How to Choose Your Child’s First School (When You Can’t Visit Due to Covid)

September to December usually brings lots of hustle and bustle with open days and evenings held at schools for potential new students. Applications for new places are due within the next few weeks and months (depending on where you live in the world and whether you are using state or private education). Regardless of where you are however, one thing is the same: The likelihood that these important visits to potential schools have been curtailed because of Covid 19. How do you choose the right setting then, if you haven’t ever set foot in it? This article gives some tips on how to know what school is right for your child despite the current circumstances and includes a list of suggested questions you may want to ask the staff, taken from my ‘The Starting School Book’.

How to choose a school without visiting:

1. Responses are Revealing
The school’s response to the current circumstances is incredibly revealing. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even more reflective of the school than visiting. School visits can often give a superficial feel of a school. You’re seeing them at their polished best, which is not always a good indicator of what they are really like. Check out the offerings from the school, are they embracing new technology? Are they innovating? Are they putting time into making the experience as user friendly as possible for you? Are they flexible with contact? A school’s willingness to adapt to the situation and to meet the needs of potential new school starter’s parents is a good indicator of the relationship they will have with you in the future. 

2. Videos and Lives
Without the ability to visit in person, a video tour of the school is definitely second best. I wouldn’t judge the quality of the video, a shaky one taken on a hand-held smart phone is fine, schools aren’t better if they’ve hired a professional videographer! (I’d rather see that money spent on the children!). What you’re looking for is passion and enthusiasm for sharing the school. I would give brownie points for a live tour over a recorded video too, especially a live that enabled parents to ask questions. Video is a must in my opinion, as in one where you can ask to be shown certain areas of the school that are usually missed out of video tours – for instance changing rooms and toilets (watch for how these are decorated and how child friendly they appear).

3. Email or Telephone Access to Staff and Governors
In a normal year, you can probably ask most of your questions during an open day or evening. This year that’s obviously not possible. Look for schools who encourage you to contact the school leadership team and ask questions, by telephone or email. Do bear in mind that this needs to be balanced with the school day and the workload that brings, so don’t judge on their response time, but rather their willingness to answer your questions (even if it takes two weeks).

4. Real Parent Feedback
If you’re not already a member of a local discussion group, join one now and ask if parents would be happy to share their experience of the schools with you (virtually). Do keep in mind that you will get a lot of extreme viewpoints here – those who rave about the school and those who rubbish it. I tend to ignore the extreme opinions and look for those in the middle. 

5. Look at Official Scores and Rankings (with a pinch of salt).
Yes, these inspections, ranks and scores quantify schools a little, but they are so limited in what they cover. They can’t tell you how passionate staff are, how happy children are, how well YOUR child will do there and what the sense of community is like. For school in the early years these things matter FAR FAR more than official inspection scores, rankings and so on. I personally ignored these when choosing school for my own children. Don’t let your choice be led by these alone. Points 1-4 are so much more important.

Questions to Ask Potential Schools:

*Do you enjoy working here?
*What are you most proud of about your school?
*What do you think the school could be better at?
*Do you have any plans to improve certain things in the future?
*What is the biggest challenge your school is facing at the moment?
*How do you cope with difficult, or unwanted, behaviour from children?
*What is your view on rewarding children for good behaviour, or for attendance?
*What is your view on starting age for summer born children?
*How do you help settle an anxious starter?
*What do you do if a child is very upset at school?
*How do you deal with friendship issues and bullying?
*Do you have a peer mentor, or buddy scheme? (pairing older children with new starters)
*What sport and physical activity do children do?
*What are your school lunches like? Can I see a typical week’s menu?
*How much time do children spend outside every day? How does this change as
they get older?
*How much time do children spend sitting still and learning? (e.g. at a table, or at a computer)
*What is the school library like?
*What does an average school day look like?
*What opportunities are there for children who like art, music and drama?
*What is your SEND and pastoral care provision like?
*What do you offer for ‘gifted’ children, or high achievers?
*What support do you provide for children who struggle academically?
*What is your view on standard assessments?
*What are the school values, or ethos?
*What is the school’s opinion of homework? When does it get set, how much and what sort of thing?
*What is your teacher retention rate like? How long have your current staff been here for?
*Do you have an ‘open door policy’ if parents have any concerns?
*Do you know how many siblings of current pupils will be applying this year?
*How many children are in an average class? If this is a larger number, how do
you make sure they each get the individual attention they need?
*What clubs and extra-curricular activities do you run?
*What do you think parents would say about the school?
*What do you think pupils would say about the school?
*Do you think your current official rating is a good reflection of the school? If not, why?
*Does your school have an active PTA?
*What opportunities do you have for parents to get involved with the school?
*Do you offer school trips and visits? If so, can you let me know what they have been in the past?

Questions Specific to Covid:
* How are you keeping children safe at the moment?
* How are you ensuring that children’s mental health is not damaged by the current restrictions?
* If Covid restrictions are still in place next Summer (or Winter if you’re in Australia/NZ), how do you plan to run settling in sessions and the transition for new starters?
 

Don’t feel embarrassed by asking too many questions, but do bear in mind that most are incredibly stretched and although they may want to spare you the time to answer all of your questions as thoroughly as possible, it may just not be possible and certainly not within a very quick time frame.



If your child is starting school soon and you would like to learn how to choose the best school, how to prepare them (and you), or know how to settle your child into their school, then my new ‘The Starting School’ book will be perfect for you! You can learn more and order HERE in the UK or HERE in the rest of the world.



