Holding back the tears on the first day
Starting primary school is often a bigger deal for the parents than for the child. So how can parents prepare for this emotional milestone?
JENNIFER MULVEY makes no secret of the fact that starting school will probably be a bigger deal for her than for her only child, Amy, who seems more than ready.
“I will be sponsored by Kleenex I am sure,” jokes Mulvey about this Friday, when Amy (five) goes in for her first day at St Declan’s National School in Ashbourne, Co Meath.
Amy went into a creche when she was six months old and has spent the past two years doing Montessori. However, since the Montessori school was in Dublin, close to where Mulvey works, Amy does not know any of the other children starting at their local school.
“I think she was a bit anxious about not knowing anybody. Then she had an open day [at the school] in June and she realised nobody knew each other and that really helped her. She was happy enough after that.”
As primary schools around the State open for the new school year this week or early next week, most preschool veterans will happily troop into their junior infants classroom. But it is undoubtedly an emotion-filled moment for the parents.
School was quite daunting in many parents’ time, when the world for children was very different, says Irene Gunning, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland. Although primary school is significantly different to the “home from home” atmosphere of preschool, children are much better prepared now for the transition.
The biggest challenge they face is adapting to what is often a contrast in the educational approach, she says.
“You are going from a very child-centred regime to one that is managing maybe a larger group of children and fewer adults: some children find that quite difficult.”
They are not as free to choose what they want to do. Also, some children end up in different schools to their preschool friends. “That can take them a little while to get over – I don’t know if we always pay enough attention to that,” says Gunning, whose final word of advice to parents with that unnamed anxiety most of us have about this milestone is “to try and be relaxed about it”.
If your child seems anxious about starting school, have a good, honest look at where that anxiety is coming from, suggests Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting ( practicalparenting.ie).
“For some of us it is hard to let go. I think it is important as a parent to recognise that it actually may be a bigger deal for you than the child.”
Parents need to demonstrate to their children that they believe in their capacity to manage themselves – this will be conveyed through both your verbal and non-verbal behaviour, O’Malley advises. Plenty of casual conversations about what they will be expected to do at school is recommended.
Also ensure they can manage practicalities such as opening their lunch box – it is often unforeseen little things that can cause distress.
If you are worried about your child being upset at your departure on the first morning, adds O’Malley, “say to the teacher ‘if she doesn’t settle, let me know’. Trust and believe in the teacher’s capacity – this is something she does every September.”
To help support parents whose children are making the transition from preschool to primary school, Early Childhood Ireland and the National Parents Council (Primary) yesterday jointly published an advice leaflet, Going to Big School, which is available online. Tips for the first day include:
Have clothes, uniform and shoes ready; also have lunch and/or healthy snacks in an easy-to-open lunch box.
Eat a good breakfast – learning requires energy and enthusiasm.
Have your child’s name on all belongings – they will be confident in recognising their own name.
On reaching the door, smile and talk to the teacher in a friendly way. Relax and don’t fuss. Don’t let your child see you crying – if they do, explain that you are crying because this is a happy day.
Support your child to connect with other children around the table with a simple “hello”. Let your child know when you are leaving and assure them you will be back to collect them at the end of the school day.
If your child is fine going in on the first day, just walk away and don’t look for problems where none exists.
If your child does cry going in, follow the lead of the teacher. Often children who come in the door crying are okay and laughing five minutes later.
Treat yourself to a cup of coffee and a little treat – this is a big day for you too.
Make sure to return for pick-up on time as children can fret when they see other children leave before them.
What the teachers say
Anxious parents hovering around in junior infant classrooms on the first day are clearly a nuisance to teachers and other pupils – never mind their own children.
“Drop and go,” is the advice to parents from one experienced teacher of junior infants, Grace English, from Scoil Oilibhéir in Ballyvolane, Co Cork.
“Go in cheerfully, say ‘this is fantastic, I am going to see you very soon.’ None of this standing around watching to see if they are going to cry.”
For some parents, she says, it is almost as if they are hoping their child will cry.
English points out that if there are 25 children in a class, there can be up to 50 parents there that first morning, along with the teacher and at least one other teacher helping out – all in one small room. “It is very overwhelming for them.”
Although she acknowledges that parents may feel emotional themselves, they should not make a big deal of the first day. And if you want to take photographs, do it at home.
“I find the more anxious the parent is, the more anxious the child is. The ones who are crying continually for a week or two weeks in the morning, it is because the parent is so anxious about it in front of them.”
“The quicker Mammy goes, the quicker the child will settle in,” agrees Aoife O’Riordan, who has been teaching junior infants in a Co Kildare school for the past five years. “Most parents, once they know the child is fine, will be fairly sensible and go.”
