It’s that time of year again. Back to school beckons and parents and children everywhere will be hoping it’s third time lucky after two heavily disrupted academic years. In fact, things have been abnormal for so long, you’d be forgiven for forgetting at least half the things you need to know and remember ahead of the return to school.
But fear not, we’ve got you covered with tips and advice no matter what stage of school your child is at. So let the countdown begin.
In the beginning
Starting school in pandemic times is different to the pre-Covid era – different enough, perhaps, to make parents worry more than they should. But while much has changed, lots of things have stayed the same, including the things your child needs to be able to do when starting school.
Using the bathroom independently is a must. That includes managing their trousers if that’s part of their school uniform. Belts and buttons can be more challenging for little fingers so pull-up adjustable waist trousers (available in most supermarket chains) can be a more manageable option. Remind them to tell the teacher when they need to use the toilet and reassure them that’s it’s perfectly okay to do so. New school nerves can mean some children hold on a bit longer than they should.
Make sure your little one can open and close their lunch box and beaker themselves. And fruit too – teacher won’t have time to peel 30 bananas, so practise this at home in advance.
Velcro shoes allow them to manage their shoes independently, and you’ll be glad of them in the morning rush too.
Putting on and taking off their own coat is also something your child will need to be able to do. If they can’t read their own name yet, a brightly coloured button, or piece of ribbon attached to a hood or zipper can help them pick out their own coat in a sea of navy, green and pink.
Don’t dismiss their questions, no matter how trivial they might seem, without offering reassurance or solutions, so they can feel confident that going to school is a good thing.
For those starting secondary school
"Change affects everyone differently and takes time", Maria Rushe, head of English at Coláiste Ailigh, in Letterkenny, explains. "The first week can be overwhelming; new building, new subjects, more than one teacher each day is a huge difference. Trying to navigate the building, organising books and lockers and, of course, making friends and dealing with new people. The length of the day is much longer too so students can find themselves exhausted in the first few weeks. Sleep, lots of water and a good diet are key to keeping them energised in their new environment."
With restrictions still in place, the secondary school experience is particularly different. Offering advice to incoming first years, Rushe says: “Feeling safe in school will make it easier to settle in. And trust me, your teachers are also looking forward to being able to see your faces when masks are no longer required. We’ll get there.”
For the exam years
“Start as you mean to go on,” Rushe says. “Try to get into a routine from the start of the year. It makes mock season and, of course, the end-of-year exams much less stressful if you don’t leave everything to the end. When you get your new timetable, try to plan which subjects you’ll focus on each evening. Keep on top of your coursework and communicate with your teachers if you need advice or support. It has been a difficult few years and hopefully this year routine will be a bit easier to keep.”
For the parents who hear nothing
One of the most notable changes for parents of secondary school children is how much less information they tend to hear about what’s going on at school. “Keep them talking. But avoid bombarding them with questions once they get into the car or home,” Rushe says. “Let them process their day and maybe later on ask how their day was. Rather than ‘How was school?’ where we all get the ‘fine’ response, try ‘Anything interesting happen today?’ or ask a subject specific question.
“Pay attention to the school website or whichever platform they use to communicate. And if you need support, contact the school. Often, issues or worries can be easily and quickly alleviated by a quick call to the school secretary or teacher. Communication is key to ensure that we as teachers are able to fully support the students.”
To phone or not to phone
There’s no perfect age for a first phone, but most children will get their first phone in and around the end of primary school/beginning of secondary school coinciding with the new degree of independence that accompanies that age.
In an ideal world some parents might prefer to hold off until even later but it’s worth remembering that teens communicate through social media apps – they rarely text or call in the traditional way – and so preventing them from having access to a phone and apps can make settling into school, making friends or making plans with friends difficult. If a group of teens arrange a meet-up and Mary doesn’t have a phone, there’s every chance Mary could be left out of plans because no one thought to ring her home phone and update her.
There’s also the fact that this is the way of the world now and blanket bans are pretty pointless (they can get access through their friends’ phones at school anyhow, if they want). Teaching responsible usage is key, as is having open conversations about online behaviour and potential consequences, and reassuring them that if they are in difficulty or unhappy about something online, they can come to you at any stage.