Losing Heart with Gentle Parenting? Look for the Glimmers!

Have you been questioning your parenting style recently? I think lockdown has resulted in a lot of navel gazing for many of us. The combination of more free time (for some – I know not all, thank you to those of you working hard through this!) and more time spent at home with our children means 1. a lot more difficult behaviour and 2. a lot more time to spend second-guessing ourselves and our choices parenting wise. I bet many who try to follow a more gentle and mindful style of parenting are thinking “this just isn’t working” right now and are thinking of introducing more authoritarian methods of behaviour control (such as time out, naughty steps, sleep training and stickers/bribery).

glim

The thing is – they won’t work either. At least not for long. Mainstream methods can produce quick fix results, but they create many problems in the long run. Sleep training without taking time to make the child feel secure and working to optimise their life with sleep in mind (diet, environment, routines and timings – as is my approach) may get you a few nights of ‘sleeping through’ (note – they aren’t really sleeping through, just no longer signalling wakes), however because sleep training is naive to the causes of the waking/need for you, in the long term it actually makes sleep worse (I can’t tell you the amount of people I work with in private consults who come to me with a toddler who was sleep trained as a baby who now has serious sleep issues!). Similarly, bribing a child with stickers/sweets/toys etc.. may get you temporary compliance, but you’ll need to keep going with those rewards (and increase their value), otherwise when you stop, so will your child’s compliance. Finally, ignoring/shouting/chastising/excluding may temporarily shock a child into compliance, it does nothing to consider the causes of their behaviour (often, just immature neural development – ie age appropriate!) and therefore nothing to resolve it. That ‘bad behaviour’ is going to keep coming back and back again and it often escalates. What I’m saying is, when you’re at rock bottom and questioning your gentle methods, I know how tempting it is to slip into a mainstream authoritarian style with its alluring quick fixes, but those quick fixes come at a price.  The trouble with mindful and gentle parenting is the price comes at the beginning (and it’s you that pays it – with your time and patience and often exhaustion), but the results – when they come – are long lasting (positively so!) and wonderful.

Right now, I know it’s tough and many are questioning their choices, but if there’s one biggest mistake I find parents make again and again with gentle parenting, it’s that they expect too much, too quickly. It takes time for results and by ‘time’ I mean months and years, categorically not days and weeks! All your effort isn’t in vain, but it works in baby steps, not giant leaps. You are putting in so much groundwork even when you think your efforts are having no impact. What you do matters, even when your child still wakes just as much, still tantrums just as much, still refuses to eat anything but beige food or still hits just as much. Expect positive change, but don’t expect it tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. I love the picture I’ve used to illustrate this article, as I think it describes the journey of gentle parenting so well.

So, how do you get through the days if you don’t see change in them? Look for the glimmers. Those tiny sparks of hope – and tiny they may well be! Tiny glimpses into the future. That one night when your child slept 4hours in a row. That day when your son stroked his baby sister on the head when she cried. That day your daughter ate a whole piece of broccoli. That day your eight year old volunteered to help you set the table for dinner. The day your teen gave you a hug after you lost your temper at them, but then apologised. These glimmers give us hope. Grasp them and keep them safe in your memory, so that you can use them to reassure you the next time you question what you’re doing. Remember – your baby is still going to act like a baby, your toddler is still going to act like a toddler, your preschooler is still going to act like a preschooler, your pre-teen is still going to act like a pre-teen and your teen is still going to act like a teen WHATEVER you do, because that’s all their physiology and psychological development allows. Your efforts aren’t wasted, they are working – but you need to adjust your expectations for what ‘working’ means. Until then, look for the glimmers……

Keeping Calm When Your Child Loses Control

Do you struggle with controlling your own emotions when your child is struggling to control theirs?

calm
The next time your child behaves in an undesirable way, some of the very best advice I can give you is to pause, put a space between your child’s behaviour and your response to them. Take time to think about your goals and respond in a mindful way.

The acronym SPACE denotes five steps toward effective, gentle discipline:

  • Stay calm
  • Proper expectations
  • Affinity with your child
  • Connect and contain emotions
  • Explain and set a good example

Let’s look at each of the steps in turn:

Stay Calm
When your child pushes your buttons and you feel yourself getting stressed or angry, you should absolutely not discipline him until you are calm. Take a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and slowly exhale. Repeat as often as necessary until you can think more clearly. Sometimes you have to give yourself a ‘time out’. That is, move away from your child temporarily, so that you can think more clearly.

Proper Expectations
You wouldn’t punish a fish for not being able to walk or a cat for not being able to talk. Yet many authoritarian discipline methods punish kids simply for being kids, without an acknowledgment of their age-appropriate level of brain development. Before you respond to your child’s actions, ask yourself, “Does she understand what she has done? Could she have controlled it? Does she have the brain development to do better?” If the answer is no, your response is likely to be very different.

Affinity with Your Child
Gentle discipline requires you to separate your dislike of your child’s behavior from your feelings toward the child him- or herself. Too many parents mix up the behavior and the child. Your child remains the same one whom you love dearly, no matter what he has done. Having an affinity with someone means that you have an essential connection and an understanding of each other. It is this understanding, this empathy, that will aid you in disciplining your child gently. Hold on to it, whatever your child has done. Remind yourself of how much you love him, and try to view his actions from his perspective. Ask yourself why he did what he did. And how is he feeling right now? This will not only help you to understand his actions but also to solve the problem and discipline appropriately, as well as to stay calm.

