How to Help Children Settle into School

Has your child started preschool or school (pre-k or kindergarten for those reading in the US!) recently? Or are they about to start?

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Some children take the transition in their stride and settle in with very few bumps, others do better than you would ever have expected. Some children however really struggle with the transition. Anxiety, sadness, reluctance to leave you, angry behaviour and other other regressions are very common. More than many parents realise I think. These difficult reactions sometimes pass quickly, but often they can remain for several weeks and months after the initial start.

It is one of the most heart-breaking things in the world to watch your child struggling with their new place in the world. If you are certain that the school route is for you, here are ten tips that can help:

1. Allow Their Emotions
Perhaps the most important thing you can do if your child is struggling is to allow them to feel what they are feeling. Don’t try to tell them to “stop crying”, say “you’re OK, you don’t need to be upset” or “you will be fine, don’t worry!”. These don’t help to reduce anxiety, but they do dismiss the child’s feelings, which can add to their upset. Instead say “you’re feeling really sad, would you like to talk about it?”, or “I can see you had a hard day at school, would you like a hug to help you to calm down?”. Allowing your child to express their emotions (which may also manifest as anger, whining and shouting, as well as sadness) is the healthiest response here. Make sure you don’t add to their feelings though. There is a difference between empathising and projecting your feelings onto the child!

2. Ease the Drop-Off
School drop off can be incredibly stressful for new starters. The hustle and bustle, lots of bigger children, younger siblings and hundreds of parents can be overwhelming. Arranging with the school for your child to enter the classroom before the main rush begins, or arriving 10 minutes after everybody has left can make a huge difference. Similarly, sometimes drop-off is better if somebody else does it, allowing your child to say goodbye to you in the safety of home. They may be calmer when dropped off at school by a partner or friend.

3. Keep Your Own Anxieties in Check
The time when your child starts school is a highly emotional stage for any parent. Try to not add to what your child is feeling by keeping your own nerves and sadness at bay. Anxiety is catching. If you’re really worried about your child, there is a high chance they will sense this and it will undermine their confidence. Try your hardest to stay calm and collected. Lots of deep breaths, positive affirmations and working through your own feelings, so that you can be a pillar of strength and confidence in your child.

4. Take off the Pressure at Home
Now isn’t the time to push your child to tidy their room or their toys, or to pick up on every little misdemeanour. Cut them some slack. I’m not suggesting you become permissive, but relax your boundaries a little and let things slip for a couple of weeks while they settle in. Turn a blind eye to rudeness for a little while and allow home to be a place where your child is safe to relax. For the first couple of months after starting (or returning) to school, it’s common for behaviour at home to be tricky. This is your child’s way of discharging after a day of holding everything in at school. It’s a great compliment to your parenting skills! It means they feel totally safe to be authentic with you!

5. Be Their Champion
Starting school can push many parents out of their comfort zones, because it often means you have to initiate conversations that you’d rather not have. This can be even harder for introverted parents. If your child is not being treated fairly, be that by staff or other children, they need you to stand up for them and be their champion. They need to know that you *always* have their back, however uncomfortable the conversation or meeting you may have to have is.

6. Give Them Practical Tools
Separation can be really hard for some children. Giving them a tangible, physical, way to connect with you throughout the day can be really helpful. For instance, you could create matching friendship bracelets, or even just coloured wool/yarn tied simply. When you tie them on yourself and your child say “this bracelet connects us. Throughout the day when you are sad and miss me, you can touch it and know that a little piece of me is with you and I will do the same”. Another good idea is to create a little “magic spray” bottle. Using mini travel spray bottles filled with water, a drop or two of lavender and some edible glitter. Make up the bottle and tell your child that when they are feeling sad, or scared, they can spray a little bit of the liquid onto them and it will help them to calm down (obviously the teacher needs to be aware and may need to monitor usage!).

7. Watch Eating and Sleeping
Starting school is a huge activity for little children. Making sure that they get enough sleep and enough food is so important. For some, this may mean that they need a little emergency nap when they get home from school (which may mean they need a slightly later bedtime to compensate), others may need their bedtime brought forward for a bit (which is a handy way to cope with the clock changes next month, when it ‘falls back’ to its regular time!). School also means the end to intuitive eating throughout the day, which many children struggle with. Snacks on the way home from school (not even waiting until you get home) can help, as can a snack after dinner, just as bedtime starts.

8. Meet With the School
If things are still tricky after a few days, then ask to have a meeting with your child’s teacher. Explain what is happening and ask if they have any suggestions to help. Remember, teachers have dealt with this many times before and may have some ideas you haven’t thought of. They may also have a different view to you, for instance, some children are find once they are in the classroom, out of the sight of parents.

9. Consider Flexi Schooling
Starting school full-time can be too much for some children, particularly those who are ‘summer-born’. Some schools will be happy to allow children to attend on a part-time basis for some time. My firstborn didn’t start full-time at school until the summer term. He went for mornings only until just before his fifth birthday, at my request.

10. Give it Time
School starts can be tricky for several weeks. It’s a big transition for little people. Think back to when you started college, university or a new job. I doubt you felt totally calm, confident and settled for several weeks, if not months. The same is true for children starting school. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong if it takes 2, 3, 4, 5 or more weeks for your child to settle in. They all do things at different paces. In the interim, all of these points still apply. Usually it’s not until the October half-term that most children become more settled.

This is an extract from my ‘The Starting School Book’  – it’s for those starting to think about education choices for their children, applying for a place, and preparing children for starting school (and beyond). You can order a copy HERE in the UK and HERE for the rest of the world. 

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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