For all that social media has a bad name, the pandemic showed us how vital many of the platforms were in helping teens to stay in touch during restriction times and school closures. That, of course, doesn’t mean that we as parents can close our eyes to the many downsides of phone and social media access either. If we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t protect them, which means we have a duty to find out how some of the apps they use work, whether we want to or not.
How much sleep?
"Getting both enough and good quality sleep cannot be underestimated and must not be under prioritised, and needs to be better understood within each family," Lucy Wolfe, sleep consultant at Sleep Matters, says. "Studies routinely demonstrate that being well rested can help to promote learning, concentration, motivation and encourage a positive mind-set. With so much pressure on our young children, achieving, maintaining, and understanding positive sleep practices is key to their overall health and wellbeing and that of the family unit."
Lucy says she doesn’t worry about advance preparation for primary school aged children as the natural routine of schooldays tends to bring its own rhythm, but adds if children are waking much later than they will need to ahead of the return to school, “you could start to waken them earlier each day by 15-30 minutes and, in turn, bring the bedtime slowly earlier too”.
Children aged 6-12 need between nine and 12 hours’ sleep per night, Lucy explains, which can be aided by “emphasising a sleep-friendly environment – cool, comfortable, dark and without unnecessary distractions. Invest in blackout blinds, analogue alarm clocks, creating a sanctuary that is inviting and sleep-promoting.
“Ideally the bedtime routine is done in a dimly lit bedroom, with lots of opportunity for physical and emotional engagement with the parent – story-telling, puzzles, cuddles and chats that all help with achieving sleep easier. Older children may prefer time alone to read or listen to music without a parent,” Lucy says, while also advising “eliminating screens one to two hours before bedtime”.
For teenagers, Lucy says advance preparation may be necessary. “Their sleep profile naturally prefers a later bed and wake time – this adjustment can be made easier on their bodies if they begin to wake earlier perhaps a week and a half before the return to school and to bring their bedtime earlier too by the corresponding amount.”
Thirteen to 18-year-olds need between eight and 10 hours’ sleep, Lucy says. “Work backwards from the wake time to promote a bedtime that allows for this.” She recommends “avoiding heavy meals, caffeine, screens [especially the phone] and intense exercise. Calming activities such as reading, gentle stretching, meditating, or listening to music or doing a crossword or puzzle may help.”
"Parents often think it is only their child who doesn't eat their lunch, but actually it is a very common occurrence," Cathy Monaghan, paediatric dietitian at Weaning.ie explains.
“Depending on the age of the child there are many reasons why their lunch comes back barely touched – they are simply not hungry, they’re having fun and chatting with no time to eat. Perhaps we have provided them with too many options or too sophisticated a lunch box.
“Having a healthy relationship with food and access to healthy options is important for every child,” Monaghan says. “As parents and guardians it is our job to provide the food but we can’t control what is eaten. Younger children will often only eat ‘well’ at two meals in the day. Lunch is only one meal, if the other two are going okay and your child is growing fine, then that is okay,” she adds.
Monaghan suggests simplifying your child’s lunchbox. “Lunchboxes with 10 different compartments are not necessary and can be a little overwhelming”. “Offer a carbohydrate (bread/pitta/pasta/wrap), protein (cheese/humus/meat/egg) and fresh food (fruit/veg) source and a bottle of water. In my experience, anything that smells doesn’t work from 2nd class onwards.”
When it comes to teens, Monaghan says: “There has been a rise in eating disorders throughout the pandemic. As parents we need to be mindful about the language we use around food. The relationship our teens and children have with food is more important than what they actually eat.
“Our teens need their friends and what they eat when with them is up to them. Instead of judging their food choices and preaching perfection, I suggest we demonstrate and encourage self-care. Most food is eaten in the home, focus your attention on that and in time their own choices will follow.”
For the child who has been bullied
A child who has experienced bullying "will be anxious and apprehensive" returning to school, Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, explains. "Don't promise that all will be okay, but just let them know that no matter what happens you will, as the parents, manage it and not give up until it is resolved. False promises fall on deaf ears."
