I don’t know who was more nervous about my son’s first day of grade 1, me or him. On the surface I had been positive and he was full of bravado but the unconscious told a different story – I’d had bad dreams and he had taken up sleepwalking.
At school children will experience some of their greatest challenges, successes, failures and humiliations. In separating from their parents they will learn about how the world works, about managing social interactions and about people outside their own families. They will face up to their strengths, weaknesses, interests and who they are socially, but not without some anxiety along the way.
Most children have similar sorts of worries around starting school. I asked three young kids what they remembered about that first day, and here’s what they said
1. “I thought I wouldn’t pass because I wasn’t clever at that time.”
2. “I was worried the kids would be mean to me and I wouldn’t find my way back.”
3. “I didn’t know who would play with me.”
These are typical concerns along with “How will I know what to do and where to go?”, “Where are the bathrooms?”, “What about bullies?”, “Do I need to be able to read or write or spell already?”, and “Can I cope with saying goodbye to mom or dad and will I cry?”
Such worries can make even a well-adjusted child anxious. And that anxiety or fear can build up in a child’s mind, leading them to act on it in many ways — from tummy aches and sleep problems to out-and-out refusal to go to school.
If parents have mixed feelings (such as guilt or anxiety) about sending a child to school, this can add to the child’s reluctance. A child’s experience starting school is influenced by their parents’ feelings and attitudes.
Parents of young kids often feel emotional as they send their child off for the first day of big school. Kids can pick up on that nervousness, making their own worries even more intense. Months of buildup to the start of school, talking about it as a big event, can also make a child anxious.
What if the first week of school arrives and a child still doesn’t want to go to school? He or she might not say it directly, but rather claim to have a tummy ache or a sore throat that quickly disappears once it’s decided to keep him or her home from school. Kids might hide when it’s time to get ready to go to school, or throw temper tantrums. Anxiety can also cause a child to have trouble sleeping or have nightmares while they’re sleeping. Little ones especially may become very clingy especially if they aren’t used to being away from parents during the day. If you don’t deal with the anxiety and its causes, it can get out of control very easily. A vicious cycle is set up when an overly sensitive parent keeps an anxious child at home, only for it to be even more difficult to send the child to school the following day.
So, no matter what, parents shouldn’t let anxiety keep kids away from school. All of these signs of worry may end soon after the start of school. But if they continue for several weeks, talk to the teacher and get some guidance.
What Parents Can Do To Help Their Child
- Show interest and be supportive. Take your kid’s fears seriously. Don’t criticise, mock or tease as they are easily humiliated. Talk to your children about their anxieties and help them articulate these. As I have written before, speaking fears out as words diminishes their unspoken power and renders them normal.
- Talk to your child about what to expect – the activities, the schedule and the other children.
- Share your own memories of school – be generally positive, but realistic. Your own experience can be an opportunity to model coping strategies
- Read books about going to school.
- If possible take your child to school to get used to the layout (where his classroom is, where the bathrooms are, which desk is his, etc.) and to introduce him to the teacher. Many schools have orientation programmes for pupils starting Grade R or Grade 1 – these are extremely useful to attend.
- Identify a buddy at school – this can decrease apprehension about being alone in the new setting.
- Get your child in a routine some time before school starts, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier.
- Make the getting-ready-for-school ritual as stress-free as possible. For example, with your child’s help lay out all books and clothes the night before.
- Suggest that your child takes a familiar object or a family picture to school.
- Be a coach – talk through and role play situations. Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
- Don’t overdo it though as this can make kids more anxious.
Remember to be realistic about who your child is. If they are temperamentally anxious or shy, starting school may be more difficult than for confident kids. Even in these cases don’t overprotect or underestimate their ability to manage stressful situations. It‘s not only important to trust your child’s ability to cope, but also to be able to trust the school and teacher and most importantly to trust yourself to let go.