How to help your child settle into school

Has your child started preschool or school this September? The first year in a school can be an exciting moment but it can also be stressful especially if your little one doesn't go with joy. 

It is considered normal for a child to take a few weeks to adjust to the new routine. For 2, 3 weeks, they may still be upset when you drop them off. Crying at drop-off might not be a sign that they don't enjoy their day. However, it's difficult to manage for parents. It's heart breaking to witness our children struggling to separate and to adapt to a new environment.

Here are 8 tips that can help.

Work on your mindset:

Your child is connected to you on a non-verbal level.

They feel what you feel.

Even if it's hard for you and seeing your child being upset makes you cry or you have conflicted emotions, summon all your strength and show a brave face.

Your child has to believe that the school day will be a great experience.

He has to be sure that you trust the teachers to keep him safe.

The more confident you look and feel, the more they will be as well.

Easier said than done so have a closer look at your emotions. 

Maybe you remember your first weeks in school. Maybe you didn't have a great experience.

Or maybe you are disappointed by your child's reaction.

Write down your feelings and the reasons you think you might have them.

Sometimes our thought process is illogical and when we write it down, it allows us to take some distance.

You might then be in a better state to handle your child's emotions. 

Accept their emotions

In life, we have to take decisions for our children.

Sending our children to school is one of those big decisions in which children have little to say. Unless, you have the option to home educate, your children will have to attend a school. 

While they have no say in the decision, they should be allowed to express their emotions toward that decision.

It's normal for your child to want to stay at home with you. It's normal not to jump with joy at the idea to stay in a new place with adults they are not familiar with.

I bet that most adults would prefer to stay at home instead of going to work.

Acknowledge their feelings, listen to them and don't dismiss their emotions

Develop a connecting ritual:

Some children love the idea to have something special with them all day to help them to cope. You could draw a heart on their hand and on yours, telling them to touch the heart when they feel lonely or sad.

Other rituals you could try: tie a bracelet on your wrist and their wrist. Let them have a little post-it with a love word in their pocket.

Discuss with their teacher about what they could bring in to feel better. 

Allow them to be in control:

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As most children have very little control over their life, it's always a good idea to give them as many opportunity to exert control.

In this context, give them choices for how the drop off should go. 

Let them choose where to say good-bye (taking into account the school's rules).

Do we say good-bye at the gate or do you walk your child up to the teacher? Do we go into the school through the front gate or through the back entry? Do we walk or cycle to school? Do you want to go to school with mummy or daddy? Do we put the dress or the pair of trousers today?

Obviously, choose only 2 options and only something that you can follow through. 

Ease the drop-off:

Children are generally more upset when it's their main caregiver dropping them off. It might be easier in the early weeks if your co-parent drops them off. 

If after a few weeks, your child seem to be the only one still upset, discuss with the teacher about dropping him 5 minutes earlier or later than everybody else. Sometimes, it's not going to school the issue but more the crowd and the agitation of the dropping-off time.

Discuss flexi-schooling:

In the UK, full-time school is mandatory in the term following your child's 5th birthday. Until then, your child can be part-time. Check with your school how you would reduce your child's time in school. That might help your child to adapt.

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Find out what is hard for them:

You might think that it's separation anxiety but there might be a more practical reason for their unease.

Maybe they are worried about changing into their PE clothes. So work on dressing skills. Maybe they don't like the school dinner. Can you switch to a lunch box with all their favourites? Maybe they haven't made any friends yet and feel lonely.

This was the case for my daughter when we moved school. When we realised it was that, the teacher made a effort to help our daughter developping friendship. She became friend with another girl and they went on being besties until the end of the primary school years. 

Make after-school life easier:

It' likely that your child will release their emotions while they are back at home. It means that they feel safe with you to express themselves. Maybe now is not the moment to add to the pressure. Cook easy dinner, try to have some meals ready in the freezer, allow a bit more screen time if that helps everyone to relax. Take the time to connect with lots of cuddles, board games and chasing games. Find ways to make your child laugh as it releases their emotions. 

More tips about after-school meltdown here.

To go further, I recommend reading Sarah Ockwell-Smith book "Starting school".

Want some practical tools to help your child with their emotions? Buy our Emotions tool kit.

About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.