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Tips from a new entrants teacher on how to help prepare your child for school

Starting a new school can be daunting for both parent and child. Janette Roberts is a mother of four, now adult children, and has been teaching for 30 years. She’s been there, done that – and she’s got some tips for you.

My firstborn set off for his first day of school cheerfully with his dad, while I spent the day worrying about him. This seems common. I was not worried about the school work, he was a smart boy, but playtime and lunchtime were the big unknowns. I was cheered by the fact that several of his kindergarten buddies had already started school that year, and might keep an eye out for him.

This is not an anxiety you have with your second child. Provided they attend the same school, older siblings can usually be relied upon for about a week to check up on the new one, and thereafter can be sought or summoned if necessary. With my first, I arrived at 3pm to wait outside the class with the other mums (it was 1987 – few dads, nannies or grandparents then) to greet the new entrant who threw himself into the double buggy, ousting his three year old sister, and demanding to be wheeled home. I hadn’t taught new entrants at this stage and was unprepared for end-of-school exhaustion, grumpiness and non-communication.

Now that I have been teaching new entrants for many years, I know this experience is very typical. Children find the first few weeks of school hard work. We try as teachers to minimise this, but it is a new environment with lots of new rules, spoken and unspoken. What can you do to help your child ease into school?

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Taking time to make two or three pre-visits to the classroom before starting helps everybody. Check whether your school has an allocated day and time for these (we do at our school, although we always accommodate parents who cannot make this time). The pre-visit gives you and your child a chance to see how the teacher interacts with the children, and how the kids relate to each other. What are the routines for going to the toilet and where is it? Do they ask the teacher or just go? Teach them the name of their teacher. My class use my christian name, but some teachers prefer a title. Schools are increasingly moving towards different kinds of learning environments (such as Innovative Learning Environments or Modern Learning Environments), so your child may be in a learning space with three teachers and maybe a teacher aide or two. It’s difficult to start with, but means that if your child’s class teacher is away, there will be an adult there who knows them. Try and stay for a play break, so your child realises there are a lot of children of all ages at the school, and some are big and loud.

When it comes to the first day, deal with any anxieties you have away from your child. On the day, be the calm adult your child needs. Make sure they are already enrolled so you can go straight to the classroom when you arrive (you can enrol them whenever suits you, but you need to bring a birth certificate, or passport if not a NZ resident). Be early! Play with your child or read them a story, chat with the other adults and children just like you would at pre-school. It’s a good idea to have a change of bottoms in the school bag, and it really helps to have a bag of a decent size. It will hold a book bag, maybe a library book, swimming togs some days, a raincoat other days.

When to leave? On the first day I encourage parents to stay as long as they want. Often the child asks the parent to go! On regular days, for parents whose children are a bit anxious, it helps to tell your child when you will leave, so that there are no surprises. Pick a natural break, maybe after the roll is called or at our school after karakia. Take a couple of days off work if you can, and once your child is happy, you can go and have a coffee and congratulate yourself on what a good job you have done preparing them for school.

Of course, you started preparing your baby for school from the day they were born. They have been talked to and listened to, even when you have no idea what their vocalisations mean. No one can read or write without a good oral language foundation. Listening to your child and making them feel like they are making a contribution to family conversations will go a long way.

When parents pre-visit and ask me for hints to prepare for school, I always say please read to your child. Reading at home is the single biggest indicator for me of success in reading and writing at school. Children who have sat on a knee and looked at the pictures understand lots of things about reading before they ever start it. They understand that text carries a message, that words (at least in English) start at the top left of the page and proceed along to the end of the line, then sweep back to the left again. I started reading to my children as soon as they could focus on a picture, but I am a bit keen that way. If you’re unsure what books to read to your child, ask at the library or bookshop, ask other parents, ask your preschool.

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The third arm of literacy is writing. This usually takes longer to develop than reading, and involves control over a writing tool. We like to have an experience and write about it at school, and you can easily mimic this in a less intensive way at home. You don’t need to provide a special experience, going to the shop or park is fine, although I used to seize on holidays, shows etc as an opportunity to create little books for my own children. You can start their experience of writing by asking them to draw a picture – of anything: a favourite comic character, a fun time, their mum, let them decide. When the picture or pictures are complete to your child’s satisfaction, not yours, you can ask them to dictate a word about the experience. Some may just say “swing”, some may give a whole sentence. Your job is to write it on the picture somewhere as clearly as you can in (lower case) letters. Add your child’s name, also lower case (except for the first letter, of course). Then you can pin the picture up and encourage them to show other adults. They may point to their name and read it. If it is a whiteboard creation, take a photo for them. I bet your child will know how to find it. You can also send it to loving adults who are distant.

It is great if children can come to school able to write their name, but even if they can’t it’s good to give them practice at reading their name, especially so there is no stress for them when they go to pick up their book bag to take home. It’s embarrassing if Tania gets home with Tane’s book bag with maybe a favourite toy inside. Children usually use the first letter of their name as a clue. They naturally look at final letters next, so help them notice their special one. It means your child will put their lunchbox back in their own bag and any special things they are taking home.

And what about maths? Maybe you have played counting games so your child can count to ten. The areas we notice children stumble on are fractions and sometimes making patterns. Both occur many times in everyday life at home. Half an apple, but also half of the four apples. Or lollies! You can have lots of fun making patterns with shells at the beach: pipi, blacktop, pipi, blacktop, pipi. At home: spoon, knife or red and green lego blocks etc. Maybe they will want to draw a pattern but I wouldn’t push this.

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All these learning opportunities pale into insignificance for your child if they are lonely at school. Hopefully they attend a childcare centre which feeds children into the school they are attending. Hopefully they have had friends home to play many times and are used to visiting other children’s homes without you. Most children in New Zealand attend a school in the area they live. This means that you and they develop networks so the day you or another of your children is sick, another parent might collect your child and take them to school. Children who arrive at school in a group run in happily, already part of a social group before the day has started. And please try and get them there early – about ten minutes before class starts is ideal. This gives your child time to hang their bag, bring in and sort out their bookbag, and locate friends to have quick play with before the bell goes. It also means if you need to give the teacher a message (maybe Granddad is collecting today, or it’s the first day at after school care), you can in a way that is relaxed for you and gives the teacher time to write it down.

At the end of the school day I prefer parents to come inside the classroom while they wait to collect their child, so I can orally give any reminders and know each child has gone with a caregiver. It’s a good time to check in your child’s bag for the notice about the sausage sizzle on Friday. Check your school emails for the same notice.

So with a little bit of planning you can do a fantastic job getting your child ready for school, and your school ready for your child. When the day comes, everyone is relaxed, the peg is labelled, and the teacher has planned lessons and resources for your child’s individual needs.

Janette Roberts is a mother of four, now adult children, and has been teaching for thirty years. Since 2000 she has taught junior classes, mostly New Entrants with very diverse backgrounds at an inner city school. Apart from teaching her passions are tramping, knitting and travel.

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