This parent story is also available as a pdf (67KB) Lunches and Learning.
Going to school for the first time is a big event for a child, as well as for their family. The tears and tantrums that we hear about at the school gate on the first day, are real.
Like most parents I wanted my son's experience of starting kindergarten to be a positive one. I wanted him to fit in with other children, to enjoy learning new things, to become confidently independent and to thrive. I was looking forward to having more time to myself.
But seeing my son head off to school also came with a certain sadness. It was the end of an era in our family life. I knew he was being catapulted into a world where I would be mostly a spectator. Up to now we had been more like team mates.
I promised myself I would not cry in front of my son, because if I did it might confuse him. How could he believe that school would be great if Mummy was crying as he went? But the pull at the heart strings was strong…seeing him line up in his uniform, looking a mixture of frightened, proud and excited. How would this new experience unfold for him? Who would be there to help him manage the huge range of new experiences and tasks? Luckily I had a good pair of sunglasses to hide the tears!
Beginning "big" school is such a big step for children. For many they are away from their family for longer than they have ever been before. They may have more rules than they are used to. They have to learn to sit still and be quiet for longer periods. Daily activities are given to them rather than having ones they create for themselves. It becomes important for them to get along with lots of new children and adults. They have to learn where things are in the school (eg. Toilets and the canteen are important!), to go to the toilet at set times, when it’s okay to eat, and more. The list goes on and on.
As a parent there is so much to contemplate during this transition. I found that the first day was one we had prepared for, it was like an event. It wasn’t until the days and weeks following day one that the reality of his school life began to hit home.
There are so many things we might assume that our children already know about school and the myriad of learning they need to do there. When I took my child for his enrolment interview he was uncharacteristically quiet. When I enthusiastically asked "how great will this be?" he responded in a timid voice "the children here are very big".
It was then I realised we had talked about big school and him being a big boy and yet here we were surrounded by Year 12 boys. He was very reassured when I explained that this school went from Kindy to year 12. I then showed him the kindy classes and said "See, there are children your size". Imagine how scary that would be thinking big school meant having to play with grown up students in Year 12.
One of his friends was anxious on the first school excursion because it was 25 kilometres away from his parents. My son picked up on his friend’s worry and became upset too. 25km seemed like a long, long way for a little boy, and he had never been so far away from his family before. It took me quite a while, through his tears, to find the big worry and offer some reassurance.
Most families will have some hiccups as their children move from family life to being at school. These are some of the things I found along the way that can smooth the way.
Find alternatives for parental reassurance.
Lots of parents tell me that it helps to find ways to provide reassurance for their children. For those that are used to having mum or dad nearby to provide comfort, school can be a challenge. I chose a bag-tag which as this made it less likely it would be lost (but I bought several just in case). We read "You Me and the Rainbow" (by Petria King) which talks about sending rainbows from your heart to others’ hearts.
So off he went with a rainbow bag-tag. It was inconspicuous enough to not draw attention or potentially become an object of teasing. It worked so well that years later, at times of stress we still speak of sending rainbows.
Children will need to do things for themselves they haven’t had to do before.
My son went to preschool 3 days a week, so it was a good opportunity to get him ready for school lunches. I soon realised how many that his little fingers could not yet open all of the containers and packets that lunch foods come in. I had to adjust the way I prepared lunches. I started to pre-tear packets and only sent plastic containers which he could manage. I used sandwich holders that did not require plastic wrap.
Be prepared for anything
A more experienced mother advised me to buy plain underpants for school, as children can be harassed if they wear the "wrong cartoon character". I was grateful for that advice as I have since seen this happen to other children. Fortunately my son accepted that plain underwear is part of the uniform. When he was younger, I also hid some extra underpants in his school bag, in case there were any toileting accidents.
Practice important skills before school starts.
The new routine takes some adjustments. At the morning drop off at school, it’s not unusual to see harassed parents and children hurrying in through the school gates. I’ve come across some great techniques in getting children ready for these new routines. For example, some parents might organise to meet somewhere at a park, or café at 9.00 a couple of times each week, with the children dressed and ready for school. This gives them the experience of getting ready in the morning and gets the a bit more accustomed to the changes ahead.
Make home life safe and predictable.
My son often had a melt down when he arrived home in the afternoon. He had tried so hard to remember the rules, be “good”, and keep track of where everything was. By 3pm he was often emotionally and physically exhausted. He would also have tantrums in the car before we got to the school gate.
Being on your best behaviour and learning so much can take its toll. Teachers advised me to follow a routine at home. There is already enough change happening for children as they start school: having a predictable environment at home gives them a sense of safety and security.
Save your worrying for the big issues.
I had to learn to not panic about things that happen in school. My son got detention twice in the first term of kindergarten for being exuberant and energetic! At the time I worried about what this would mean: would he end up in a reform school by the time he was a teenager?! Did he have ADD? What could such a ‘bad start’ lead to later on?
Looking back, I can see that he was simply adjusting from a more relaxed and casual pre school environment to a stricter, rule oriented school environment. He learned that running into the class room and sliding on his knees into a group of girls probably wasn’t a good idea!
These were important years these were for my son and my whole family. There was a lot of learning socially, emotionally, educationally and developmentally for all of us. Now my son is 15 and has learned many, many things in the years since that first day of school. By the way, he doesn’t have ADD, isn’t in a reform school (yet) and has found other ways of communicating with groups of girls!