Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Having a little one start school is an incredibly emotional time for everyone involved, particularly this year with COVID-19 thrown into the mix.
For you, it’s the start of a new chapter in your parenting journey. You’ll be seeing your little buddy a whole load less and for most it’s a very emotional time. I know it was for me!
For your child, there is so much change to cope with! Conforming and getting used to a whole set of new rules and routines. Getting up earlier, getting used to new adults and new children that they don’t know. Being in a building that they’re not familiar with. To name a few!
Whilst some children take it all in their stride, for many it is an incredibly turbulent time and it can end in emotional outbursts at the school gates before they go in, or once they get home.
It’s important to remember that when our children start school, they are very very young. Even the oldest children in the year are only just turning five. It’s easy to forget how little that really is, as our culture expects so much (too much) from children these days. (As a side-note, in England a child is of compulsory school age the term after they turn 5, which means that no child is actually required to be receiving formal education until January 2021).
Here are some practical ways of supporting your child through this transition.
Firstly, remember that you are their safe space. When our children have emotional outbursts with us, it’s because we are their comfort. They are not being nasty or horrible, they are letting out all of the emotions they have had to suppress throughout their day. It is totally normal for children to do this. Respond to them with a comforting cuddle or some kind words. Tell them that you understand how hard it is for them and that you are there for them through this tough spot.
Expect that they’ll be exhausted. School is a long day - it’s 6 hours of conforming to the rules, of learning new skills and getting used to an unfamiliar environment. All of that is incredibly taxing on your child’s mind! They have a lot to cope with in that time and much of that stuff they may not understand why it’s happening. Respond to them with understanding. Give them lots of opportunity to rest. Don’t fire millions of questions at them the minute they come out of the door and wait for them to tell you about their day when they are ready to.
Reassure them that you’re always there for them. Many children may suddenly become emotional at the gates before going into school when previously they’ve been fine. This is totally normal. Manage your expectations and remember that they are very little still and they are expected to be so independent at school.
Crying at the gate does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to go to school. It is a huge change for them and leaving you can bring anxiety. There are lots of ways to tackle this without having them torn away from you, which is traumatising for both you and your child.
Firstly speak to the teacher and explain how much anxiety it is causing. They should be sympathetic and understanding. This will not be a new situation to them - many new-to-school children get upset before going in. Don’t accept being told that “they’ll be fine” after being forced to leave your side. This is a damaging expectation and very young children should be met with much more understanding from the teacher. If this is the case, ask for a meeting and get a strategy put together. It’s important that your child feels comfortable going to school, and happy leaving you for a length of time right from the beginning.
The school could arrange a particular adult that they’ve built a relationship with to come and meet your child at the gate so that they see a familiar face as soon as they get there, or allow you to stay for a short amount of time, decreasing in duration over the coming weeks.
You could use a “hug button” by drawing a little heart on your hand and their hand. They can press it when they need a hug from you.
Leave them a love note or a picture in their book bag, or something that smells like you so that they can use it when they need to.
Don’t make a big thing of “goodbye”. Be casual and say “see you later”. Keep upbeat and talk about all the fun they’ll have before you send them in.
Be reassuring and understanding. Support your child and show them that it’s okay to feel upset and you’ll be right there for them when they come home.
Make sure you’re on time to pick them up. If your child has gone in feeling upset, they’ll be looking forward to seeing you. If you’re late they’ll be worrying that you’re never coming back. Give yourself plenty of time to get there for them.
And lastly, don’t blame yourself! This is all such normal behaviour for a child that’s starting school. When in doubt throw more love at the situation!
Good luck to you and your little ones in the coming weeks!