Writer Anna Warwick interviewed me recently for Northside Magazine on how to help your children settle in at school. I thought I would reproduce this article here, with their permission, as I have had some very positive feedback from readers saying they found my advice helpful.
Writer: Anna Warwick Photographs: Jon Attenborough
“This was a year of great transition in our house. I had the three children going off to three different schools. Teyah, 11, began high school; Kye, 9, started year 4 at a new primary school; and Jazmine, who’s just turned 16, started year 10 at a new school.
“Even if we are incredibly busy, as parents it’s pretty important to take the time to check in on this critical stage. Transition points are when things may come unstuck, so the time you invest now will pay dividends down the track once they are settled.
“I shed a couple of tears when Teyah started high school, but your children need to see that you believe it’s going to be fine and they will cope. It’s only natural that they (and you) will experience some anxiety around this new beginning. There will be days of stress; there will be days where they are a bit tired and a bit grumpy. Don’t panic and worry that you’ve picked the wrong school. It’s normal to have a few hiccups along the way. I’ve been saying to my kids ‘I’m really proud of how you’re handling this’ and ‘Gee you’re a lot stronger than you realised, aren’t you?’
“Ultimately, through life they’ll go through a lot of changes – it’s the only thing that’s really inevitable – and so this is great practice. Teyah’s high school is really big – there are about 180 kids in each year group – and she went to a primary school with only 55 students. It may be easier for your child to form connections with school mates outside the traditional playground. I tapped into the traditional, yet often overlooked, networks of Girl Guides for Teyah and Cubs for Kye, and Jazmine joined the local church youth group.
“I’ve been organising a few little play dates. Doesn’t matter if they’re in high school, just call it ‘hanging out’. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a great icebreaker. Build up your child’s friendship skills. Teach them the importance of introducing themselves and remembering people’s names.
“Teach them what makes a good listener as well as a good talker. It’s also about being sensitive and friendly to others, saying ‘hi’ to people, learning how to take compliments politely and to give them sincerely. If you’re concerned about the types of friends your child is making, then as a parent you have the right to set some boundaries. Be honest and talk to your kids about the fact that sometimes some people are not going to like them.
“There’s pressure to be liked, but the reality is that not everyone is going to like you all the time. Encourage them to keep in touch with old friends. It is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on, because if one network collapses they will still feel like they belong, as they have a community elsewhere.
“As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: ‘From 4-5pm you can watch your favourite shows, but the trade-off is that from 5-5.30pm you are going to do your spelling. From 5.30-7pm you can go and play.’
“Map out their afternoon and they will be more likely to stick with it. If they don’t have homework, get them to read their notes or read a novel – something that blocks out that period of time. Show them how to use a calendar and noticeboard; set up an in-tray on their desk. Write affirmations and put them in their room: ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘I have faith in my abilities.’ Seek outside assistance if your child seems to be falling behind. A great tutor can make all the difference between their feeling anxious about school and setting them up for success.
“Be aware of signs that you child is not settling in well or is distressed, such as withdrawal – isolating themselves and an unwillingness to participate in family activities. Keep a look out for overeating or a loss of appetite, changes to sleep patterns, general irritability and quickness to anger. It’s a fine line between normal angst and something real going on; as a general rule parents know the difference.
“Our gut feeling is usually right. If we are observant enough and ask open-ended questions, we can get to the bottom of things. Pick your moment. After they get home from school they’re a bit over it all. If you ask ‘How was your day?’ you might get a couple of grunts in response. I find I can have a really good conversation with them just before they go to bed because they know the longer they keep talking the longer the light stays on. I guess it’s a stalling tactic. If in doubt, liaise with your child’s school. Most schools are open to having discussions and they would rather help you to sort things out early on than wait till they become big issues.
“Finally, don’t forget to make them feel special and acknowledge in a concrete way that you’re proud and supportive of them. Have a special dinner or write them a little note. Taking Kye out for a milkshake makes his day. At the end of Teyah’s first week at school I had a big stuffed toy waiting on her bed, and I gave Jazmine a bunch of flowers. When our children are older we can forget that they still need us as much as ever.”