Connect and Contain Emotions
At all ages, children need their parents to guide them and help them to manage their feelings. We have a level of brain development that they simply don’t have, even as teenagers and early twentysomethings. We are mature enough to “hold” some of our child’s big feelings as well as our own, to help them to calm down. Of course, in order to do this, we have to look after ourselves too. The secret to emotional intelligence is knowing that all emotions are OK; it’s how we manage them that matters. Until your child learns how to manage her emotions, it is your role to externally manage them, while leading him or her in the direction of self-control.To contain your child’s feelings, you must connect with her.Your compassion and support will guide her toward becoming the person you hope she will be. The best discipline happens when you work as a team.

Explain and Set a Good Example
This stage can happen only when both you and your child are calm and well connected. One of the main reasons that discipline fails is because of a lack of one of these, or sometimes both.
Explaining should be age appropriate. Your communication with your child needs to be at a level that he can understand, and often discipline falls short here too. Think carefully about how you will communicate. It isn’t just your words that matter, but how you say them too. Your child is watching you just as much as he’s listening to you. If you shout, you indicate to him that not only is shouting OK but it’s what he should do when he’s angry with someone or when somebody does something that he doesn’t like. If your child hits someone, the very last thing you should do is hit him in the name of discipline. If you do, your example shows him that hitting is OK, and that it’s a good way to resolve differences and conflict. Your explanation and example should show your child, clearly, how to handle situations. After all, as we’ve said, the best teachers lead by example. The same is true for discipline.

Putting SPACE between your child’s actions and your discipline allows you to focus on your true goal—that of teaching her to do and be better. Of course, your teachings need to be flexible. All children are unique and all situations, even with the same child, are unique. Working with SPACE should put you on the right track.

This is a small excerpt from my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in paperback, e-book and audio download from the following retailers:

In the UK
In Canada
In the USA
In Australia and New Zealand

Helping Children with Anxiety, when Returning to – or Starting – School

The following is a small excerpt from my ‘The Starting School Book’ that I thought was very relevant now for those of you worried about your children returning to, or starting, school soon:

sch

1.     Listen and observe

Find a good time to speak with your child about any worries they have about school. Often bedtime is the time they will open up the most, after you have read a story and tucked them in. Ask your child to think about things that make them feel sad, or angry, or make them have an uncomfortable feeling in their tummy. Observing them is as important as what they say too, watch what they do in the playground at drop off and pick up time.

 

2.     Empathise and Support

Whatever your child tells you, you should remember to validate their feelings. Something may sound trivial to you, but it isn’t to your child. Don’t say “don’t be silly”, or “you’ll be OK”. This sort of toxic positivity is not helpful to them and may make them clam up and not confide in you in the future. Help your child to see that you understand and that they are safe to tell you anything without reprimand or belittling. Some appreciate a hug and physical closeness for support, some prefer their own space, some like to be distracted (after the talk) with play, others prefer to just sit quietly with you, respond however you feel is instinctively best for your child. Above all else, it’s important for them to know that you’re on their side.

 

3.     Make an action plan

Together with your child, brainstorm any activities, props or plans that may help them. Request a meeting with the school  (virtually is probably most feasible at the moment) and discuss your concerns and suggestions with them and ask if they have any other ideas (remember, they are very experienced at dealing with anxious children). Ask if you can have another meeting to review in a few days, or a week. Things you could consider here include: starting, or staying, part-time, flexi-schooling, slightly earlier or later drop off times, coming home for lunch if you are at home and live nearby.
4.     Focus on the positives and your child’s growth mindset

Help your child to see that it isn’t school as a whole that is scary but instead there are certain aspects they are struggling with. This doesn’t mean that school itself is bad, or that they will always be unhappy there. Spend some time talking about the things at school that they do enjoy, or are looking forward to, with them and focus on building excitement and happiness on these points. If they tell you that they don’t like anything once started, then ask their teachers to let you know what they have enjoyed throughout the day, so that you can bring it up with them. Finally, empower your child by helping them to realise that anxiety isn’t all bad, it’s a sign that they care about themselves and their brain is trying to prevent them from getting into danger. The problem is that sometimes, in trying to keep us safe, our brains over-react a little and make us very fearful of situations that aren’t as scary as we first think. Help them to reframe the anxiety into a sort of magic power, a bit like their favourite super-hero. It is strong because it wants to run quickly and hide or fight to protect us, but although the super-hero is cool, they sometimes do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Encourage your child to talk to their anxiety super-hero and say, “hey buddy, thank you for trying to protect me, but everything is OK right now”. They can imagine themselves shaking hands with ‘Captain Anxiety’ (or whatever else they want to name him or her) and saying “it’s OK, I’ve got this. I don’t need you right now” and telling it to go away. If your child likes drawing or painting you can even encourage them to paint a picture of Captain Anxiety so that they can picture them more easily and visualise saying goodbye when they need to.

 

5.     Check-in regularly

Even if the anxiety seems short-lived, make sure that you check-in with how your child is feeling regularly. School anxiety can often ebb, and flow and you may be lulled into a false sense of security once one episode has passed. Scheduling in special chats regularly can help you to keep on top of things, before they escalate. It also helps your child to feel supported and know that you are interested in how they feel, which in turn makes them more likely to open up to you.

