You sent them off to school in their shiny new shoes, Charlie and Lola backpack strapped on, Peppa Pig lunchbox swinging… but now it’s tears before bedtime.
When your littlest ones are finding those first days of school too much to bear, what can you do to help them through?
The truth is, regardless of whether they’ve been in nursery or rubbing along with Mum or Dad at home, the transition can be huge.
From separation anxiety to fears about going to the toilet or whether they will find new friends, the worries can crowd in and seem overwhelming. Just think: you feel like crying, so what might be going through their little heads?
As the DirectGov help site notes: “[Your child] might find their initial weeks a period of change and stress. They may be more tired than usual and need time to relax. You may find that rather than becoming more 'grown up', they may regress or become more difficult or defiant, in response to the stress of a new routine.
“Your child may also have concerns about making friends or be more withdrawn than usual.”
Antonia Chitty, author of What To Do When Your Child Hates School, adds that what may seem trivial to adults can seem devastating to a young child – so try to find out the exact cause of their distress.
Says Chitty: “A friend’s son didn’t want to go to school, and it turned out to be because he couldn’t carry his lunchbox with him as he had at nursery because he had school lunches.”
The key to uncovering the real cause is not to pile on the pressure – don’t interrogate, but do coax. Here are some more tips on how to deal with your little one’s anxieties:
Keep your questions specific
Asking a tired and emotional four-year-old what they did at school today, or why they don’t want to go, is unlikely to yield a sensible answer. Experts advise asking specific questions such as “Who did you play with in the playground?” or “What did you have for lunch?” until you can get a sense of what is truly bothering them. Children may make general, upsetting statements such as: “Nobody likes me” which are usually exaggerations, but do take time to listen and consider talking to their teacher, who will be able to help.
Be positive – but realistic
Be perky about the joys of school, focusing on things like the whizz-bang climbing frames in the playground or the fun new stuff they will learn. But don’t oversell it – waxing lyrical about how utterly fantastic school is will do no good when reality comes up short.
Help them to see the teacher as a friend
Of course you want your little one to talk to you if he or she is feeling sad or worried. But do also emphasise that the teacher is there to be their friend and to help them, and that they should always talk to him or her if they have any problems.
Reassure them that they will feel tired
Tiredness is bound to hit little ones after a full day at school – and this may explain tearfulness later in the day. Reassure them that lots of children find it very busy and tiring and get upset. Make sure they stick to their home routines – bedtime, bathtime – as much as possible to ensure plenty of rest and a sense of security.
Read books about school
The new regime of school can be intimidating and confusing: things like the school bell, sticking your hand up to speak and so on. It may help, if you have not done so already, to introduce some books about school. Try Starting School by Allan Ahlberg, I Am Absolutely Too Small for School by Lauren Child or Topsy and Tim Start School by Jean Adamson.
Teach good toilet habits
It is very common for children to wet themselves at school, especially in the early weeks and months. Help to steer them gently through by reminding your child they are allowed to ask to go to the toilet whenever they feel they need to. If it is a recurrent problem, ask the teacher to quietly remind your child to go. Make sure your child knows how to pull up their pants and wipe themselves properly, too.
Deal with separation anxiety
Another utterly normal rite of passage for young kids – not to mention parents! Make sure your child knows that you will be thinking of them and that you have not abandoned them at the school gates. For instance, say: “Mummy and Daddy miss you so much when you are at school but we are thinking of you all day long, and wondering what you are learning and what you are playing at breaktime, and eating at lunch.” That way they will have little reminders throughout the day that they are in your minds. Reassure them, too, that you are looking forward to coming back to collect them at the end of the day.
…But don’t give in
The hardest thing is not to give in when your child is in floods of tears and insisting they can’t bear to go to school. But educational psychologist Dr Valerie Muter insists that you should never keep them at home if you suspect they are anxious rather than ill: “It’s very important to get across the message that they have to go every day.” If they are very upset, discuss strategies with their teacher. But remember that good reception teachers are very experienced at dealing with distraught children. You will most likely find that they calm down far quicker than you expect once you have gone. If you are worried, ask if you can phone the school office later to check your child is OK. And make sure you aren’t late to pick them up.
Help them to perfect their playground skills
Making friends is a tricky art and many children find the rough and tumble of the playground a lot to deal with. Remember that schools try to help children to make friends, so encourage your child to ask an adult in the playground if they are nervous of joining in a game or approaching a group of children. If the problem is some playground dispute or falling-out, unless it can be regarded as bullying, resist the urge to blunder in. It’s far better to teach your child the skills of negotiation – letting each child give their point of view and then asking what they think should happen.
Don’t pass on your emotions
Even if you are a blubbing mess the minute you round the corner after dropping them off, don’t – whatever you do – let them see it. They will associate your upset with anxiety and fear about school. Put on a big smile and be reassuring. You can weep into your cornflakes once you’re safely back at home or in the office.
Ask if they can take a familiar object with them
Sometimes a so-called “transitional object” can help little ones to feel safe and comforted in the first few days or weeks. Ask your teacher if your child can take a toy to play with at breaktime, or have a family photo, cuddly animal or other familiar item with them to look at when they feel homesick. These ‘props’ can be slowly phased out when they are no longer necessary.
Talk it up
Talk up any positives you can glean from their days at school – display artwork on your walls with pride, invite a new friend round for a short play date or ask them to show you and the rest of the family their newfound skills at skipping, reading or adding up.
Share your own experiences
Chat about your own experiences of school – the things you loved, the games you played, the things that worried you. Perhaps show them pictures of you during your schooldays to help make it real and to show them that you understand exactly what they are going through.