I remember at the end of week two of prep for our son when he asked me when school finishes. Misunderstanding, I explained that for a few weeks they were finishing early but that soon, school would finish at 3:30pm. What he actually meant was – when does school finish, for good. ‘When am I done with this prep thing?’ was what he meant. The idea of going to school day in, day out, even if only till lunchtime was wearing thin. He was done. I’d never thought to explain to him that prep goes for a whole year. And then comes grade 1. Oh dear.
It’s a huge time for a preppie starting school. For them, for mum and dad and even for brothers and sisters who may or may not be happy about having their younger sibling to look out for (not to mention the photos on day one!). The start of school is filled with excitement and anticipation. Having been to their school, experienced a taste of school life through their transitions and met their teacher and classmates, they have a rough idea of what to expect. And in the lead up to school no doubt anyone and everyone who knew they were just about to start no doubt told them how exciting it would be and how much fun they’d have.
But when it comes to the crunch and it’s actually time to say goodbye to mum or dad and venture into life with a classroom full of so many new faces, the excitement can give way to nervousness, uncertainty and even anxiety. Sometimes parents can be caught off guard as the first few days of school can seem quite cruisy but as classroom activities evolve from playful games to more structured learning and the preps start to get tired, things can go a bit pear shaped.
I wasn’t prepared for the difficulty he had separating from me that began at that point. I thought the whole school thing was going so well. But when I think about it, it makes sense. Kinder is so different to school. There are so many wonderful activities and the kids have a lot of choice over how they spend their time. While most schools do a wonderful job of settling in the preps by offering activities and games to play in the beginning, eventually they have to get down to business where’s there’s more asked of the preps than before, little (if any) choice about what’s happening and so many new things to learn. No wonder saying goodbye can get harder instead of easier.
Here’s some ideas to help you as you support your prep to settle in over the first few weeks:
1. Help set realistic expectations
At the moment the classroom may be laid out with awesome things to do. Games, colouring in, and lovely get-to-know-you activities will help the preps to feel relaxed, comfortable in their new space, valued, understood and a special part of their new class. Soon enough, time will come to start learning their phonics, mastering the art of the pencil grip, carefully crafting each letter of the alphabet the same size between printed thirds lines, reading golden words and learning number patterns. Uncertainty is a big factor in preppies lives at the moment. Talking with your prep about what’s happening in the classroom and what they can expect over the coming weeks will reduce that a little and set them up to know that it’s quite different to kinder, even though it may not look that way just yet.
2. Goodbyes can be so hard
If saying goodbye is hard for your prep there are lots of things you can do to help.
- Spend some extra time at the school either before, afterschool or even on weekends to help your little one feel more familiar, comfortable and secure.
- Ask your preppie if there’s something they could take from home to feel more relaxed in the classroom. Maybe their teddy bear or even a picture in their pocket?
- Practice saying goodbye! Might sound silly but it’s actually a fun thing to do in the comfort and security of your own home. I did this with our daughter. We’d pretend we were at the classroom and I’d say, “See you this afternoon, have an awesome day” and we’d share a huge hug. Then she’d say “see ya after school mum” and I’d disappear off into the next room. Then I’d come back and we’d pretend school was over and have another big hug and a chat about her day!
- Don’t avoid actually saying goodbye and actually leaving the house. That will only make things harder over time.
- Chat to the teacher about your little one and things you are doing to help the separation go more smoothly. Your child’s teacher will have seen this before lots of times and will be able to support you both.
- When you say goodbye don’t drag it out. Keep a calm expression on your face and say a positive farewell. This shows that you’re perfectly comfortable and secure leaving your preppie because it’s safe to do so. Not always easy I know, but do your best.
- If difficulty with separating persists for a number of weeks into the school year, pop to your GP to get more advice and support.
3. New friends, new challenges
A big part of what can impact preps first few weeks actually happens outside of the classroom! Meeting new friends, merging old and new friendships and navigating the playground are all new challenges. It can take a little time for some preps to find their ‘tribe’ which can make the first few weeks a little rough.
This is an opportunity for you to find out which friends feel like a good ‘fit’ for your prep and arrange some play dates or a stay and play after school. Ask your prep what they love doing at lunchtime too. Perhaps it’s the sandpit. Heading to the sandpit and playing with other kids who love that too is another way to create and build friendships.
I also remind my kids that they’re not going to click with everyone they meet, and not everyone they meet is going to click with them. That’s the way it is in school and in life. It’s not personal. Remind your little one that anyone who gets to play with them is going to be a super lucky friend and that if they’re finding it a bit tough, tough times always pass.
4. Expect exhaustion and comfort with empathy
Expect your prep to be exhausted as the weeks unfold. Especially if the weather is hot for their days at school. With a new routine, lots to learn, longer hours, new friendships and becoming comfortable in their new home away from home, they’re going to get tired. And with tiredness will most likely come tears.
While it often feels instinctive to want to stop our kids crying, it’s actually good for them to let their tears out. Our want for them to stop is often because it makes us so uncomfortable listening to it! Their crying makes us feel very upset. It’s actually meant to! That’s how our kids are wired to get us on the case!
If we can respond with empathy we show them we get it. That’s what they really want. Is to know we understand how they’re feeling. We all know exhaustion so it’s not hard to tap into empathy there! Get comfy and give them a lovely big hug, let them know you understand what it feels like to feel so exhausted and give permission to let their tears out. Ironically, the crying will stop faster than if you say “stop crying”! It’s quite likely that tiredness will be completely denied so sometimes it’s better not to state the obvious! Getting into a bedtime routine helps ensure your prep is getting loads of sleep. At this age they need around 10-11 hours a night. Aim for lights out at 7:30 pm or earlier.
5. To swim or not to swim, or dance, or kick or cheer or play
I just wasn’t prepared for the tiredness our son experienced when he started prep so his weekly swimming lesson was exhausting for him. Poor fella. I don’t know why I didn’t cancel it, I guess we just did what we’d always done. I did things differently for our daughter when she started school. I put her swimming on hold for Semester One and decided that, despite the cuteness overload, dancing was off the calendar for the time being. It was so much easier on her, and me to be honest.
6. How are you feeling?
When their preps start school, mums and dads (mostly mums) tend to react in two different ways (or a combination of both!). Some feel flat, sad or upset. That was me when our son started. I cried a lot after dropping him off. It was really hard for me, and school seemed to come around all too quickly. At the same time, other mums were really relaxed and high fiving each other because they finally had their little one at school! That was me for number two (shhhhhhh), until Pete called me at home that morning to ask me how I was. Then I lost it, for a while anyway! But I was mostly excited to finally have uninterrupted time to myself. It’s so different for all of us. Some are so relieved to have all their kids at school and won’t look back. Others will look at the empty car seat in the back of the car and reflect on a chapter closed.
Some will go between both feelings and throw a little guilt into the mix as well. What I can say is this, there are no wrong feelings. So whatever you’re experiencing, be accepting and kind to yourself. If you’re upset, take time to feel it and have a good cry. You’re human. If you’re happy but there’s a little guilt creeping in, give yourself a break. No matter how much we love our little people, we need time out and can bring our best selves to them when our batteries are recharged.
Jodi is on a mission to elevate mental health and wellbeing in families, classrooms and workplaces.
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