 

6.     Provide a safe haven at home

Home should be your child’s safe haven. Often school anxiety can materialise in very difficult behaviour at home. When children are at home they should feel safe from anything that worries them at school. It should be a place for them to relax and feel comfortable enough to be themselves, so reign in a little on the discipline and take some time to work on ways to keep yourself calm. Remind yourself they are not deliberately giving you a hard time; they are acting this way because they are having a hard time. This also includes focusing on your own beliefs and behaviours, remember they are catching! If you are highly anxious about your child at school, or are really struggling with the transition, they will very likely pick up on your feelings. Do whatever you need to do (and sometimes you need more than simple self-care, sometimes speaking to a counsellor or therapist is incredibly useful) to present that calm, confident and reassuring presence your child needs from you.
The following practical tips can be particularly helpful for children with separation anxiety:

·        Draw a heart on your hand, on your palm, and draw another heart on their palm, in the same position as the one on yours. Hold your hands up to each other, palm to palm and tell your child that you will always be connected, that there will always be a little bit of you in them and vice versa and that the heart is a reminder of this. Tell them that when they are missing you, they should touch the heart on their hand and remember that you and they are connected and will always come back together again.

 

·        Find some embroidery thread (something stronger than regular cotton), in a colour your child loves. Unravel the thread and tie one end around their wrist, like a bracelet, then tie the other end around your wrist, in another bracelet style. There will be a long-connected piece of thread between you. Don’t cut it just yet. Tell your child, these bracelets connect us, just like they do right now, with this thread joining me to you. Then, cut the thread and say, “we may not be joined by the thread anymore, but when we wear these bracelets it is always a reminder of our connection and how we are always joined, even if we are not together.” Encourage them to touch the bracelet and think about that joining thread when you are apart, and they are feeling sad.

 

·        Make some ‘bravery spray’. Use a little, travel size, spray bottle and fill it with water and a drop of food colouring in their favourite colour, add some edible glitter too for extra magic. Blow some kisses into the mixture before adding the top. Then explain that if they are feeling scared when they are away from you, all they must do is to spray one or two sprays into their mouth, or onto their body somewhere and the power of your kisses will help them to feel braver.

 

If you use one of these techniques, do make sure you make the teacher aware, so that they don’t confiscate the bravery spray, wipe off the heart mark, or tell the child to take their bracelet off.

If you’re looking for more tips about preparing your child for starting school this August or September, helping them to settle during their first year, or you are about to apply for your child’s first school place this year, then my ‘The Starting School Book’ is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook. Click HERE for the UK and HERE for the rest of the world.

Books for Helping Children Deal With Big Emotions

I’m often asked to recommend books to use with children to help them to understand and process emotions. Here are my top recommendations:

For General Emotions
For Under 7s
Children have strong feeling and they can’t always handle them very well. Perfect for sharing, How Are You Feeling Today? is packed with fun, imaginative ways to help children understand and cope with a whole range of different emotions. This delightful book gives parents the tools they need to help their child deal with those feelings – without it all ending in tears!

For Over 7s
Sometimes, emotions like anger or jealousy or excitement can seem too big to keep inside. Me and My Feelings is here to tell you: It’s okay to have big feelings. And the good news is, you can calm down those strong emotions-so you won’t feel like you’re going to explode!

 

 

 
For Anxiety
For Under 7s
A perceptive and poignant story that is a must-have for all children’s bookshelves. From Tom Percival’s bestselling Big Bright Feelings series, this is the perfect book for discussing childhood worries and anxieties, no matter how big or small they may be.

 

For Over 7s
This practical guide combines proven cognitive-behavioural therapy methods used by child psychologists in schools with simple activities to help your child to overcome anxiety. It’s aimed at children aged 7–11 because a lot happens in these years that can impact a child’s emotional well-being, not just now but for years to come.

 

 
For Anger
For Under 7s:

A CUTE STORY WITH A GREAT AND IMPORTANT MESSAGE

  • Explains that angry feelings come and go
  • Doing bad things doesn’t make you bad
  • A story is a good way to help children first recognize feelings
  • Learn to treat each other better as well as be more tolerating
  • Teaches us all that love and understanding make the difference
  • AND showers the power of a mother’s love

For Over 7s:
A Volcano in My Tummy: Helping Children to Handle Anger presents a clear and effective approach to helping children and adults alike understand and deal constructively with children’s anger. Using easy to understand yet rarely taught skills for anger management, including how to teach communication of emotions, A Volcano in My Tummy offers engaging, well-organized activities which help to overcome the fear of children’s anger which many adult care-givers experience.

 
For Self Esteem
For Under 7s
Even though Gilly the Giraffe has many wonderful things in her life, she sometimes lacks confidence. Why does she have to stand out so much with her long neck, her long black tongue and her mosaic patches? Why do some of the other animals point and laugh at her? Can it be possible to be different and to be cool? This activity book developed by expert child psychologist Dr Karen Treisman combines a colourfully illustrated therapeutic story about Gilly the Giraffe to help start conversations, which is followed by a wealth of creative activities for children to explore and build upon some of the ideas raised in the story, and beyond!

For Over 7s
This practical guide combines proven cognitive-behavioural therapy methods used by child psychologists in schools with simple activities to help your child grow their self-esteem. It’s aimed at children aged 7–11 because a lot happens in these years that can impact a child’s sense of self-worth, not just now but for years to come.

 

 
For Grief
For Under 7s
Badger is so old that he knows he must soon die, so he does his best to prepare his friends. When he finally passes away, they are grief-stricken, but one by one they remember the special things he taught them during his life. By sharing their memories, they realise that although Badger is no longer with them physically, he lives on through his friends. Celebrating the 35th anniversary of this quintessential and multi award-winning picture book about losing a loved one.

For Over 7s
The encouraging and simple activities and exercises tackle the feelings associated with grief, bereavement and family separation; children will enjoy using their creativity to combat negative feelings and work out how to cope with these emotions through writing, colouring, doodling and drawing.

 

 

For Separation Anxiety
For Under 7s
Parents, educators, therapists, and social workers alike have declared The Invisible String the perfect tool for coping with all kinds of separation anxiety, loss, and grief. In this relatable and reassuring contemporary classic, a mother tells her two children that they’re all connected by an invisible string.

For Over 7s
Hot air balloon pilots have wonderful adventures, where they get to see things they have never seen before and learn all about the world outside. Flying a hot air balloon sounds like a lot of fun to some kids. But for other kids, the idea of flying off on their own, away from their parents or homes, doesn’t sound like fun at all. If you feel scared when you do something alone or away from your parents, this book is for you! The latest addition to the popluar What-to-Do Guides for Kids series addresses separation anxiety

 

For Being Kind to Others 
For Under  7s
It’s never too soon for children to learn that violence is never okay, hands can do many good things, and everyone is capable of positive, loving actions.

In this bright, inviting, durable board book, simple words and full-color illustrations teach these important concepts in ways even very young children can understand.

For Over 7s

The Sunday Times Bestseller and New York Times Bestseller. A book of hope for uncertain times. Enter the world of Charlie’s four unlikely friends, discover their story and their most important life lessons.

 

 

For Parents Separating
For Under 7s
A little boy tries to find a pot of parent glue to stick his mum and dad back together. His parents have come undone and he wants to mend their marriage, stick their smiles back on and make them better.

But, as he learns, even though his parents’ relationship may be broken, their love for him is not.

For Over 7s
Zoe and Evan Stern know firsthand how it feels when your parents divorce. When their parents split they knew their lives would change but they didn’t know how. A few years later, when they were 15 and 13 years old, they decided to share their experience in this positive and practical guide for kids. With some help from their mom, Zoe and Evan write about topics like guilt, anger, fear, adjusting to different rules in different houses, dealing with special occasions like birthdays, adapting to stepparents and blended families, and much more.

Preparing Children for a House Move

I’m often asked for my top tips to help children with upcoming, or recent, house moves. Moving house is a major – stressful – life event for adults and is huge for children too. As with any big transition, you can expect a little unavoidable turmoil while your child gets used to the move, however there are plenty of things you can to do help prepare them and make the move go as smoothly as possible. Here are my ten top tips:
move
1. Get them involved right from the start
As soon as you start thinking about moving, discuss the idea with your child. Visit estate and letting agents/realtors with them, involve them with online house browsing and take them along to viewings. This all helps to normalise what will be happening and gives them a sense of ownership, long before the actual move is finalised.

2. Encourage them to sort through belongings long before move day
This is especially important if you’re hoping to de-clutter. Very often parents leave the sorting, selling, donating and trashing until the last few days before the move. However this loss of belongings can add to the trauma for some children. If you are going to get rid of some of their belonging, try to do so well in advance of the move.

3. Resist redecorating and new purchases
A lot of children are promised new bedroom furniture, curtains, bedding and decorations for their new rooms. This complete change is actually counter-productive for a lot of children. Having known, reassuring belongings in the new home can really help children to settle quicker. If you do want to buy new items for your child for the new house, try to buy them well before you move, so that they settle in with them in their current home. These can provide some security when moved to the new room. Even better, if the new room has the same paint colour or wallpaper.

4. Visiting and normalising
Make sure to visit your new home at least once (on the inside) with your child, but visit the outside as often as you can with them. When you do visit, have conversations about where things will go when you do live there and what their everyday life will be like in the new home. If you are moving to a new area, try to get your child used to it as much as possible in advance, visiting lots and getting to know local parks, coffee shops and so on. If it’s not possible to do this in person, then familiarise them as much as possible online, with pictures, virtual tours and google streetview.

5. Read books about moving and TV shows featuring house moves.
For younger children, sharing books about house moves can help them to understand the process more, as can TV shows. Some books suggestions are HERE and HERE and HERE. Videos that can help HERE  and HERE.

6. Fully explain the process of moving day
Moving day itself can be a scary experience for children. If possible, have them with you on the move day (it can be incredibly disorientating for them if they don’t get to see you leave the old house and move into the new one), but preferably with another adult on hand so that you can focus on the move knowing they are being cared for. Demystifying the process in advance is really helpful here – for instance, talk about people coming to help you to pack boxes and putting them in a removal van. Showing pictures of the removal van (perhaps on the website of the hire/removal company) is a great idea, as is pointing out any you see on your everyday travels. It can help to make a visual timetable of the day and what is likely to happen when, so that there are no unexpected surprises.

7. Take photos of your current/old home and add them to a special book
Children like to reminisce about their old homes for many years after moving (my eldest still talks about his old bedroom that we left 15 years ago!). Very often though we don’t take photographs of the rooms of the house before we move out. Taking photos of your current home, with all rooms and a garden if you have one, as well as photos of the outside can really help your child to settle. Store them in a special album and look through them together if they miss their old home. They make wonderful memories in the years to come too. Who wouldn’t love a photo of their childhood bedroom?

