How did this happen so soon?
One minute they’re a beanbag of newness in your arms - and your world’s all night feeds, nappy changes and nipple chat. Blink and you’re suddenly facing down their first day at pre-school or primary.
It’s another gigantic wave of change to ride. For them and you. But we’ve been there too, so here are 20 top tips to prepare your child for starting school or preschool.
1. INFORM, DON’T OVERWHELM
Certain stuff is pretty important: they'll need to know the name of their teacher and that they're there to help. It's really important your child knows to tell them if they need something, or feel sad or unwell. Reassure them that during the day there will be plenty of time to eat lunch, have snacks and to go to the loo too! But don't go overboard with the finer points - kids don't need to be swamped with detail.
2. DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
We know it's tempting to paint a rosy picture, but don’t over-promise either. Insisting that it's all going to be amaaaaaazing and and that they’ll make loads of friends can mean setting them up for disappointment. Also, avoid ‘mention-itis’: school might be playing on your mind 24/7, but your mini-scholar-to-be only has headspace to think about it now and again.
3. SORT THE SCHOOL RUN
If you’re walking or scootering, do a dry run. If you’re going to be driving, make sure you know the route and how long it will take. (The last thing you need is parking problems on the day.) Point out interesting markers on the way - wave ‘hello’ to that stone lion, walk along that low wall, look for squirrels in the big tree. These will soon be reassuring (and fun) parts of the daily routine.
4. READ ALL ABOUT IT
Starting school’s an emotional challenge - even for kids who seem confident and ‘advanced’ for their age. (All those September-born alpha-babes...) It’s important to discuss feeling nervous and/or tired - as well as all the fun stuff they’ll experience.
There’s no better way to explore a subject than over a good book. We love bookspeed’s When A Dragon Goes To School, but there are loads of other great titles you could grab for their book shelf:
• I am too Absolutely Small for School (Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child
• Starting School by Janet and Allen Ahlberg
• Topsy and Tim Start School by Jean and Gareth Adamson
• Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds
• Come to School too, Blue Kangaroo! by Emma Chichester Clark
• Going to School Sticker Book and Starting School Sticker Book by Usborne
5. GET SOCIALISING
If you know any kids going to the same school, even if it’s only through a friend-of-a-friend, making time to meet up beforehand for a short walk or playdate could really help. Some kids who don’t know one another will make friends very easily, but if your child tends to struggle with this kind of thing, teach them some useful phrases before the first day, like: “Can I join in?” or: “Do you want to play?” Just practising saying “Hello” can really help.
6. ROLE PLAY IT OUT
If your child hasn’t been in daycare or nursery and the separation anxiety is looming large, pretend play with stuffed animals can help them adjust to the idea that you'll leave them, but you'll come back. Run some little scenarios where their teddy bear goes to school, and Mummy or Daddy Teddy leaves, but returns after Baby Teddy has sung a song, had a snack and made some furry friends. This should help to make the Big Day seem (sort of) familiar.
7. SET GOOD SLEEP PATTERNS
Decent sleep matters now more than ever - and you should definitely have phased out naps. Some reception classes do provide a space to nap, if needed, but if you can introduce the longer day before the school term starts, it will help. A good bedtime routine is pretty crucial - if you haven’t yet adopted ‘bath, book, bed’ at the same time every night, we strongly suggest you bring it on, asap.
8. JOIN THE LUNCH BUNCH
Of course KIDLY sells lots of lovely lunch kit and if they’re going to be taking a packed lunch, it's fun to choose something new, but what's more important is that you get them a water bottle and lunchbox they’re comfortable with and can open (as well as any containers and packets you put inside). If they’ll be having school dinners, they need to be able to use a full-sized knife and fork and carry a plate or tray.
9. CUDDLIES & COMFORTERS
It’s best to check with your school teacher or get the lowdown on the school’s policy on bringing toys and comforters into school. If they can’t bring their big, huggable night-time bestie, and they really want something familiar, perhaps a smaller pocket-sized toy - even a pet pebble - could do?
10. PRACTISE LISTENING
Some stuff about school has changed since we were there, but the teacher-teaches-and-children-do-what-they’re-told format is fairly standard. Some children are better at listening and following instructions than others, so if it's not your kid’s strong suit, try practising some simple (and achievable) exercises - ‘hang up your coat’, ‘put the book on the shelf’ - with lots of praise and rewards when they listen and do as they're told.
