, so try to talk positively about school. Unless we make a fuss, the child will not know there is something for them to worry about.

If your child’s anxiety about school continues to cause them significant distress and impairs their social, academic and daily functioning, it is advised that you speak with their class teacher and if need be, a psychologist, to further investigate and tailor strategies to suit your child’s individual needs.

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Playgroup NSW leads play-based programs and services for NSW families with children birth to school age, offering development, shared experiences, and family support, that results in active citizens and inclusive communities.