Top tips for starting school

Top tips for starting school
The back-to-school routine doesn’t have to be a daunting military operation, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


It’s been a summer of late nights, gluttonous meals and relaxed rules, but with school just around the corner, the dread of dealing with tantrums from a pouting child is becoming more palpable. Every year, parents around the country must break the habits their children have picked up during the sunny months in the valiant hope they will be better adapted to another year of homework and tests.

It’s hard to know where to start on this stressful mission and with the expectation that news of an early bedtime will elicit tears and googly eyes, the temptation to put it off until school is about to begin is more than understandable. However, as the advice generally goes, leaving things to the last minute is a bad route to go down – tackling this annual problem head on is key to making the return to school a walk in the park.

One of the most important tips is to implement a sleep routine early, so kids aren’t surprised when school eventually starts. While there’s no definitive time to begin this process, Sheila O’Malley of Ireland’s Practical Parenting suggests around 10 days, allowing the change to be gradual rather than sudden.

“It’s too late if you’re starting when school is back because kids are used to set bed times and they struggle to get up in the morning…children love routine. They need routine to feel secure,” Sheila says.

“However, what makes them feel insecure is transition and change; so that whole thing needs to be managed in a timely fashion – and what happens is when we don’t tend to do that then we find that we’re really struggling because we haven’t done it early enough.”

There’s no denying that communicating to your children that they must now obey a stricter schedule will leave a sour taste in their mouth, but there are some ways better than others to convey this message. A sergeant-like stance on the matter where new rules are put forth in a dictatorial fashion won’t cut the mustard. Instead, empathising with your child and acknowledging the difficult change this is causing is the first step to getting them on your side.

“It just takes time, being kind to yourself about it and being kind to your child about it, and to have what I would call ‘realistic expectations’. Things always go asunder when we don’t have realistic expectations,” Sheila explains, adding that cooperation is vital in this regard.

“So, when kids are met in that place of a bit of understanding and then awareness that the parent is kind of on their side, you know all of that, that brings around cooperation as opposed to the Sergeant Major who says ‘Come in now and that’s it.’”

Breaking the news that the summer holidays has come to an end is certainly tough, so Sheila recommends that you sit down as a family – perhaps on a Friday night while eating pizza together – and inform them of the new routine. With everyone in the know about how the next few weeks will pan out, returning to school will be a much easier and natural process.

There are, of course, plenty of tips along the way which will aid your child in growing more accustomed to a new school routine. One that can’t be missed out is the gradual introduction of earlier bedtimes and shorter lie-ins. Plucking your child from outside in the early evening and sending them to their bedroom straight away is a strategy doomed for failure – especially when it’s still light outside.

“I used to pull all the blinds down and play really quiet music to dampen down the atmosphere because everybody knows now that sleep is the new religion, that it’s all about sleep, but sleep doesn’t start with just getting into bed. Sleep is a gradual wind down,” Sheila says, noting that this practice “really makes a difference”. Introducing bath times or reading a short story before bedtime is also an opportune way to acclimatise your child to a familiar sleep routine.

The practice of having set meal times with healthy food is worth implementing as during summer eating patterns becoming radically skewed – especially if the family travelled abroad. This will make your child feel physically and mentally stronger.

Sheila is also keen to stress a particular rule which she always abides by: mornings begin the night before. By preparing for the school morning the day prior, the anxiety that usually accompanies an early morning school run will be significantly reduced.

“Get up half-an-hour earlier than we probably think we need to get up to create a calm atmosphere in your home…It means that if there’s something that is lost or you get the child that digs in their heel and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school today’ or ‘I don’t want go to crèche today’”, you can come down to their level and give the matter the attention it deserves.

By completing tasks like unloading the dishwasher, setting out the breakfast table, ironing uniforms and having backpacks ready, the morning rush to get out the door will feel more like an easy jog rather than sweat-inducing sprint. Keep in mind that you’re not a lone runner in this race either; everyone in the family can help out in some shape or form to prepare for the next day.

Practical tips which address the small details of returning to school can have a major impact on both you and your children, completely changing the morning family dynamic for the better.”

“It doesn’t mean you do it all by yourself, it means that you kind of write down the things that need to be done and you allow them to do something – even a three-year-old can wipe down a chair or help you sort the laundry, so you start early,” Sheila says.

Practical tips which address the small details of returning to school can have a major impact on both you and your children, completely changing the morning family dynamic for the better. None of them, however, will have the desired or optimal effect without firstly instilling in your children that going to school is a positive thing; that it’s an activity they should enjoy and will grow from. By emphasising the friends they will meet and the fun they will get up to, you will create a child enthusiastic to walk into school day-in, day-out.

In this vein, it’s important to combat their worries by driving to the school before the academic year begins so the area will be familiar them; assuring them that it’s normal to feel anxious when starting something new; and consistently showing that you’re there to support them. With a network of care and understanding, your child will feel much more confident walking through the school’s front-door.

Going through the different stages of school is an important milestone in any child’s life, the significance of which should not be scoffed at or diminished. These formative years make all the difference in how your child will perceive the world and interact with it when they’re adults. By implementing strategies or procedures that make school life more bearable and pleasant, you will allow your child to reach their full potential – and if that’s not a good reason to do it, what is?

For more tips about the back-to-school routine and general parenting advice, see: