It’s that time of the year again when a lot of little kids prepare for starting school. Along with the excitement of new school uniform, bags and water bottles comes the nervousness and anxiety. Many children are already used to being separated from parents for some time due to perhaps being in daycare or preschool. But big school is different.
For starters, it is big. Dealing with all of that space and huge playgrounds can be daunting. Secondly, it is usually more crowded and can present to the child a feeling of being lost. Thirdly, there is simply the fear of unknown. How are the teachers going to be? Who will I play with? Where would I eat my lunch? How will I find my classroom? Will there be a toilet? What if mummy/daddy doesn’t come to take me home?
If you think from a child’s point of view, these questions can be overwhelming as they don’t have the capacity or enough experience in life to provide reassuring answers. That’s when they start getting anxious and nervous, to the point that some may even cry if school is mentioned.
Having an anxiety-prone child, I prepared myself for my daughter’s reactions when she started Kindergarten early last year. Here is a list of simple suggestions that helped me deal with my daughter’s anxiety. I was not able to eliminate it completely but I was still pleasantly surprised by how calm she remained when the day arrived.
Read to them
Start reading storybooks to your child that are about starting school at bedtime. This simple activity will not only help them imagine what can happen at school but it will also give them a head start in reading. They will become familiar with many sight words that are later used in Kindergarten reading. Some suggestions for books are “I don’t want to go to school” by Stephanie Blake, “Starting school” by Jane Godwin and Anna Baker, and “Chu’s first day at school” by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex.
Let them wear their uniform
Let them parade around the house fully dressed in school uniform and shoes. This helps them get the feel of things and also familiarises them with their belongings. If possible, give them lunch in their lunch boxes and ask them to open them. I took my daughter to the nearby park a couple of times before she started school and we used to have lunch over there. She used to open her lunch box by herself and drink from her water bottle. Make sure they are able to open their snacks such as a pack of chips or cheese and crackers. I remember my daughter was having trouble opening a particular pack that she really liked and we agreed upon placing a pair of small safety scissors in her lunch bag. She then used the scissors to cut it open for the first few days.
Ask advice from older children
If they have an older sibling, a cousin or family friend who started school a year or two before let them have a chat to your child. An advice or two coming from an older peer, someone your child looks up to, makes a huge difference. It tells them that they are not alone.
Learn where the toilets are
Going to the toilet in school is a matter of concern for many children. Take advantage of all the orientation days and let your child inspect the school toilet. Let them go by themselves while you stand outside waiting for them. Also show them the play areas and school grounds.
Set up a goodbye routine. Whether it’s a silly song, a gesture, a hug and kiss, do it consistently so that it becomes a firm exit point for you and your child becomes familiar with it.
Build familiarity and routine
The thing to remember about anxiety is that it stems from a fear of the unknown. The more predictable a situation is for your child the less anxious they will feel. Give them as much control as possible. Let them lay out all their things the night before. Tell them exactly what they are going to have for lunch. Be extra organised for the morning so that you are not rushed. Make sure they have enough sleep.
If your child expresses a concern, no matter how trivial it is, avoid saying things like, “there is nothing to worry about”. Try instead phrases like, “when I was your age I was very scared of going to school for the first time but then….”. This kind of answer gives validation to what they are feeling and at the same time arms them with practical ways to help themselves.
Last but not least, stay calm. Children often use adults around them as reference points when it comes to feelings. If you are stressed, it is likely that your child will feel anxious too. When saying goodbye, keep it short and simple and then leave without lingering on. No matter how emotional you are feeling try not to show it to your child.
Remember the day they were born? From a tiny fragile creature to a fairly independent child going to school…. it is a huge milestone and you deserve a pat on the back. And a cup of coffee in peace!