8. Encourage them to share their feelings and go easy on them
You can expect some tricky behaviour for several months after moving home. It is a huge unsettling event for many children. Try to remember this when your child won’t sleep, misbehaves or is difficult a month or two after the move. It takes them longer to transition than us. Encouraging your child to share their feelings about the move, before, during and after, can really help. Let them know you miss the old house too, but that you are looking forward to creating new happy memories with them in the new home.

9. Keep special toys and comfort items separately in a clearly marked box
The room your child sleeps in should be the first room you unpack in your new home. You need to fill this with as many familiar things as possible. For this reason, pack a couple of boxes with anything your child needs to sleep and feel calm and keep them with you – not in the removal truck – you will need to access this box first. It’s so important it doesn’t get mixed up with anything else. Similarly, if your child needs certain plates, cups and bowls etc.. to eat, make sure you keep these somewhere to hand.

10. It’s all about you
Moving house and the events leading up to it can be incredibly stressful for us as adults. This stress can – and often does – have a big impact on our own patience and tolerance levels. While a lot of this stress is unavoidable, perhaps one of the most powerful things you can do for your child when it comes to a house move is try to keep your own emotions in check. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and work to reduce as much stress as possible, so that you can be calm for your child. After all, it doesn’t matter how great your preparation has been if they are catching stress from you!

 

What Does ‘School Readiness’ Really Look Like?

The following is a short excerpt from my  ‘The Starting School Book‘:

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A question that seems to crop up again and again among discussion groups is “what do I need to teach my child so that they are ready for school?”, this is commonly followed by questions such as “do they need to know their ABCs?”, “do I need to teach them to read?”, “should we practice phonics?” and “should they be able to write simple sentences?”. I’ve even started to see advertisements for ‘pre-school coaching’, private tutoring sessions to get children up to speed with English and Maths skills before they start school. The good news is, your child doesn’t need to be able to do any of these things. Preparation for schooling is much more about the everyday practicalities; skills that will enable your child to cope independently in the school environment and help them to feel happy and relaxed.

So, what should you be focusing on doing with and teaching your child over the next month?

  • Read to them lots. Get them to love books, by allowing them free choice and making story time a fun, interactive and enjoyable experience. Don’t stress about teaching them letter recognition, just read, read and read to them some more.
  • Talk with them lots. Encourage them to have conversations with you about things that interest them and how the world works. The thousand “why?” questions they seem to ask every day can be exceptionally annoying, however this is a great example of their natural curiosity, which in turn is a great learning attribute. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, then say “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together! Maybe we can find a film, book or website about it”. This natural learning that happens every day, purely organically, is much more powerful than trying to teach them formally.
  • Get out into nature with them. Enjoy these last few weeks of being able to spontaneously get outside for the day and plan trips away. Whether this is enjoying time in your garden, or that of a friend or family member, visiting local forests, woods, fields or nature reserves; the time spent outside is a great primer for school.
  • Prepare food with them. Cooking together can help to foster a love of good food, but it’s also a great way to teach maths and science skills organically (what temperature is the oven? Why do you add baking powder? What happens when you whisk or sieve something? Encourage them to weigh items in your kitchen scales and so on). Cooking also encourages fine motor skills and tool control.
  • Messy play and painting. Messy play is important to encourage creativity and sensory experiences, whereas painting is a great way to express emotions, to learn about colours and shapes and again to encourage them to hold the paintbrush, pens and pencils correctly.
  • Work on their fine motor skills. This follows on from the previous point. Children don’t need to start school knowing how to write, but they do need to know how to hold a pen and pencil. With less focus on arts and crafts and nature play, children are frequently starting school lacking in motor control skills, this in turn inhibits their ability to write.
  • Teach them to recognise their name when written. Don’t worry about teaching them to write their own name, teaching them to recognise their name written is important though – so that they can pick their name out of different labels, for instance on their coat peg, or draw. If you do teach them to write their own name, however, make sure it is not all in capital letters. Instead teach them to use a capital letter for their first initial and the rest in lower case, writing everything in capitals is a tricky habit for teachers to break.

Physical Skills Needed for School
There are quite a few specific physical skills that new school starters would ideally possess, each of these skills helps children with their independence and helps teachers and teaching assistants by reducing the amount of time they need to do tasks for children. This is a big list, please don’t be alarmed if your child can’t do all these things by the time they start school. It’s more a list to work towards, rather than a ‘tick every box’ list.

