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for schools, parents and carers

Getting your child ready to start school by Dr Tamara Scully, Clinical Psychologist and Expert in The Wellbeing Hub

Making the transition to a new school can feel very daunting. Many children and young people will be feeling anxious about the prospect and will be worrying about many things, ‘who will I sit next to at lunch’, ‘will I be able to do the maths problems’, ‘will my teachers know that I find spellings hard’. Our brains really struggle with high levels of unpredictability and although school is massively important for physical and emotional wellbeing, for some children (not all) the transition can be difficult.

Feeling worried is normal.

It is normal for children to feel worried about starting school and it’s important that we recognise their worries as legitimate. This sounds easy but it can be difficult, particularly if we never struggled with these particular worries ourselves.

Some of our children will be able to tell us they have a worried feeling and why, while others will struggle to recognise or name what they are feeling. We are all familiar with what anxiety is, but we may not always recognise when it is lurking in disguise. For many children anxiety can present in a whole host of ways: sore tummies, belligerent behaviour, not wanting to do things they normally enjoy or withdrawing to their bedroom.

What can help enormously as parents is taking a curious stance and looking beneath the behaviour for what may be causing the difficulties. For example, the child who doesn’t want to get out of the car to go into the shoe shop may actually be really struggling with the thought of school.  One wonderful way of being curious is a technique from Louise Bomber called Wondering Aloud. This generally involves three steps:

  • Noticing a change in our child’s behaviour
  • Describing this change
  • Making a very tentative remark about why the child might be feeling this way

It might look something like this…

“It looks like you are really struggling to leave the car.  I wonder if you are feeling worried about school next week”

Giving a child or young person a sense of what their experience might mean is an incredibly helpful way of connecting with them. Once you have connected, it is so much easier to move forward in any situation. It can initially feel strange to respond to apparent misbehaviour with support and empathy but hold in mind that behaviour is always a form of communication. What our young people are probably saying is “I need some help right now; I am having a really tricky time”. And once they (and you) are in a calmer place, you can address the behaviour and think about the most appropriate way forward.

Establish routines.

After a lazy summer it can feel daunting to even think about the demands and challenges of the new school year. Establishing or re-establishing routines can be super helpful.

Children and young people love routines and many thrive knowing what is happening and when. Try and find out as much as you can about what school is going to look like for each of your children.  What is the plan for the first day back, where will they have lunch, will they have a morning break?  For some kids it can be helpful to mentally rehearse what is going to happen on the first day. You can help them to imagine walking through the front door, where they are going to put their things and who they are going to talk to. This may support your child to identify the main area fuelling their anxiety and you can then support them to problem-solve these worries.

In the run up to the autumn term, many of our kids have enjoyed late nights, increased access to technology and while this has been fun, it can create difficulties once we are back in the normal school routine. In the final weeks of the summer, it may be helpful for us as parents to start reintroducing a schedule that will allow an easier transition back to the school environment. This doesn’t have to be complicated and it is probably best that it is not sudden. It just means gradually getting our kids into bed earlier, getting them up slightly earlier and maybe reducing their screen time, especially prior to going to sleep.

Back to school rituals:

Rituals can be a really helpful way to support our children and young people to feel safe and contained and can actually also send a message of hope that their world is continuing to move forward. There are loads of different rituals we can have about the new year starting – buying new stationary, the trip to the shoe shop, the last ice cream on the beach.  These rituals, although simple, ground our children and help retain some level of predictability in the face of lots of change with the start of a new year.

Strengthening relationships:

Our relationships are the single biggest predictor of our overall happiness and wellbeing, and this is no different for our children and young people. Peer relationships play a very important role in our children’s lives and become even more influential as children enter adolescence.

Over the summer, many of our children may have had little direct contact with their peer group and this has the potential to raise anxiety for many young people. Without organic daily interactions with their peers, our young people can sometimes (not always) feel de-skilled and anxious about being reunited. If possible, it would be helpful if we can support our children to re-engage with at least one of their close friends. This scaffolding will allow them the opportunity to challenge some of the unhelpful thoughts that may have built up over the summer months and to recognise that it is OK, this is something they are able to manage.

Looking after you:

What we feel as parents and carers tend to ripple down through our families. Sometimes after a long summer of having all our kids at home, things can feel a little fraught. You all know the scenario, you have managed to stop your children squabbling over the remote, you have taken the dog out, found a plumber to repair the leak in the bathroom, and suddenly one of your children is crying hysterically because they can’t find their pencil case that they need for the start of school. In this moment, what your child needs more than anything else is an empathetic compassionate response, this is what is going to support them to get the thinking part of their brain back online. But in this moment, this can be incredibely difficult and perhaps impossible if we have not taken the time to look after our own wellbeing. Here are some simple ideas to hold in mind as the autumn terms approaches:

  • Pay attention to what you are doing well. You are human and this means there will be moments (maybe many moments) when you respond in ways you don’t like. Our brains are wired with something called a negativity bias which means we are really good at noticing the things we do wrong and not so good at noticing the things we do well. By deliberating paying attention to the good stuff, however small, over time our brain will start to do this all by itself and the children may even learn the power of self-praise in the process.
  • Just as relationships and connection are important for our children and young people, they are also fundamental for our own wellbeing. When we feel well supported and understood as parents, it is so much easier to respond to those around us with empathy and compassion. Make time to call your people, arrange the coffee, go for the walk.
  • Protect time for yourself and find simple ways to top your resource cup up. This might be a bath, a 10-minute walk, a few pages of a good book – it really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you protect some time to do it regularly. A dysregulated adult will not be able to regulate a dysregulated child. Prioritising our own wellbeing is always a good investment.

Finally, we know that our children and young people’s brains are only able to learn when they feel calm, so make this a priority and feel confident that by placing our children’s wellbeing front and centre, learning will follow.

About the Author

Tamara is an experienced chartered clinical psychologist with over 15 years of clinical experience in the NHS. Tamara is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS).

Tamara specialises in working with children, young people and their families and is passionate about building resilience and wellbeing in young people. Tamara is available for 1-2-1 parenting consultations via our specialists help page – book an appointment if you think you’d benefit from a session with her.

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