Head start ... Finn Smith, with his mother Caroline, preparing for 'big school"
Head start ... Finn Smith, with his mother Caroline, preparing for 'big school"

Up to one-third of children heading to school for the first time will find the process difficult and may need extra support to settle in. Beginning school can be so daunting for kindergarten children that, for some, their behaviour can appear to regress, manifesting itself as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting or even toddler-style tantrums.

"It's probably a third of kids who have any sort of problems and half of those wouldn't be serious problems," the executive director of the Australian Psychological Society, Professor Lyn Littlefield, says. "But you do see kids who become very anxious and do become quite clingy and don't want to leave mum and don't want to go to school.

"Sometimes their behaviour regresses to that of when they are younger ... which is an outward sign of just being apprehensive and anxious about going into the new environment."

Thrown into the mix can be parents' own emotions, which can be particularly raw if the child starting school is their first or last.

"All parents want their children to settle into school and go well," Littlefield says. "Some parents are quite anxious about their kids going to school. That's when support networks of friends you can talk to about those feelings are important."

She suggests seeking out friends who have been through the same situation, or striking up friendships with parents of children in your child's class. "That support network of parents is extremely helpful, right through the child's school years," she says.

With the first day of school fast approaching, Littlefield says parents still have time to prepare their children. That can include letting them practise putting on their school uniform, discussing possible lunch menus and preparing some practice lunches together. It is also a good idea to get kindergarten children used to opening lunch boxes and to talk about, and become familiar with, the routine of getting up and ready for school.
Even though schools are closed for the holidays, it can be helpful to walk or drive past the school a few times so it is not as daunting on the first day.

For children who are anxious, parents need to help them express their feelings, which is not always easy with littlies.

"You can't always just ask, 'How are you feeling?' or, 'Are you worried?" Littlefield says.

Look for opportunities to chat with your child when they are relaxed, which could be when you are cuddling up on the couch, driving in the car or reading a book or drawing together.

"You can read books about other children going to school and they [can] then talk about themselves," she says. "A whole lot of things can help them express their feelings."

But you should never force the discussion. "You have to wait until they're ready to do it, while encouraging them along the way," Littlefield says.

If your child is anxious or acting out, it is vital to address the situation early.

"If you want a child to see school as a great place and achieve their potential, you can't afford to let this sort of thing drag on. It can be nipped in the bud and dealt with pretty easily, in most cases."

Tips for parents

Be positive Speak positively about school, while also listening to children's
concerns and reassuring them that it is OK to feel nervous about change.

Inform children
Answer any questions they have and give them opportunities to become familiar with the school environment and other children and families.

Practise routines
Help your child prepare for school-day routines: getting up and going to bed at certain times; dressing themselves; travelling there and back.

Promote problem solving
Talk to your child about what they will do in different situations, such as when they are in class and need to go to the toilet. Teach them the process of problem solving.

Expect tiredness
The first days and weeks of school can be exhausting. Make sure children are well nourished and get plenty of rest. You may need to limit after-school activities temporarily.

Make sure your children have opportunities to talk about school but don't overwhelm them with too many questions or try to force them to talk if they are tired.

Get involved Having parents and carers who are involved in a child's education and the school community can help them develop a sense of belonging.

Celebrate Taking time to celebrate this important milestone can make it special for the whole family.

Source: kidsmatter.edu.au/transition

It's in the bag, mum

Attending a preschool on the same site as his primary school has proved a real bonus for Finn Smith. Now almost five years old, when Finn heads to "big school" in Sydney's inner west, he will be entering familiar territory.

As well as having a formal orientation at his primary school, Finn had plenty of chances for ad hoc visits to the classroom during preschool hours last year.

"About six kids at a time would go to take some resources up," Finn's mother, Caroline Sylvester-Smith, says. "He always talked about that with me and he would say, 'Oh, I got to go to the kindergarten rooms and I saw Miss so-and-so today and we did this and this while I was up there."'

Finn did have one worry about school, Caroline says.

"At the end of last year, after a kindergarten orientation session, he said, 'I don't want to go to kindergarten, I want to stay at preschool.' I said, 'Why is that?' and he said, 'Because the bag is really big.'

"I have talked to him about how we'll ... go to the shops and he can choose a bag tag to identify his bag and that it's for him for kindergarten. I'm trying to put a positive approach on the bag."

Caroline, a primary school teacher at a different school, is also slowly gathering Finn's other items for school, taking him on weekly outings.

"We'll make a special deal of it," she says.

"We'll go to the shops and he chooses his drink bottle and we'll make a label together on the label machine."

Ruby Broadbent starts kindergarten this year.
Exciting times ... Ruby Broadbent starts kindergarten this year.

Pack packed and ready to go

Ruby Broadbent has a calendar beside her bed and is ticking off the days before she starts kindergarten. The sociable four-year-old, who turns five within a few weeks of starting school, couldn't be more excited.

"There's a big whiteboard and you can do games and things on the whiteboard," she says. "I like that."

Last year, Ruby attended several orientation classes at her new school on the northern beaches — and it didn't take her long to settle in.

"I made a couple of friends that are girls, I can't remember their names but they are still my friends," she says. "I have got my library bag, my school uniform, I've got a little school book that I pop my picture of my head and feet and my arms in, you know, I already did that. I'm just so excited to go to school."

As the first child in her family to be heading to kindergarten, her parents Michelle and Gary are delighted for Ruby. "She's looking forward to it and I just feel that she is so ready and she's going to enjoy herself," says Michelle, who adds, "it is a bit emotional that my first-born is going to school."