The summer holidays are drawing to a close and thoughts are turning to going back to school. As a parent, how are you feeling? Can’t wait to get the kids back in school in the usual routine? Anxious about what things may be like as we continue to deal with the virus? Both, I’m guessing!
I think it’s normal to feel a bit of both. I certainly am. I always felt excited and nervous about school restarting in September. As a child, my excitement was focussed on my new, shiny school shoes, the latest pencil case and erasers that smelled like fruit (the 1980’s was a simpler time!). Interestingly, my nerves are still about the still thing. Will I remember how to do this? I’ve forgotten everything! By the end of the day, it’s like I’ve never been away and we’re all back in the swing of it.
This year of course, we’ve had corona to deal with. Things will look a bit different, but the current government guidelines for September allow schools to operate in ways much closer to normal. All schools will have to do a new risk assessment based on the updated guidance. Your school will have, or will soon be, telling you all about how September will look for you and your children. Having been through all this before for reopening in June, we’ve got a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, so it won’t feel quite so strange for everyone.
For me, one of the highlights of September is the new children we welcome into our Reception class. They’ve had an atypical transition this year, not being able to come into school in July for stay-and-play sessions or home visits. We’ve tried our very best to think outside the box for safe ways to meet the children and help them feel part of our school. We’ve made lots of information videos and held zoom meetings for Q&A. Corrie Leach, our EYFS leader, came up with the fantastic idea of buying each child a Coppice Valley teddy bear which we delivered to the children in a socially distant way. The children are taking their bears out and about over the summer then sending in photos and messages via email to the staff to keep the connection to the staff and help them feel less anxious about “big school”. The idea has been well received so we’re going to make it part of our Reception class experience for new starters every year now.
Even so, I know many parents will be worrying about September and how they can help prepare their children for starting school. A lot of people talk about being school-ready and parents often worry about academic skills like writing their name, knowing phonics or being able to count to 20.
Don’t worry about these things, we’ll handle them when they get into school. If you really want to focus on improving your child’s skills, I’d recommend you work on independence. Some of the things that can upset a smooth transition are the things that parents automatically do for their kids like doing up/undoing coats and shoes, chopping up their food, undoing the packaging on their snack, getting them dressed and undressed. Of course, school staff will do their best to help every child but getting around 30 children all stuck in their coats is challenging!
The idea of readiness is one that I have being reflecting on a lot recently. Stepping up from teacher to headteacher, was for me like starting big school. I had been in a familiar and comfortable situation in which I felt secure then moved into a new situation in which everything I had to do was new. I was ready to take on the challenge but being ready in the sense that I already knew everything I needed in order to do the job was not true. But that is OK. It’s OK not to know everything and it’s normal to feel nervous and apprehensive about doing something new. We need to tell our children this, I believe. I think we can make things harder for ourselves and our children by talking about milestones as if everything about them is going to positive. We set ourselves and them up for a fall. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should scare them or ourselves. I think we need to have a balanced view and talk about all the things that are exciting and good but then acknowledge that some things may be harder or go wrong. Talk to your kids about “What to do ifs…”, like what to do if you can’t find your coat, what to do if you need the toilet. This will build their, and your, confidence. We all like to think we’ve a got a plan and being school ready is more about knowing how to help yourself or get help in the unplanned moments.
When my own son started at his first school, his first day finished just after lunchtime. I arranged to leave my own school in my lunch-hour so I could pick him up on this big day. I stood on the playground with the other parents as the children snaked out in their line to meet us. My boy wasn’t there. My heart sank and my stomach flipped but I kept my cool until all the other children had gone to their parents. Holding back my panic, I asked the teacher where he was. She dashed back inside and found him in the classroom with some Year 6’s who had just brought him back to the room. He’d got lost after eating his lunch in the dining hall and ended up in another bit of the school, far away from his room. I was distraught for him, saying, “You must have been so scared!”. But he was fine. He was totally fine. Why? Because he had a plan. He’d realised he was lost and so asked for help from some big kids who had safely brought him back to his class. My boy didn’t share my fears because we’d talked it all through several times over the holidays – all the many things to look forward to and then some of the things that could go wrong with some tips for dealing with them. Talking to him about things that could go wrong didn’t make him anxious, it made him feel empowered. Bless him, he’d remembered our chats about what to do if he got lost at school. This is what made him school ready.
So, my advice would be to worry less about the reading, writing and maths at this stage. Have lots of talks. Talk about all the wonderful things they will do and learn. Practice some independence skills and maybe come up with your own top tips for your child’s worries about starting school. If it’s any consolation, my boy started secondary school last year. Guess what happened on his first day? He got lost. And on every successive day after that for 2 weeks! Every time he found his way or asked for help and it never bothered him. For me, that counts as school ready and life ready.