Preparing for School
Why starting early matters
Anna Kelsey-Sugg :
It might seem a little early to start discussing your child's first day of school, but preparing children well in advance for this big step in their lives is extremely beneficial, says parenting and education expert Jenni Connor.
"Preparing the ground is vital and this is why it's best to start thinking about it now," says Jenni, author of Your Child's First Year at School published by Early Childhood Australia.
But preparation isn't just about making sure your child is ready to learn to read and count. Empowering children with confidence is the key to a successful transition. "There's a heck of a lot of research [see that of Sue Dockett and Bob Perry from the University of Western Sydney] into effective, successful transitions for children across this bridge into school," says Jenni, "and there's a consistent finding that it's not so much knowing stuff, knowing letters of the alphabet or how to count to ten. That's good, but the vital thing is knowing what you're going into and feeling confident; confident in the relationships that you have with your family and friends and having well developed social skills."
She says it's a sentiment educators agree with. "Any teacher will tell you the same: 'I can teach them to write their name - they'll do that on their first day!' Most of all it's about the child getting to know the situation they're going into and being ready to settle in, fit in and enjoy this new place called school."
It's a good idea for parents to spend the few months leading up to the new school year visiting different schools to select the one they think will suit their child. "Have a chat," says Jenni. "Chat to the principal, to the junior head, to the person who's going to be most responsible for your child. Spend that time getting to know the people who are going to be looking after your child - helping you to bring up your child."
Once you've chosen a school, Jenni recommends spending plenty of time there before the year kicks off. "Get to know the playground. Say to your child, 'Let's have a go on these monkey bars. How high are they? Which ones do you feel safe and confident on?' so they have that sense of familiarity. Walk around the school on the weekend and say, 'There are the toilets and that's going to be your room'. Explain where your child will eat their lunch and who they will go to if they get scared or fall over."
All of this, she says, will assist a child in making the social adjustment into school. And it's worth the effort: "Social adjustment comes out absolutely as the prime mover in success or not. If the child has real difficulties in adjusting they're going to struggle."
She offers five other tips for parents preparing their child for school:
Build relationships: "The absolute key to successful transitions is relationships - between the parent and teacher, the parent and key staff, and the child and staff. These have to be built up over time, but you begin this in the lead-up. Find opportunities before your child starts. If you're walking around the school, ask parents if their child will be attending. Then you get to know another parent and your child gets to know another child. Having a familiar face is important."
Practice being able to operate in a larger group: "This is something you could do at home. You could have a few more people over and help the child to realise they can't always get 'first go' and that they may have to wait to get attention - because in a group of 21 to 30 children they are not going to be the only star on the horizon and they need to be independent and follow directions. Gently say 'It will be your turn next' - and make sure you get back to them soon!"
Build independence: "Get children to do things like help you set the table, help you to get ready to go on a trip, pack their own suitcases. Ask them to help you put away the groceries, or feed the cat; gradually give them responsibility."
Talk positively about school - but don't overdo it: "I think there might even be a sense of disappointment for some children; they think, 'This was supposed to be so wonderful, I didn't learn to read and I've been here a whole day!'"
Build confidence: "If a child knows how to put their clothes on, do up their shoes, open their lunchbox and look after their own belongings, then they'll be more confident. These things are part of social adjustment, and they can all be practiced at home."
With confidence, says Jenni, comes a willingness to learn. "If children believe they are smart and can learn things then they'll reach out to new knowledge and be prepared to take risks. Because learning is a risk, it's walking into an absolutely unknown."
Her final recommendation for parents is a big one and worth repeating: "Reading, reading, reading, reading. Reading stories, telling stories, sharing stories until you're blue in the face. Reading stories, hearing stories and having conversations with adults are the best language builders in the world - and language underpins everything a child needs to do at school."
For anyone feeling overwhelmed by the process of preparation ahead, Jenni is quick to reassure. "Transitions can be and usually are really exciting, positive times". But, put simply, "if we move house or we move jobs or we are changing environments, it helps our anxiety levels if we've got a bit of preparation.
"All you can do is say that it's a big step in life, but it's a step we've all had to take and it's easier if you know someone is there to support you."
It's also a step made much easier and smoother by undertaking some simple preparation processes over the next few months. Good luck!
(Anna Kelsey-Sugg is community coordinator with ABC Education).