  • Teach them how to put on a cardigan/jumper (whatever they will be wearing school uniform wise) and coat and take it off again.
  • Teach them how to do shirt buttons up, or the few top buttons on a polo shirt if they will not be wearing a traditional collared school shirt.
  • Teach them how-to put-on gloves and put them into their coat pockets when they go in at the end of break time.
  • Teach them how to sit on the floor with their legs crossed and hands in their laps.
  • For children with long hair, teach them how to put a hair tie and/or clips in and take them out (so that they can fix their own hair before and after PE lessons).
  • Teach them how to undress, change into their PE kit, and then put their uniform on again afterwards. Plus collecting their kit and putting it back into their PE bag.
  • Teach them how to blow their nose and what to do with the tissue or handkerchief afterwards.
  • Teach them how to hold a pencil.
  • Teach them how to put up their hand if they want to ask a question.
  • Teach them their teacher’s name (when you know it) and the names of any teaching assistants (TAs).
  • Teach them to go to the toilet independently (including wiping, flushing and washing hands afterwards).
  • Teach them how to use a lock on a public toilet door (especially if you can find out what style of lock the school toilets have and find one like them to practice with).
  • Teach them how to put on and take off shoes (on the correct feet – use the heart trick to identify left and right feet, see illustration at the end of this list)
  • Teach them how to identify their lunchbox and how to open and close it.
  • Teach them to recognise their own belongings (e.g. their coat, bag, water bottle and so on, this includes recognising their name on any name labels you use).
  • Encourage them to drink water at home (as squash and milk won’t be available during the day at school) and make sure they know how to open, close and refill their own water bottle.
  • Teach them to peel satsumas and bananas if you will be putting them in their school lunch.
  • Make sure they can take the top off any yoghurt pots or pouches you will be giving them to take for school lunch.
  • Teach them how to use a pair of scissors.
  • Teach them how to spread glue with a spatula and use a glue stick.
  • Teach them how to eat with a knife and fork and carry a tray with a plate of food on it.

 

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The Starting School Book is published in paperback, e-book and audiobook. You can order now HERE in the UK and HERE for the rest of the world (with free delivery!).

The book is a comprehensive look at how to choose the best school for your child, how to prepare them (emotionally and physically to start), how to prepare yourself, how to settle them in and deal with common issues that arise over their first year.

Why Children Misbehave at Home After a Day at School

I am often contacted by desperate parents in September or October who say “Help! My child has turned into a demon at home, but school say they are brilliant all day and behave really well, what have I done wrong?”.

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The presumption here is that the parents must have done something wrong to cause the poor behaviour, because school aren’t having the same issue. In a sense they’re correct, the behaviour is because of something they’ve done, but not in the negative way they expect. This happens because parents have done everything right! When you make your child feel loved, safe, supported and respect with you, they feel comfortable enough to be their authentic selves with you, or in other words, they don’t have to pretend or ‘be good’ anymore. They have spent all day, at school, holding in frustration, fear, anxiety, anger and other uncomfortable emotions, because they know that it is “naughty” to let them out at school. When they get home to you however things are entirely different. There’s a massive release. Imagine your child at school and everything they have to deal with as being a bottle of fizzy drink. They have spent all day being shaken, building pressure, but have ‘been good’ and managed to keep their lid screwed on tightly. When they see you, the need to release is huge, pop, off comes the lid and the ensuing spray of all that has been bottled up inside. The technical term for this is restraint collapse, but I much prefer to think of that bottle finally releasing its pressure.

This is all a wonderful compliment of your parenting skills. If you hadn’t made your child feel secure enough to be authentic with you, when they were feeling happy and otherwise, then they would continue to bottle up the feelings and the release (and subsequent mess) would likely happen at school. Causing far more problems. Many children sadly get into the cycle of not being able to release to their parents, perhaps because their parents have raised them to not share how they feel with them through constant punishments and exclusions, or perhaps because the parents have been too busy, or absent, to listen. The result then is constant difficulty and poor behaviour at school, as they struggle to keep a lid on things and erratically explode, without the safe release of home.

What can you do about restraint collapse? Really, the best thing is to understand and accept it for what it is, a great testament to the hard work you have put into raising a child with good emotional intelligence and a strong bond with them. The effects wear off as children settle into school and things become easier for them, however you will see it time and again throughout the school years. When it happens again (after initially ceasing) you will know that they are struggling with something at school. Don’t take any explosions personally, they are definitely not acting this way because they hate you, it’s actually a bizarre way of them saying that they love you, lots. Instead, let your child know that it’s OK, you’re here for them and you’re big enough and mature enough to hold their difficult feelings as well as their happy ones.

This is a small excerpt from my  ‘The Starting School Book’ . You can order HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world

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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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Baby & Child Sleep During Lockdown – Q&A

I thought I would run a little Q&A answering some of the most common sleep questions that have been posed to me over the last couple of weeks while the world is in lockdown, due to Covid-19.

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Q: My baby will only nap if we are out walking
A: I think the answer to this depends on how old your baby is and how many times per day they need to nap. If you have an older baby who only naps once a day, then I would combine naptime with your one daily exercise (providing you live in a country that allows this). Getting out once a day is so important if you can, the exercise and break from your home can really help you and if it helps your baby to nap then it’s really not something I would be aiming to stop! If you have a younger baby and they need to nap more than once per day, then obviously you are not going to be able to go outside 2 or 3 times per day. Here, I would focus on moving as much as possible in your home. If you usually use a sling/carrier, put it on and walk, or preferably dance around your home to your baby’s favourite music (I always found something with a strong beat – particularly rock music – helped my babies the most!). If you usually use a buggy/stroller/pram for naps, then I would put your baby in it as usual and walk around your home as much as possible. Try to find an area that is a little bumpy to wheel over (as it’s usually the jiggling motion that helps). If you don’t have anything (ie door thresholds) you could make a little series of bumps to go over with rolled up towels, broom or mop handles laid out horizontally. I am usually not one for recommending baby gadgets and I wouldn’t usually recommend this, but THIS gadget that fits on to any pram/buggy and simulates a rocking motion can really help in the current situation. Whatever you end up doing, do make sure you’re not trying to get your baby to take too many naps, or nap before they are ready. It will be much easier to get them to nap if they are tired and ready to sleep. I really do not recommend the current trend of aiming for maximum awake times between sleeps, there is no evidence to support this and I find it makes parents unnecessarily worried about their baby’s sleep and a tendency to try to get them to take more naps than they really need..

