The First Day of School

An article by Judith Ancer

I don’t know who was more nervous about my son’s first day of grade 1, me or him. On the surface I had been positive and he was full of bravado but the unconscious told a different story – I’d had bad dreams and he had taken up sleepwalking.

At school, children will experience some of their greatest challenges, successes, failures and humiliations. In separating from their parents they will learn about how the world works, about managing social interactions and about people outside their own families. They will face up to their strengths and weaknesses but not without some anxiety along the way.

Most children have similar sorts of worries around starting school. I asked three young kids what they remembered about that first day, and here’s what they said:

  • “I thought I wouldn’t pass because I wasn’t clever at that time.”
  • “I was worried the kids would be mean to me and I wouldn’t find my way back.”
  • “I didn’t know who would play with me.”

I’ve also heard children say “How will I know what to do and where to go?”, “Where are the bathrooms?”, “What about bullies?”, “Do I need to be able to read or write already?”, and “Will I cry when I say goodbye to mom or dad?”

Such worries can make even well-adjusted children anxious. The fear can build up in their minds, leading them to act on it in many ways, from tummy aches and sleep problems to out-and-out refusal to go to school.

Months of build-up to the start of school, talking about it as a big event, can intensify this anxiety, as can parents’ mixed feelings such as guilt or anxiety.

What if the first week of school arrives and a child still doesn’t want to go to school? She might not say it directly, but rather lay claim to a tummy ache or a sore throat that quickly disappears once it’s decided to keep him home. He might hide when it’s time to get ready to go to school or throw temper tantrums. Or she could have nightmares and experience trouble sleeping.

If you don’t deal with the anxiety and its causes, it can get out of control very easily. A vicious cycle is set up when an overly sensitive parent keeps an anxious child at home. Anxiety levels increase when school comes around again and the parent is under even greater pressure to keep the child at home.

No matter what, parents shouldn’t let anxiety keep kids away from school. Signs of worry are normal and usually end soon after the start of school. But if they continue for several weeks, talk to the teacher and get some guidance.


What Parents Can Do To Help Their Child

Long term preparation for school should involve two things especially: one is reading to your child in the early years and reading books yourself; another is discussing current affairs in the home as your child grows up. Research shows there is a strong correlation between these two actions and school success. Not only do children gain intellectual ground but they are better placed to feel they belong in school and can cope with its demands. 

In the short term, as the new school year approaches, try these strategies: 

  • Show interest and be supportive. Take children’s fears seriously. Don’t criticise, mock or tease as they are easily humiliated. Talk to them about their feelings and help them articulate them. Speaking one’s fears aloud to someone else diminishes their unspoken power and renders them normal.
  • Prepare your child for what to expect – the activities, the schedule and the other children.
  • Share your own memories of school – be generally positive, but realistic. Your experience can be an opportunity to model coping strategies
  • Read books about going to school so children can see how other kids have similar feelings and experiences.
  • Take your child to the school to get used to the layout, especially places like his classroom and the toilets, and introduce him to the teacher. Many schools have orientation programmes for pupils starting Grade R, Grade 1 or Grade 8 – these are extremely useful to attend.
  • Identify a buddy at school so she doesn’t feel so alone.
  • Get your child in a routine a while before school starts, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier.
  • Make the getting-ready-for-school ritual as stress-free as possible. For example, the two of you can lay out his books and clothes the night before.
  • Suggest that your child takes a familiar object or a family picture to school.
  • Be a coach – talk through and role play situations. Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. But don’t overdo this as this can make kids more anxious.
  • Be realistic about who your child is. If she is temperamentally anxious or shy, starting school may be more difficult than for confident kids. Even in these cases don’t overprotect or underestimate her ability to manage stressful situations.

Finally, trust your child’s ability to cope, trust the school and the teacher and, most importantly, trust your ability to let go.

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