Expert tips by Jan Jones (Early Childhood Educator)
Starting school or kindergarten can be very difficult for some children and their families. There is usually a very big build-up to the event with comments from extended family and friends. The build-up and anticipation tends to start in October, November or December and then continues over the busy period of Christmas and January. New clothes, bags, lunch-boxes and labelled items are attained and then, eventually, the big day arrives. The child is farewelled with great excitement and the kindergarten or school year begins. Whether a child has a gradual start over days or weeks, or the school or kindergarten commences with their full program, it is still a time of great adjustment for the children. There are new children and adults to adjust to, new rules and the expectation from families that it is all fun and exciting.
Think about your own experiences of starting a new job, moving to a new house or dating a new partner. These are usually all events that can bring about feelings similar to those experienced by children in the first month or so at school or kindergarten. At these times you would probably have been unsure where to find things, how to most easily move from one area to another, what to say and when you should assert yourself or stand back. Some people achieve all of this much more readily than others and some are much better at containing any anxiety or uncertainty they may be feeling.
Children experience all of these feelings as well and some of them show few outward signs that they are having trouble adapting to their new environment. This may be due to all of the preparation that went beforehand when children had the opportunity to meet their new teacher, experience the classroom and playground and talk about what would happen in their new setting. This preparation helps but the most important factor about how a child will cope with their new environment is the child’s own temperament. Some children do not have the opportunity for orientation to the new setting but they cope very well; others who have been through maximum opportunities to ready them for the “big day” do not manage nearly as well.
February is usually one of our hottest months in most parts of Australia, and the heat can be very tiring. Unfortunately, this is when schools and kindergartens start. Getting in and out of a car seat (even with the air-conditioner going) or walking, scooting or riding to school is very tiring on these hot days. Children expend much more energy in the kindergarten or school playground than they do in the backyard at home. The size of the playground and large numbers of children with which to interact ensure this is a hectic time for most children.
One of the more unsettling times for parents is when their child has separated relatively easily from the parent in the first week or so but then starts to show signs of not wanting to go to school or kindergarten. This is not helped by the fact that most children are very tired in the first few months of their new setting. Extra sleep is usually not easy to organise as children of this age have trouble adjusting their bodily rhythms to sleep during the day on the weekend. If your child is able to get extra sleep that is extremely advantageous, as everyone copes better with new situations when they are not tired.
What are some of the symptoms that your child may be displaying in these first weeks?
Delaying tactics: slow to get ready in the morning. This may include eating breakfast, getting dressed, toileting, brushing teeth, combing hair, packing bag, getting in car or out of the door as well as the myriad other things that have to happen to arrive at school or kinder on time. This is an extremely trying time for parents and will only be made worse if the parent shows frustration or anger.
Try to organise a routine so that each step of getting ready is achieved on time. Remind your child when they have to move on to the next step, so that everything is achieved in order. A chart with pictures or photographs of each step can help with this and some families use a timer for a while, that the child can reset as each step is completed. This may be an egg-timer, an alarm clock or a mobile phone depending on the capability of the child and the patience of you as a parent. Encouraging the child’s independence in managing this readiness is very important to their self-esteem. Try to avoid doing everything for your child as independence is a vital part of their learning. This will mean that you have to be extremely organised yourself so that as soon as your child is ready you are also ready to move on to the travelling part of the day.
Tantrums: Tiredness makes tantrums more likely to occur, so try to encourage relaxing activities on the weekends or rest times if possible. If your school-aged or kindergarten-aged child throws a tantrum, impose a few minutes of time-out in a quiet room to give the child some time to recover their composure. After that, a comforting cuddle and reassurance will usually work better than trying to question the child about why they behaved in such a way. If you feel it is important to find out what triggered the tantrum, talk about it when the child is calm and you have plenty of time for a discussion. In most cases, it is better to just ignore the reason for the tantrum, as the child often has no idea why they acted that way.
Bed-wetting: This is often the most distressing event for parents as it interrupts their sleep and increases their workload with the extra washing. Try to make as little fuss as possible when the bed-wetting occurs so that the child and the bed can be changed and child put back to bed as quickly as possible. Make sure the child has a shower or bath in the morning so that all urine is removed from their skin. Bed-wetting at this stage is usually related to the child being in such a deep sleep that they didn’t wake to the signs of a full bladder. If the bed-wetting continues restrict the child’s drinks after 6pm and consider taking the child to the toilet before you go to bed yourself. Try not to fully wake them, so that they go back to sleep quickly.
Outright refusal: Kindergarten is not compulsory but school is, from when a child turns 6 years of age. If your child continues to refuse to attend school or kindergarten, make an appointment with their teacher and talk to them about strategies to use. Suggestions may include arriving at school or kindergarten a little later and collecting them before the end of the day. Some children are distressed by the noise and bustle as children arrive and leave a classroom and may need more time to become used to this. Another idea could be to organise to hand your child over directly to the teacher when you arrive and then say a quick goodbye. The teacher can then involve the child in an activity that will interest them so that they quickly forget about the separation. Be persistent and seek further help if you need it from the school principal or Department of Education staff.
Most children adapt to the school or kindergarten situation and their unusual behaviour abates over time. In a few cases, the behaviour may start again after a holiday break and especially at the beginning of each school year. The strategies suggested above should be put into action again as they are not just for younger children. Just as it takes time for an adult to adapt to a new job, it takes time for a child to adapt to a new classroom. Unfortunately, the child doesn’t have the option to stay in the same class forever, whereas the adult can avoid changing jobs.
Remember to seek help if your child continues to exhibit behaviours related to anxiety or stress.