Starting "Big" School




The big day is nearly here, your ‘big boy’ or ‘big girl’ is getting ready to start ‘big school’! 


The books are bought, the backpack filled, the uniform pressed and ready to go! Both you and your child feel the excitement and anticipation of the big day to come. You know his self-esteem is high, and that he is well able to communicate his needs to the teacher. You know how independent she is, and that her social skills and friendships are strong. In your heart of hearts, you know they are ready to take this first step into formal education. So, what can you do in these final days to support them during this important transition?

Start by talking about school and reading books about children starting school. These books cover all sorts of situations, and can be a great way to start conversations about what is expected in the primary school system.  Pre-empt any anxieties by going through the various processes – when they will have lunch, what do to if they need to use the toilet, where you will meet them at the end of the day. Speak positively about school, if you are nervous about them starting school, try not to show it! 

In practical terms, think about how independent they can be.

Can she put on and take off her coat herself? (If her coat is new, make sure she can recognise it!).

Is he confident in using the bathroom? (If his new uniform has zips, just check he can use them).
Can she open and close her schoolbag and lunchbox? (Usually these are both new).

Don’t forget to label all their possessions. This can avoid rows over who owns what!

Break and lunch times can be hectic in a classroom full of junior infants, and the teacher will often not have enough time (or hands!) to help so many children. Little oranges can be difficult to peel, yogurt drinks can end up down the front of their jumper, and plastic wrapped cheeses of various sorts often end up at the bottom of the lunch box half opened. Try having a ‘pretend school lunchtime’ with your child at home so that they can try things out, and you can see what they can manage easily.

If your child does not know any other children in the new class, ask around to see if any children living near you will be starting and introduce them before the big day.  Starting school is always easier with a hand to hold! 

Try to get into a new routine early – earlier bed time and waking earlier in the morning – and plan your routine for the mornings. What can you have ready the night before to make your mornings easier? Better to have more time in the mornings, than be rushing in a panic. A stressed parent = stressed child.

On the first morning at school, arrive in plenty of time.  Don’t worry if there are a few tears (either your child or yourself – just hide your own till you have left the classroom!) it is often just a release of all the emotion of the day. No matter how you are feeling, be positive with your child.

Don’t linger too long in the classroom - if your child is nervous, try to engage them in an activity, or with another child before you leave. Always tell them when you are leaving, and that you will be there waiting for them when school ends. Remind them that if they are unsure of anything, just ask the teacher – she is there to help.

If you have an anxious child, don’t minimise their concerns, instead talk to them about what to expect and talk through how they might respond to any concerns they might have. A little trick can be to put a few drops of your perfume on a hankie for them to take in their schoolbag with them – if feeling a little nervous, it can help to have a little sniff of mum! Or get two little matching charms one for you and one for the child to take to school – if you are missing each other you have the charm to remind you the other one is thinking of you.

At the end of the day, make sure you are on time to collect them! It can be very upsetting for a child if they are left waiting for you. After school, try to have some time set aside to talk to your child about their daily activities. But try not to worry if your child says ‘I don’t know’ when asked about school life, they have an awful lot to take in over those first weeks. Most parents have experience of the greeting ‘what did you do today?’ getting the response ‘nothing’! Remember this transition is not just the first day of school, it takes time to settle into the new classroom and routine, and you can expect them to be more tired than usual over the first weeks.

Finally, don’t forget to look after your own emotional well-being. Your child starting school can be as much of an emotional change for you as it is for them. Keep yourself busy over those first days. Try to have a few words with some of the other parents at drop off and pick up times, they are going through the same emotions, and will probably become your friends and allies for the next eight years or so! Your child starting school is both exciting and emotional, watching them finding their wings and learning to fly. Don’t worry it will soon be 3pm, and your little whirlwind will be back, eyes sparkling, to reassure you that she really is a ‘big girl’ now!  

Thank You Dr Mary O'Kane


Dr Mary O'Kane is a lecturer in Psychology and Early Childhood Education with Maynooth University and The Open University. Her PhD research studied the issues that children in Ireland, and their families, face during the transition from preschool to primary school. Mary provides training seminars for preschool providers and parents in the areas of wellbeing and self esteem, resilience in young children, positive behaviour management, and preparing children for primary school. Mary worked as the resident early years expert on the Anton Savage show on Today FM, and from 2017 works in the same capacity on the Alison Curtis Show. Mary is also a regular contributor to Ireland AM on parenting and early childhood education issues.