Last week I sent my youngest child off to school.
So far he is loving it and is happy to go each morning so I am hoping school will be all smooth sailing for him. After all, he was practically born at school and has spent a lot of time there over the years, plus he’s got his best mate in his class, and a lovely teacher, and he’s very keen… but I’m pretty sure I said similar things about the last child I sent off to school, and that didn’t turn out quite as smoothly as I’d hoped.
So what do you do when the first few days of school don’t go so well?
Well, If you are anything like me, you’ll hide yourself in the pantry and cry for a while, and then you’ll take a deep breath, do your best to put on a brave face, and try and figure out ways to make things better.
Starting school is a huge change in a child’s life, and in the life of the family. It takes a lot of adjustment for everyone and it can take some time to settle in.
You are not alone, lots of kids struggle during those first few weeks, and for most kids it usually gets better with time (for some kids it can develop into something more serious so always seek professional help if you feel it’s more than a few nerves). But there are things you can do that might help both you and your child cope with a difficult start to school.
How to Help if Your Child is Struggling with Starting School.
Here are a few things that might help when starting school doesn’t go smoothly…
Set the tone.
I waffle on about this a lot I know, but it’s really true… you, the parent (or parents) who are around the most, you set the tone for your family, so you need to make sure your tone about school, and family life in general, is positive, supporting and understanding.
Talk about it… but don’t talk about it.
Facing a constant stream of questions about what they did at school, or why they are upset can be totally overwhelming for a struggling child. Likewise constant chatter about how awesome school is and how much they’ll love it can also be unhelpful. Instead be available to chat and simply ‘say what you see‘ – ‘you look a bit sad this afternoon’ or ‘You had trouble saying good bye this morning’ – that opens the door for conversation without pressure.
Make sure everyone gets enough down time.
Your child will be exhausted – I’m sure you were expecting that – but it’s not just physical tiredness but the crushing exhaustion that comes from being overwhelmed a lot of the time, or trying to keep it together for the entire school day. So as well as making sure they get enough sleep, also make sure they get enough ‘do nothing time’ after school. Try not to schedule too many after school activities for the first term and just let your child hang out, play, go outside, and do ‘nothing much’.
A big part of the transition to school can be getting used to being apart from Mum and Dad for longer periods so it is worth putting lots of extra time into connecting with your child as often as you can. One on one time helps kids de-stress and allows lots of opportunity for chatting and cuddles.
Talk to the teacher.
Your child’s teacher wants them to love school and they want to know if your child is struggling or unhappy, they will not think you are over-reacting, I promise! So make a time to talk to them, preferably without your child present if you can. They will have loads of good ideas and information and you also might get a totally different perspective from your child’s teacher so its well worth making the time to trade information so you both know how your child is coping at school and at home. Bear in mind that teachers will be busy juggling lots of things at this time of the year, so you’ll need to be flexible and work with them to find a time that suits.
Talk to a friend
Your child is not the only one who has ever struggled to settle in to school. I promise you, you are not alone! Talk to a friend, or jump online and chat to someone you trust, someone who understands. I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better, and when you are feeling less stressed you’ll be able to manage things better and you’ll pass that zen attitude onto your kids too.
A special something.
Sometimes giving your child a ‘special something’ – a hanky, a keyring, something small they can keep in their pocket to remind them of you during the day – can help calm an anxious child. And sometimes a reminder of something special they can look forward to at the end of the day, or the week, can help a struggling child find a reason to keep trying.
Tweak the school routine.
Sometimes a few tweaks to the school day routine can have a big effect on how everyone copes. Perhaps you need to get up a little earlier so there is time for a healthy breakfast, and time to spend connecting with your child before school. Perhaps you need to get to school a little earlier so there is time for a quick play before the bell and an unrushed goodbye. Perhaps you can organise to meet a friend at the school gate so you can all walk in together, or perhaps you can organise a short play on the playground with a mate after school to help friendships grow.
Ask for help
If your child is very upset, very anxious, or not coping for a long period, it’s ok to seek some professional help. No child should be miserable all the time at school, and your child’s mental health is more important than school attendance. Talk to your family doctor or your school and see what options are available, or ask for a referral for a psychologist.
It’s also ok to look at other options – mainstream school is not the only choice and it may not be the right fit for your child, there may be an alternative that is better suited to your child and your family.
If you are in the US and interested in homeschooling, these tips on how to start homeschooling may be useful.
Do you have a child who struggled with starting school?
I’ve been there with one of my kids and it was heartbreakingly hard at times. With support and understanding from u,s and the school we got through those first few rocky months of school.
Edited to Add: It’s been some years since this article was first published and I wanted to add a little more to our personal story around school attendance struggles.
Our child who struggled with starting school did end up settling in well that first year of school, and they did great for the next few years after that. But in the later years of primary school we saw signs that they were not coping with school and, after a few years struggling with serious school based anxiety, attendance issues, mental illness and eventually being diagnosed with autism and other neurodiversites, they are no longer in the mainstream school system because it was not the right environment for them.
Gentle and respectful encouragement to go to school is great for kids who are a bit worried or nervous, or who need extra support to settle during that first year, but if your child is showing signs of major anxiety, or long term issues with school attendance, or you just know that something is not right, please seek professional support.
Not all kids are ok at school, and your child’s mental health is more important than school.
I’d love to hear your stories and ideas for how to help a child, and their family, when starting school doesn’t go so smoothly.
Please leave a comment below or come and chat on my facebook page.