1. Put the flashcards away
Don't even think about worrying about your child's ABCs and numbers being up to speed in time for school - that's exactly what your child's schoolteachers are for. The most important thing is to get your little one emotionally ready and excited about their new adventure. "I always encourage the focus to be on behaviour and attitude more than on academics," says Andalene Salvesen, author and parenting coach with Munchkins.me. "A parent's time is better spent on teaching a child how to lose gracefully (and be happy for the one that wins) than to be puffed up about knowing the answers to the questions. Teaching children to respect others (especially their teachers) and treating others as you would want to be treated, will get them far on their first day and up to their last day at school - and through life for that matter."
2. Talk about school
“I find in these situations it’s often the parents who are anxious and the children will take their lead from mum and dad,” says Joanne Jewell, child and family counsellor and founder of Mindfulparenting.ae. “It’s perfectly normal to have a huge mixture of emotions about your child starting school - especially if he/she is your eldest and this is your first experience of a new school. Be positive when you talk about school, reassure them over any concerns they may have and don’t add your worries or concerns.”
Darren Gale, Principal of Horizon International School, Dubai, agrees. “Start talking about school, and ask your child how they are feeling. What are they most looking forward to? Are they worried about anything? Read books about starting school together, and look at your child’s school prospectus and website together, and talk about the pictures. If your child seems anxious about school, try focusing on the things they’ll like best – maybe playing in the playground or making new friends.”
"The more they can visualise the unknown, the more prepared they will be," adds Andalene. "Especially if yours is a sensitive, introverted child who does not enjoy surprises. So, a trip to the school, walking around the play area, classroom, chatting in an excited way will help them visualise what to expect. It's like planning for an overseas holiday; you google pictures of the place to prepare the journey. Role-playing the different scenarios with their plush toys also helps them prepare for the unknown."
3. Use positive language
“It’s natural to feel nervous about your child starting school or a new school, but remember that your child can easily pick up on your emotions," says Darren. "Ensure that you are always positive when talking about school. If you are enthusiastic and confident that all will be well, then your child will feel the same way too. Try to avoid using any negative language such as ‘your teacher won't like that behaviour at school.’”
“At this age children learn lots through play and exploring and this is what interests them,” adds Joanne. “When you talk about school focus on areas that you know will interest your child - being around other children, playing with new toys, painting, exploring - this is what Foundation at school is focused on. Use positive, respectful language when talking about your child’s school or teacher in front of them and if something happens at school that you are concerned about, talk to your child’s teacher privately - you will have spent a long time choosing the right school for your child and it’s important that they feel you have a positive belief in the school and it’s a safe place for them to be.”
4. But acknowledge their feelings
It’s normal for little ones to be a bit apprehensive, and being positive about the school doesn’t mean ignoring their worries if they have them. “Be empathetic and acknowledge any feelings they may have - they will also be having mixed feelings and will rely on you helping them manage these - whether it’s excitement or worry about leaving you,” says Joanne. “When they talk about their feelings it’s an opportunity for you to recognise them and help them, it doesn’t mean they won’t be ok on the day! My personal experience of my three children starting school was that it was different for each of them - what was the same was me trying to hide my tears as they walked into school!”
5. Encourage them to develop their independence
“It is important for a child to experience an element of control,” says Darren. “Children must be able to do things for themselves. They will feel happier and settle at school more quickly. There are many useful skills you can practise to support your child become independent and confident at school including sitting up at a table, tidying up after themselves and being fully toilet trained during the day. Putting on their uniform and PE kit. Don’t worry if your child can’t do all these things before they start school. Teachers and support staff will help them learn these skills, so let them know what your child finds tricky.”
6. But don’t worry if they still need help with dressing and going to the loo
“I’ve had lots of parents contacting me recently with exactly these concerns and it’s sad that parents feel so much pressure for their child to be ready to be so independent at often a very young age,” says Joanne. “We can give them opportunities to learn and teach them these skills but all children learn at a different age and in different ways so please don’t be worried if your child is at a different stage to others. Teachers and Assistants are well aware that children are all different and additional pressure placed on a child can make the situation more difficult and cause unnecessary anxiety in them. Talk to the school, reassure your child that they will be ok, someone will help them and to ask if they need it. Often children are a lot more independent when they are around other children all doing the same thing - they learn a lot at this age from copying their peers so you may be surprised at what they can do once at school.”
7. Plan a playdate
“If you already know some other children who will be in your child’s class, why not organise a play date or outing together before school starts?” says Darren. “As well as helping the youngsters to develop their social skills, it’s helpful for you to be able to chat about your own feelings and anxieties with their parents, who may be feeling the same.”
Read more: 'The best outdoor playdate spots in Dubai'
8. Start the routine
We all know getting out of the house in the morning with a child in tow can be a challenge, especially if you need to be somewhere for a specific time. “As the start of term approaches, try to get into the school routine, so your child gets used to getting up, going to bed, and having meals and snacks at the times they will on school days,” advises Darren. “Practise the morning routine, including getting dressed and eating breakfast in time to leave. It’s also a good idea to practise the school run so that you’re both prepared for the journey. Bath time and stories will help children to wind down before bedtime, and nutritious meals and plenty of sleep will help them to concentrate and learn more easily during their time at school. Also work with your child and produce a visual timetable. Again, this gives them an element of control and they can see what will happen on what days. This will also support them with their independence. “
Remember: you know your child best, so if there’s anything you think might help your child feel more settled, suggest it to the class teacher during the first few weeks.
This article was originally published August 2017 and updated in August 2019.