By Kate Hilpern
Thousands of four-year-olds are getting ready to start primary school, but parents are often left feeling more fearful than their littluns.
It doesn’t have to be this way. While schools have become better at understanding parents’ anxiety around their children starting school, there is still much more that they could do to support families through the transition.
‘There has been vast improvement in recent years in the partnering of schools with local nurseries and collaborating with parents, but we still haven’t come far enough,’ agrees Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY).
With research showing that over two-thirds of parents feel anxious about their child starting school – and half believing they are more anxious than their child – it’s no wonder they want more than a one-off school open evening.
Most schools already do a fantastic job of supporting children when they arrive at school through the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework that all reception classes follow. But PACEY is among those who believe more schools need to be doing a lot more a lot earlier, including providing accessible resources and tips to parents and getting in touch with local nurseries to talk them through their expectations.
‘This isn’t a requirement of schools – it’s down to them, which means it’s an inevitability that some will be better than others,’ says Bayram. ‘But where schools do it well, we know it makes a big difference.’
If schools talk to childcare professionals in local nurseries or childminding settings, together they can help children be prepared for school in a tailored way. While childcare does lots to get your child ready for school, each school is different and helping children in advance to understand the routine of the school day before they start is important.
Offering school taster days can also be beneficial, as can advising parents on doing things like a practice walk to school with their child, talking to their child about what school is going to be like and encouraging them to try on their new uniform.
‘Some schools advise parents to find out which of other children are going to the same school, so they can organise play dates,’ says Bayram. ‘Others encourage parents to talk about the kinds of feelings children might have on the first day – so that even if their child skips in happily to school, they understand that some other children might be crying. There are schools who counsel parents to hide any anxiety they have, which we know can rub off on the child.’
We’d like to see all schools encouraging parents to make time to meet their child’s teacher during the first few weeks – and moreover to extend such communications to the childminder, nanny or other family member who is often relied upon by working parents to manage the school run.
In short, while there is lots of good practice, more schools need to be reminding parents that they are there for them, not just the child. Children are learning just as much in the home at this age so collaboration is particularly key.
‘Childcare professionals tell us time and time again that what’s far more important than parents preparing children for their A, B, Cs is parents helping to support their child’s social, emotional and communications skills so they can become independent, confident and curious to learn – and ultimately enjoy starting school,’ concludes Bayram.
But, she adds, even if your school isn’t proactive about smoothing the transition, it’s important to remember that the reception year is supposed to be a gradual step-by-step change and children have plenty of time to settle into their new school life.