Her school, Scoil Mhuire Junior in Ballymany, Newbridge, staggers the “first day” over two days, so she will have only about 14 junior infants to deal with next Monday when the school reopens. The other half of the class will come in on Tuesday and she will have a full class for the first time on the third day.
Generally there is a “handful” of criers in each of the school’s four junior infant classrooms. There is the domino effect, she agrees, that if one child cries, another starts to cry without even knowing why.
O’Riordan admits that while she is looking forward to the new school year, she gets a little anxious herself coming up to the first day, wondering who she will have in her class.
“I love when we get to November and they all know what they’re doing – it is lovely to see the transformation in them.”
English, who will be teaching senior infants this year, is quite prepared to be a big disappointment for a day or two for last year’s junior infants when her school reopens this Friday.
“They do get a shock sometimes when they move into senior infants and realise they are changing teachers.”
It is quite normal for senior infants to say they don’t like their new teacher in comparison to their first teacher, who they probably worshipped.
“At least I know,” adds English. “I have seen it from the other side.”
'I expect her to be excited but quiet. I expect tears for myself'
Ever since four-year-old Ella Walshe got her uniform and school bag, she has wanted her mother, Sharon, to play school every evening when she gets home from work.
She has seen her classroom at St Paul’s in Greenhills, Dublin, and is very excited about it, says Walshe, who is taking time off to settle her only child into school, starting next Monday. Her husband, Ivan, a chef, would like to be there too on the first morning but he doesn’t know yet whether he can get the day off.
As it is not the nearest school to their home in Crumlin, Walshe was worried Ella would know nobody, but it turns out a girl from her playschool is also going there.
“I am delighted because I thought in a new environment where she knew nobody she would retreat into herself.”
What Walshe is not sharing with her daughter is how, when she started school in Loreto, Rathfarnham, she screamed for the first month. “I would not let go of my mum’s legs and I remember feeling distraught.”
She had had a lot of illness in her first three years of childhood, so she had been constantly with her mother or in hospital.
But she does not expect Ella to shed any tears. “I expect her to be quiet – very excited but quiet. I expect tears for myself! It’s my first-born – it’s a big step. I am a worrywart and I tend to over-analyse things anyway.”
She plans to go to the “tears and tea” session in the school library that first morning, where parents can retreat after leaving their child in the classroom. “It is a good way to get to know the other parents.”
Leila Cotter is a little worried about how her oldest child, Ella (five), will take to school when she starts at Gaelscoil Uí Drisceoil in Glanmire, Co Cork, today.
“She doesn’t like change,” Cotter explains. “She would be very shy. Once she is comfortable in a situation she is the noisiest child, but trying to get her to go somewhere new can be very difficult. She is all excited about it but I know when it comes to the day she will be hiding behind my back.”
Cotter is a self-employed graphic designer. She had Ella in a creche two days a week and then transferred her to a naíonra for the preschool year. She has talked to her daughter about what big school will be like “because she is definitely better when she knows what’s coming”.
Her husband, Anthony, will also go to the school the first morning and they will leave their younger children, Juno (two) and Cali (six months), in the creche beforehand, “so we can concentrate on dropping Ella”.
Is Cotter emotional about it herself? “A small bit, yeah, your first child going to school is something.”
She thinks Ella will be reluctant initially to let her leave the classroom. Then, after a couple of weeks, the children will be dropped outside and expected to go into the school themselves.
“At the moment I can’t see her doing that. I am sure it will all come together,” Cotter adds, “but I have a little mental block about her being able to do that.”
School defines all of us as it is such a big part of our lives, says Grace Costigan, so like all parents she is wondering if it is going to be a happy time for her only child, Teaghan De Rosa, when she starts at St Mary’s school, Woodside, near Stepaside in Dublin on Thursday. “Once they are at school your influence is diluted,” Costigan says. “It is such a milestone – I am really excited for her and I am really scared for her.”
But she does not think Teaghan will be shy. “She is fairly outgoing. I think if anything she might have difficulty sitting still – she likes to be up and about.”
Costigan, who is starting a degree in sociology and social policy at Trinity College Dublin this autumn, thinks she will be “in bits” on her daughter’s first day. “But I am not going to show it because I don’t want her picking up on it.”
As a separated parent, it is particularly difficult, she says, to find the money for starting school. “I knew it was going to be tough but I had no idea just how much it would involve.”
The books alone are working out at almost €150, which is what she received for the back-to-school allowance earlier in the summer.
“I have been buying something every week to try to get organised, with money I really don’t have.”
Her gas and electricity accounts have been getting just enough to keep them open. “In October I will have to try to sort out them and then get ready for Christmas,” she adds. “My priority at the moment is getting her to school and not having her as the child who stands out for not having her things.”