Bullying can lead to “a lowering of self-worth and self-value which can create an ongoing dynamic of accepting mistreatment by others as ‘normal’”, Noctor explains.
For parents wondering whether to step in or leave their child try to resolve the issue themselves, Noctor says parents should intervene once it is clear that it is bullying and not banter.
“The difference being that the behaviour has been pointed out to the perpetrator that it is negatively impacting the victim and it is continuing,” he explains. “You step in straight away and don’t step out until it is resolved. A child feeling safe in their place of education is not a luxury. It’s a basic human right and, therefore, there is an onus of responsibility on the school, club or organisation to ensure it is not tolerated.”
In supporting a child who is being bullied, Noctor advises parents to “approach the school and make every effort to resolve the external variable (ie school, environment, perpetrators). But also nurture the internal variable (the child’s deformed worth). Help them find their tribe elsewhere. Remind them of their value and bolster self-worth at every opportunity.”
After-school activities – too much of a good thing?
"After-school activities play an important role in a child's development for many reasons. Firstly, it supports the development of social skills and cognitive development. It can be a space where children can express themselves freely, make friends outside of school and interact with like-minded children," psychotherapist Susi Lodola says. "Research has also shown that younger children who engage in activities such as drama, music and dance have less anxiety and less socio-emotional difficulties as they enter adolescence."
However, striking the correct balance is not always easy. “Let your child guide you and make sure the activities don’t interfere with their sleep and other family life,” Lodola says. “Maybe also consider how much time is needed per activity. Think about travel time. Is it nearby or do you have to drive there and back? Younger children may get overwhelmed with too many activities and one activity may be just enough. They need time to process and rest. As they get a little older, you may look at another activity if the child wants to and see how they can cope with it. It is important to allow for some downtime too, where your child can just have some unstructured time. It’s okay for them to be bored. Being bored will also teach them that you don’t have to be busy all the time and also helps to develop self-awareness and creativity.”
Knowing whether to insist a child continue with an activity or allow them to quit if they want is another dilemma parents often face. “A little encouragement may be okay and show the child that some thought and negotiation is required before giving up on an activity. You can have a discussion and see why the child wants to quit. There may be very good reasons.”
Lodola says, however, that “there is no point in insisting they continue. There is nothing to be gained from it. A much bigger lesson can be learned in a situation like this by discussing the reasons why a child wants to stop. Trying to solve issues and then coming together with the child about what to do, teaches the child they can come to you and you will be there to support any issues in the future.”
Parents’ WhatsApp groups
Our parents may have managed without them but WhatsApp groups are now a firmly established part of school life for parents. And there’s not just the class WhatsApp group to consider – the more activities your child does, the more groups you’re likely to end up in. Add multiple children to the equation and your phone’s a non-stop ping fest throughout the academic year.
Typically, class WhatsApp groups are made up mainly of mums though there’s no clear reason why that should be the case. And typically they’re set up by mums. It’s always worth checking if the group is open admin, which means you can add any partners who may have been left out yourself. And it’s worth adding partners if you can, to share the volume load of information that can come in.
But it’s not all never ending notifications. WhatsApp groups are a hive of helpful activity too. From a place where parent reps can share information from parents association meetings, to questions or help with forgotten school books. No longer does Johnny have to forgo completing his Irish homework if he’s forgotten to bring his book home. Just pop the request in the WhatsApp group and there’s always a helpful parent on hand to screenshot the homework and post it in.
Reminders about upcoming events, school uniform requirements, collections for teachers, birthday parties, uniform sales, half messages brought home by children, seasonal occasions and mums’ night outs are just some of the other things discussed in the group making them altogether a new essential.
1 Label every single thing – individual crayons, pencils, ties, shoes, erasers, jumpers, lunchboxes, and so on
2 Easy-open lunchbox and beakers
3 Masks for secondary school – they'll need more than one a day
4 Check your times, particularly if you've more than one child – staggered start and collection times are continuing in some schools
5 Pencils/pens – have spares at home in case your child has to leave their pencil case in school
9 Maths set/calculator
10 Copy covers
11 Download apps your school uses to communicate with parents
12 Different-coloured folders for different subjects can help with secondary school books organisation