Strategies for parents and children on how to navigate the first big day of school

For children starting school for the first time - and for their parents - there are ways to transform anxieties into excitement.
Students play during a PE class in the Willington International school in Dubai.
Students play during a PE class in the Willington International school in Dubai.

It's a much-anticipated moment: the day your beloved child dons a smart uniform and heads off into the world without you. And with the school year in the UAE just a few days away, that moment is fast approaching.

Children often start school when they are just three years old and spend two years in the preschool or kindergarten section of the school before they start Year 1 - first grade - at the age of five or six.

"I taught this year level and it is very young for some children," says Carmen Benton, a parenting educator and educational consultant at LifeWorks in Dubai. "Many parents in Dubai struggle with the decision of whether they should keep their child in a small nursery or move them to 'big school' where the day is typically longer and the children are in uniform and in larger class sizes."

While many might prefer to keep their children in a more intimate school environment during those first years, the long waiting lists mean that parents tend to enrol their children at the bigger schools as young as possible for fear of losing out on a place.

If this is the case, however, there is still plenty parents can do to prepare their child. For starters, make sure to visit the school in advance.

"This will relieve some anxiety arising from the unknown," says Dr Raymond Hamden, clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai Knowledge Village. "Both child and parent can become familiar with the location, layout and look of the school. Seek out areas such as the classroom, bathroom and cafeteria."

This will act as a visual reassurance for your child and enable you to discuss what will happen in your child's day and where. If possible, try to meet the teacher so that your child will see a familiar face on the first day. Make starting school fun by going shopping together to get supplies; this will give them a chance to choose things such as a pencil case and school bag and get them excited about using them. It's even worth trying to arrange some play dates with children who will be in the same class so your child will already have a friend when they start school.

Ultimately, however, the most important thing is communication. Spend time talking about school before it commences and tell happy stories of your own school days and the friends you made. Make sure your child sees school as an exciting, fun place, even if you didn't feel that way about it yourself.

Teachers will have certain expectations of children in the first grade, and if you know what they are, you can make sure your child doesn't struggle. Ideally, children should know how to dress and undress themselves, change their shoes, use the toilet properly and flush it, use a knife and fork, tidy away their toys and use a handkerchief.

"By all accounts, PE lessons in Year 1 consist of about 45 minutes of dressing and undressing with about 10 minutes haring around in the hall in the middle," says Liz Blease, a primary schoolteacher in the UK. "I reckon the dressing and undressing is physical education at that age."

When it comes to learning, parents can help with number awareness - being able to recite from one to 10 is not the same as understanding the value and place of numbers. Talk to your child about quantities, for example, five is bigger than two. Concentrate on counting; playing dominoes and simple board games, such as Snakes and Ladders, will teach children how to count while making it fun.

You can help your children get ready to read by reading with them often, providing books at home, using letter sounds and letter names and drawing attention to words in the street, on cereal packets and so on. Play simple games such as I Spy to encourage recognition of letter sounds.

Finally, you can help your child get ready to write by letting him see you write everyday things such as shopping lists and telephone messages.

Help your child develop his fine motor skills by modelling with Plasticine, doing dot-to-dot and drawing with crayons. Encourage a good grip on your child's pencil or crayon; don't allow him to use a ball-point pen yet because they aren't good for small, undeveloped hand muscles.

When the big day rolls around, make sure you are well organised. Pack a bag together the night before, lay out the uniform or their outfit and ask your child what they'd like in their lunch box. On the actual morning, you need to give plenty of hugs and reassurance - and let go.

"If you have done a good job beforehand of emphasising all the positives of attending school and you have involved your child in all the preparations, this should be an exciting and fun opportunity for your child and he or she should feel more willing to attend," says Hamden.

The teacher will be well-equipped to deal with tearful little ones and you need to let them do their job.

"As a teacher, there's nothing worse than snivelling parents making fond farewells inside the classroom. Children settle in much better if parents send them in confidently, smiling," says Blease. And don't forget to tell your child that you'll be waiting for him at the day's end. When you greet your new pupil at the school gates, don't expect to hear much about the day; most children just want to have a snack and relax.

Once the momentous first day has been and gone, there are still things you can do to help your child settle in. If they're not too tired, arrange play dates with classmates. "It can be nice for several parents to take their children to the park or pool after school so they can get to know each other in a more familiar setting where there are less children around," says Benton. Let your child talk through any confusing or upsetting "social issues" that arise at school and help them understand why these things may have happened and help them solve any problems. Give your child strategies rather than fighting their battles for them.

After the initial excitement of starting school fades, reality sets in and children realise that this is something they will be doing every day. Most young children find the school days very tiring.

"When your children say they don't want to go to school, validate their feelings and let them know you understand, without trying to fix or rescue them," suggests Benton. "Let them know you have faith in their abilities to work through the issues themselves. This allows them to feel capable and it is empowering. If you listen to your children and let them talk about their school day you may well learn of things happening at school that your child finds confusing and you can help them understand these issues."

If you're still feeling a bit wobbly about the approaching big day, be reassured when Benton says: "Often, the parent's fears and anxieties can be more acute than the child's."

Published: August 30, 2011 04:00 AM


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