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Strategies for Starting School - Preparation, First Day of School and What to Ex

Several times this month, Fiona Brill and her five year old son have walked to the nearby Primary School. There they play on the monkey-bars, eat a picnic lunch and try out all the drinking taps to discover which ones work - and which ones spray water everywhere. Fiona points out the classroom Nicky will be in this year and the bench she will sit on, when it is time to collect him. In just a few weeks, Nicky will go to school for the first time. Fiona is already working to make the transition as easy and as happy as possible.

It need not be tears and traumas at the school gate at the start of the year. Given preparation and a positive attitude to school, the first day - and all the other days too - can be a time to look forward to and enjoy.

The Weeks Before

* Many schools arrange orientation days where children are shown around and perhaps have a story read to them by a 'real' teacher. These are a terrific introduction.

* Talk about school often, in casual conversation. ('Yes, you can read "cat". You'll learn to read lots of words at school.') Be positive and enthusiastic in your attitude, but on the other hand, don't build it up too much -school can't live up to the reputation of Circus Maximus.

* Education Departments often have excellent booklets to offer ideas. Ask for them.

* Visit the school grounds several times so your child has a concrete picture of where they will be spending their time. Like Fiona, show them the classroom, the toilets, try out the drinking taps and play some chasey on the oval.

* Point out where you will sit and wait to meet your child after school. Knowing you will be at a set place at a set time makes them feel much more secure.

* Get kids involved in a fashion parade of trying on uniforms. They can write their names on painting smocks, lunch boxes and school bag in texta.

* Have picnics where you practice undoing drink lids and unravelling dried fruit and sandwiches from plastic wrap. (Or try using waxed paper instead, it's easier for small fingers.)

* Talk often about how long the school day will be in simple terms - 'After lunch, you'll have some more games and stories and then I'll be waiting to take you home.'

* Gather uniforms, art smocks and school bags well in advance. This avoids the terrible night before finding frenzy!

* Make sure everyone gets an early night!

The First Day.

* Help your child get ready in a calm and relaxed manner. Even if you have to get up earlier to avoid panics and last minute rush.

* Arrange to meet up with one of your children's friends and their parents. That way you can all walk together and support each other.

* Don't forget to leave extra time for a photo or two. It's something to really treasure later.

* Understand that there will be little time for the teacher to chat to you. This can happen later, on other days. Teachers need to concentrate just on the children during those first few chaotic days!

* In the classroom, get your child involved in an activity (just like at kinder), but don't stay too long.

* Always tell your child you are leaving, but keep it casual - five act farewells are a terrible strain on both parents and children. When you leave, do so quickly and firmly - even if tears start. Teachers are experts in comforting and distracting children - but they can only do so when parents (always the child's first choice!) are no longer there.

* Keep reminding yourself (often) that most children who cry on the first day when parents leave are happily involved in drawing elephants and making friends before the parent has even made it home.

* Be there waiting when school ends. Even two minutes late can feel like two hours to a Prep kid.

The First Few Weeks

* Expect some deterioration in behaviour in those early days, because of tiredness. Answering back, rudeness, fighting and even bed-wetting are all signs of tension. You don't have to accept it, but you don't have to go racing back to the child rearing manuals just yet either. Cuddles, kindness and quiet times should see the problem out.

* Have a small snack and some quiet activity ready for when you both get home. Unwind gently, chat about the day, even get some favourite videos to watch, until energy levels return. Don't ask five friends over to play - no matter how much they beg you!

* Don't talk much about what you did during the day, especially if it was exciting. Imply it was business as usual at home or at work. Children hate to miss out.

* However, do actually plan something special for yourself - especially on that first day alone. Even if you have two toddlers and a baby still underfoot, a child going to school for the first time leaves a huge gap in your life. Fill it with something special. It's a new beginning for all of you.

'No, you can't jump on those squares,' Nicky Brill is telling his mother. 'This is my school. I make the rules.' He has already made the transition. The first day of school is something to look forward to for both of them.

(c) Jen McVeity, National Literacy Champion.

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