getting ready for school

January 10, 2011


Blogging buddy Etchy Sketchy recently posted about her adventures in teaching preschoolers so close to the school year starting. I thought it was worthwhile to reproduce the discussion here.

I work with parents and their children.  Many of the mums tell the same story – their pre-school child has changed from a ‘pretty good kid’ into a screaming mimi. This usually happens about six months before the child is due to start school. I reassure parents that this behaviour is normal. Parents don’t always understand why.

My youngest boy is going to school in three weeks time. For the first 4.5 years of his life he has been a total delight, he didn’t even go through the terrible two’s. At 4.5 years old however, his parents and his long daycare teachers, and seemingly every man and his dog, started talking to him about going to school. Not in vague terms like they used to do, but with a bit more intensity. Exit stage left the gorgeous one, and enter the child from hell. Tantrums, aggression, and defiance. He has become demanding and obnoxious. His emotions are all over the place.

Underneath it all, despite all the bravado, I know that he is terrified of going to school. He talks about being a ‘big boy’ but he is really just a little boy who is desperately going to miss his mum. He is worried about what mum is going to do without him when he goes to school. It’s a huge transition.

I’m not fond of the big boy/girl talk, it sets up a lot of unrealistic expectations. Mums and preschool teachers talk about how the kids grow ‘too big for their boots’. The kids are being told “you’re a big boy now, you can do that for yourself” or “when you go to school, you’ll have to…”

It helps to talk about the big changes and how scary it can all be. It helps to keep focusing on the process, and shoring him up with descriptive praise. It helps to gently talk about the positives, but not in a way that forces them on the child or sounds like a con job. Kids know when adults are being false, and it exacerbates their insecurities. Gentle honesty rather than harsh reality is the best policy. The difference is in the delivery, and ultimately how the child integrates the new information and experiences. 

Despite all of our patience and understanding, it’s a rite of passage. When my boy was 4.5 years old I was getting teary about the prospect of him going to school. Now, I’ll be just a little bit glad when he goes to school. It’s part of the process of separating, for both of us. It’s sort of the equivalent of the adolescent creating a big scene (arising from the unconscious), a fight, in order to justify his need to move out of the family home.

After all the little ones go to school, I’ll be talking to parents about how normal it is for the kindergartners to be so tired. Their kindergarten child will lament about how they have to work all day and they don’t have much time to play any more. The child will come home and flop for a while, and then go into a play frenzy and won’t want to come to the table for dinner. All normal.

I will also be talking to parents about how the siblings who have been left behind, the ones not going to school, may be really angry because their playmate has abandoned them and they are doing lots of interesting things now without them. That anger will be expressed in all sorts of interesting behaviour. More patience and understanding required, more tuning kids in to their feelings.

In education theory, it is said that the very best teachers should be placed in the first three years of the school (kindergarten to year 2). Those teachers with an abundance of warmth and empathy, and clear communication of expectations. It is so true. At the school I work in, they have just figured out that they need to have a different set of expectations for the little kids than they do for the big kids, as little kids need to be socialised into the school environment. Thank goodness for small mercies.

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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6 Comments on “getting ready for school”

  1. kloppenmum Says:

    I cringe when I see adults make a big deal, to children, out of changes – it always seems to cause children to experience anxiety.
    I think long summer holidays between the end of kindergarten and the start of school aren’t helpful in this particular situation. One of the things I love about our boys’ school is that the evening after they finish kindergarten (the ‘last’ night of the school year) they are ceremonially welcomed into the ‘Big School’, they meet their teacher and then have a story in their (next year’s) classroom with their future class mates.


    • hakea Says:

      Transition to school programmes are huge here. A school in the local government area I work in does a transition to school programme one day per week for the whole year prior to starting kindergarten. They also do a child development assessment, and routinely find that about 90% of the kids have difficulties with sight, hearing, fine motor, or gross motor, previously undiagnosed.

      I’ve been pondering the Steiner tradition of storytelling. I’m reading the book “Storytelling with children” by Nancy Mellon at the moment.

      As a therapist, I really enjoy working with narrative therapy. But working with one child in therapy is completely different to working with a mob of children in playgroup with their parents looking on, scary stuff.

      Storytelling is very effective for working through fears and difficulties. I could use finger puppets to facilitate the process. More pondering required.


  2. kloppenmum Says:

    Have you read the Book of Fairy Princes by Isabel Wyatt ? Our Owl loved it, in particular (although he’s only five…shhhh don’t tell), but it’s really for seven/eight year olds.
    What strikes me as interesting is that the Steiner kindergarteners tell the same story using the same words each day for weeks and weeks on end. The depth that the children get from that experience has to be seen to be believed. I always thought it would drive a bright kid insane – but they all seem to lap it up -perhaps it’s the whole atmosphere.


  3. hakea Says:

    I haven’t seen the fairy princes book.

    I read the same book every night for three years to my kids, “The monster at the end of this book” with Elmo in it, until one day it disappeared and mysteriously found itself in the trust library at my playgroup, so it could drive some other poor mother insane. I should have put a ‘warning’ label on that book.

    Mellon urges people to make up their own stories, out of their head, not from a book. That takes courage.


  4. kloppenmum Says:

    Ahhhh, but it’s easy. Two characters and a problem…
    Our boys have a father who makes up stories about Ma-ar-to, Pa-ar-to and Tom-ar-to and the sauce factory, and the farmer who plants pumpkins, waters pumpkins, weeds pumpkins then sells them. They are intensely boring and the boys love them. Give it a go…seriously.


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