Q: My baby will only go to sleep for me again, we had worked hard for dad to do bedtime and this feels like such a step back – help?
A: Don’t see this as a step back, but rather a little fork in your journey. These are uncertain times and our children will pick up on this. At times of high anxiety and uncertainty it’s only natural that our children will be a little clingier and need their primary attachment figure in order to help them to feel safe and relaxed enough to sleep. I know a lot of mums who tell me they have worked hard to get their partners involved in bedtime, so they are not so mum centric, and they are scared to take over again, but please don’t be scared. Focus on getting through each day, in the moment, as easily as possible for you all. That most likely means mum centric bedtimes again for a while. Get through the lockdown and then work on getting your partner involved in bedtime again, this really isn’t the time to be trying to promote more separation at the moment.

Q: My toddler will only go to sleep at night if we are driving in the car, obviously now we can’t do this, what should we do instead?
A: Sadly this is not considered essential travel. I know for many of you it feels essential, because bedtime is such a nightmare otherwise, but the advice is clear that we should stay home unless it is essential to get groceries (as infrequently as possible), one daily exercise, medical and essential work reasons. Roads need to be kept as clear as possible in order to try to prevent any accidents that could place more stress on our emergency and medical services. So – what do you do? Here, it’s SO important to make sure that bedtime is at the ‘right’ time. What do I mean by this? I would say that 90% of people with this issue are trying to get their toddler to sleep too early. I would not try to get them to sleep before 8pm. Next, a good bedtime routine is vital. If we’re aiming for sleep onset at 8pm, we need to work back two hours to create a really sleep inducing bedtime routine. I recommend the following:

6pm – All screens off! (even if the toddler is not looking at them!), no artificial lights on in the same room as the child unless they are red (see HERE for more). One hour of active play (remember no screens!) – imagine you’re exercising a puppy before being crated at night – see more HERE.
7pm – offer a bedtime snack (I favour toast with nut butter, or porridge/oatmeal with diced banana)
7:20pm – warm bath – NO bath toys! (keep it boring, this is bedtime, you don’t want to stimulate!) and don’t use the bathroom light – it’s terrible for sleep!
7:30pm – Straight through to the bedroom they sleep in (don’t go anywhere else!), into PJs, no toys and remember no lights aside from red. Make sure the curtains/blinds are closed when you enter, consider using an aromatherapy diffuser and some alpha music (see tips HERE)
7:40pm – Read one book (the same each night and no lift the flap/noisy books, they’re too stimulating!). Milk and cuddles until they are asleep around 8pm (or at least that’s the goal).

At this point if they aren’t sleepy (it’s OK for them to cry a little  – or a lot – by the way, don’t be scared of tears, so long as you are providing comfort see HERE for more), then I would consider walking around your home with a buggy/stroller/pram or carrier and you could even utilise videos of road noise for an authentic sound! See HERE for just one example!

Q: I really need my toddler to nap now we’re all at home together, but it’s so hard!
A:  I hear you! Sadly, if your toddler doesn’t need to nap then this is going to be a nightmare. I understand completely the need to have a break when you’re all stuck inside together 24/7, however trying to force a nap that a toddler doesn’t need is a recipe for disaster. I also understand that when toddlers are in the process of dropping a nap that things get much harder initially. They don’t want to nap, yet their behaviour indicates they NEED to nap. It’s common for them to misbehave, tantrum and generally be hideously overtired. This doesn’t mean that dropping the nap is the wrong thing to do, it just means it takes time for their body clock to reset. A nap drop takes at least a month for them to get used to – in that month it’s common for behaviour and sleep to get worse. Don’t be duped into thinking it means the nap needs to stay. Instead of trying to force a nap, I’d recommend trying to have some calm time each day instead. Maybe watching a movie together snuggled with a blanket on the sofa, listening to a children’s meditation together or similar. More HERE on nap drops.

Q: My preschooler’s sleep is a nightmare since the lockdown started – help!
A: Can you remember a time when you were feeling anxious and unsettled and your sleep really suffered? Perhaps you found it hard to get to sleep, or you kept waking in the night? It is common and normal for sleep (and any other behaviour) to regress during times of stress. Your child may not fully understand what is happening, but they understand something is happening! I know most parents are tempted to try to work out what is wrong and ‘fix’ their child’s wakings, or need to bedshare again, however – really the best answer is to roll with it and provide the comfort they need during these uncertain times. Their sleep won’t be like this forever, it will get better when the current craziness is all over, please don’t be worried about creating bad habits during these uncertain times.

Q: Should I keep the same bedtime for my child now they are not at school?
A: Oh, this is a tricky one! Children thrive on routines and one of the keys for good sleep is regular wake and bedtimes. So, as a ‘sleep consultant’ (I hate that terminology!) I would say “yes – keep the same bedtime, waketime and bedtime routine”. As a mum however, I’d be tempted to say “just do whatever you need to do to all survive and get through this!”. You can get back on track with timings once schools start again (I personally don’t think that will happen until September), I’d recommend getting back to normal around a month before school starts, so August time. Until then, just roll with it. If you wanted to keep something familiar, I’d recommend sticking with your regular bedtime routine, but being flexible with timings. Remember routines are what you do, not when you do them! See HERE for more.

 

Do you have a lockdown related sleep question? Pop over to my Instagram to take part in my Q&As!