11. LEARN TO TAKE TURNS
Family life involves a handful of other people at most - school means taking literally dozens of other human beings into account. This is heavy duty for young kids and yours will need to grasp many social skills: turn-taking being one of the most important. If they're your first, an 'only', or haven’t been to nursery, they may find it trickier than others. You could play a few turn-taking games to help them get used to the give-and-take of the school day.
12. GET TO GRIPS WITH THE UNIFORM
School uniforms can feel very big and exciting, but definitely try it on in advance and get them to practise fastening and unfastening any buttons, zips, velcro, etc. This will save a lot of frustration when they are in school when they need to go to the toilet or get changed for PE.
PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, has made this fun printable paper doll school uniform dressing-up game. If there's no uniform, decide the night before what their OOTD is, to avoid early morning discussions. If you’re quite the fashionistas, remember that whatever they wear is likely to get dirty and marked with pens/paint etc. So save your faves for the weekend or best!
13. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SHOES
School shoes can sell out horribly soon, so if you need specific pair of regulation kicks - get to the shops NOW! (Be warned and entertained by the TV show Motherland's brilliant Last Minute Back To School Shopping scene.) Make sure they have time to break school shoes in too. We recommend velcro fastening to make it easier to get them on and off independently.
14. PLAY THE NAME GAME
Of course they know their name to hear it, but how often do they see it written down? Get them familiar with seeing it on paper. They could also practise writing it. They don't have to know how to reproduce it perfectly (schools WON'T expect your 3 or 4-year-old to be able to write!), but even getting used to holding a pencil properly can really help build their confidence about tackling new skills.
15. LOO, LOO, SKIP TO THE LOO
Schools do, however, expect a decent level of toilet proficiency. So make sure your kid’s practised wiping properly, pulling up their own pants and washing their hands afterwards. Teach them to flush the toilet - maybe even get them used to different types of flush? If they still have occasional accidents, mention this to the teacher. Potty training pants might be useful for the first week or two, and a spare pair in their bag.
16. TELL TEACHER
Give the school as much relevant info as you can about your child. We’re not talking minute detail (fave Paw Patrol character, etc.) but any big worries or significant needs, definitely share. Don’t think that school ‘has enough to think about’ - information is always useful to them.
When my neuro-diverse son started school, the SENCO (Special Educational Needs CO-ordinator) met me and reassured me that I wasn’t being over-anxious. Just ten minutes of comforting chat in his first week kick-started a brilliant relationship with the school that endured throughout his primary years.
17. KEEP CALM
We all have days where we end up rushing around in the morning, trying to get everything done at once - but their first day at school shouldn’t be one of those. Make the morning as chilled as possible. Set everything set out the night before, so you aren't stressed out by a misplaced bag or shoe. Make time to get your 'first day' pics and get to those school gates in good time.
18. NO LONG GOODBYES
Dragging out a farewell is the best way to increase their anxiety. But don’t sneak away either. It might be tempting to slip away (even more so if you’re finding it hard yourself) but your child may feel more afraid if you suddenly disappear. A goodbye ritual can help. Could be anything you like: a special hug, handshake or high five, perhaps followed by a cheerful "See you later, alligator!" Once you've said your goodbyes, leave pretty promptly. This bit’s important too - when you pick them up at the end of the day, point out that you came back, just like you said you would.
19. PLAN AN END-OF-DAY TREAT
Plan something they like doing for when you pick them up - swings in the park, their favourite dinner, a trip to grandma on the bus. Don’t overdo it - they may well be more tired than usual - but something fun to look forward to should help keep their spirits up during the day.
20. REMEMBER..IT’S NOT A COMPETITION
Starting school is a something everyone’s done. Different schools, different kids, different experiences: your child might struggle to settle, while others seem to skip through those doors without a care. There’s almost no way to predict their response, or to smooth every wrinkle or care away, so try to stay calm and confident, but ask for help or advice if you have real worries.
And best of luck for the Big Day! Do remember, if you need any guidance on shopping for school stuff, or anything else, our Live Chat Team are always here to help, 7am-11pm, every day. Just hit that purple button, bottom right.
Apple, books & blocks: Element5 Digital on Unsplash