Getting your child ready for school….As a mother to a two and a half year old, the idea of school seems something far off on the horizon that I need not worry about. However I know only too well from other parents that before you know it, your child’s school days are suddenly right around the corner to both of your surprises! It is this – and the notion of getting your child ready for school – that is the subject of this issue of Expert Editions. Taking the virtual floor today will be Dr Kathryn Weston – independent researcher and motivational speaker in the areas of education, parenting and family life – who will be helping us to understand why getting our children ready for school is just so crucial, and how we can go about it:
I have a two and half year old – when do I need to start thinking about preparing her for primary school?
It is advisable to be thinking about school readiness from this early age because whether you like it or not, before you know it, they will be expected to attend school for 6 hours a day! This entails being in a classroom with up to 30 children, having a new teacher and adjusting to the new rules and boundaries of the setting. Being able to thrive in this environment depends greatly on each child’s ability to respond appropriately to the teacher’s requests, play, share, negotiate and behave within the school boundaries.
‘School readiness’ matters because the research tells us that children who enter school “ready to learn” are more likely to succeed at school, stay in school and achieve in their learning. Also, children’s first experiences of transitioning between a pre-school setting and primary school can affect their future experiences of learning. Therefore, it is really important that parents are aware of what children need to be “school ready” so that the process of moving on goes as smoothly as possible.
What are, in your view, some of the biggest challenges in the transition than pre-schoolers make when starting primary school?
Children who struggle upon entering primary school are typically those who have difficulty mastering some basic skills. These include: putting on their own shoes, going to the toilet unaided, washing their hands properly and putting on their own coat. If they are not accustomed to doing these tasks even semi-independently then having to do them in the context of a noisy, rushed, crowded school day can be anxiety-inducing and potentially stressful.
Also, children who have never been away from mum and dad or attended any kind of pre-school setting can struggle with what can seem like an enormous transition. Parents need to teach their children that they can be ok without them for short periods. Building emotional resilience in our children is key so that they can easily transition between settings happily and securely. Children can struggle at primary school if their language skills upon entry are poor. Parents can help by constantly talking to their young children and nurturing their language development every step of the way through songs, rhymes, music, play and reading to them as often as possible. We know as researchers, that language production and IQ at age three predicts achievement in reading, language and maths at primary school.
One tip: some parents purchase toys that teach children the alphabet but often these toys teach the American alphabet and not the phonic alphabet that your children will need to get to grips with in reception year at primary school. Make yourself aware of the phonic alphabet by simply googling it and listening to it and then you will know which sounds your child will be learning in the first year of school and they can have a lovely head-start. The same applies to numeracy – everyday opportunities will crop up when you are ‘out and about’ with your child in the pre-school days. Use these encounters in the supermarket, post office, park or cafe for example, to explore counting and ‘sounding out’.
Poor health can also be a major barrier to a child’s ability to thrive at primary school; problems such as speech defects, deafness, low birth weight and bed-wetting for example are associated withe having to repeating nursery school or the the first year of primary school.
How can parents check if their child is ready for school?
School readiness encompasses an assessment of children’s physical health, fine and gross motor skills, self-care abilities, emotional development and approaches to learning. The questions every parent should ask before primary school approaches are derived from these aspects. Can my child put on their own shoes? hold a pencil? wash their own hands? and put on a coat? Can they recognise their name? Are they able to participate in group activities with others?
Have they been introduced to songs, rhymes, experienced lots of outdoor play? Have they been introduced and encouraged to try new things? new foods, different types of toys, be around different kinds of children? Have they been encouraged to say please and thank you? to express themselves if they feel happy or sad? School readiness is about the whole child’s emotional resilience, confidence, passion and curiosity for learning. The journey towards nurturing these qualities begins in the pre-school years and hopefully continues throughout their educational journey.
What part do nurseries play in preparing children for primary school?
A high quality pre-school setting can set a child up to thrive at primary school and be school-ready. A high quality setting will have a low staff to pupil ratio, a nurturing, exciting and dynamic curriculum based on play and be utterly focused on discovering what makes your child tick. It should be a place that they love to go to, and that they look forward to returning to at the end of the day.
Nurseries can introduce children to a wide variety of creative and dynamic experiences that can lay the foundation and help wire the brain for successful learning. The different stimuli in a pre-school classroom can help children make meaningful connections to the world around them. Children also learn about the social world at nursery school. The classroom can mirror wider society with its diverse, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Pre school teachers help children think about themselves and their roles and responsibilities.
What tips would you offer to parents who are hoping to prepare their pre-schooler for primary school?
Read to them as much as possible. Visit the library and get them into the habit of choosing and enjoying books and reading. Look up Mr Thorne’s phonics on You Tube and familiarise yourself as a family with the phonic alphabet and sounds. Take your child to sing-a-longs and classes where they get the opportunity to share and play with other children.
Keep a close eye on their behaviour socially and encourage courtesy and kind behaviour towards others. Tune into your child’s early interests and passions and indulge them. For example, if they love trains, then take them to see the trains, read about trains, play with trains, count and learn colours through trains!
What advice would you give to parents whose pre-schoolers are anxious about starting school?
Make sure your child does not pick up on your anxiety about their school start. You need to model resilience and talk positively and encouragingly about this exciting new chapter in their life! Watch the language you use. Talking about “big school” can sound daunting. Instead, you may say “wow, soon you will be at your next really exciting school!”.
Make sure they have visited the setting and try and discover if other children that they may know will also attend. Arrange playdates with other parents whose children are also attending. You can also potentially request a home visit from your child’s new reception teacher and that provides an opportunity for the teacher to get to know your child’s needs and interests and to generally get acquainted.
Ultimately, what is likely to happen if a child is not adequately prepared for primary school?
They may not enjoy those early days because they struggle with the demands of the school day and may even start refusing to go. Our job as parents is to assist teachers to help our children to thrive. By preparing our children for the primary school journey and working in partnership with teachers, our children can begin to flourish.
If there would be only one pearl of wisdom you would pass on to parents about getting their child ready for school it would be….
You don’t want your child to be the one hanging at the door on the first day of school crying for you and refusing to enter! Work on developing your child’s self-esteem and confidence to deal with new scenarios as and when the opportunity arises before school starts. Praise them effectively for ‘being so confident’ and able to do things by themselves! As the start of school looms, make sure they have spent time apart from you with trusted carers even for short periods of time, otherwise they might find the shock of being apart from you, a step too far.
Anything else you would like to add?
As parents, try and develop and sustain curiosity in your children about everything in the world around them. Encourage them to ask questions and to develop their own voice. Make sure that your home is a fun and loving place that they will always be able to return to after a long day at school with a skip in their step!
As a family, set expectations from the earliest days; that school is a very important place for learning and that we as a family love to learn. Children who thrive socially and academically at primary school usually come from homes where they are heard, valued and loved, and where parents understand their great value when it comes to teaching their children about the world around them. So always work in partnership with your child’s teacher whilst remembering that you are their first teacher!
Dr Kathryn Weston is an independent researcher and motivational speaker in the areas of education, parenting and family life. As the founder of Keystone Aspire (www.keystone-aspire.com) she delivers talks and workshops in schools to parents and young people that encourage an aspirational approach to life and learning. She advocates an evidence-based approach to parenting; locating high quality research evidence, sharing it with parents and encouraging them to “try and apply” it at home. Follow her on Twitter here.