Come early September, hundreds of thousands of four-year-olds will head into primary school for the first time and by 3pm, hundreds of thousands of their parents will be desperate to know how it all went. Were they the life and soul of the playground or did they even just talk to someone? Did they eat their lunch or sit there daunted by the dinner ladies? Most of all, were they happy?
When it comes to getting feedback, school is starkly different to nursery. Whilst nursery staff typically dole out key info at picking up time - from food consumed to activities enjoyed - schools don't. The idea now is 'no news is good news' – they'd call you if there was a serious problem but other than that, you'll have to wait until parents' evening (the first one is usually around half term) for any notable comments.
So, keen to know what goes on during their days away from you, the obvious path is to ask your child. But, other than a few chatterbox kids who retell every moment in painstaking detail (a challenge in itself), most youngsters will answer questions such as "what did you do today" with a variation of "I don't know", "can't remember" or "nuffink". Or in the case of my own son during his first weeks in reception, "I walked around". For six hours?
But never fear, we have ways of making them talk! Or at least talk a little bit more...
Don't launch your own 'what did you do at school' version of Junior Mastermind. Too many questions can make children clam up. If they're not forthcoming after one or two goes, give up and try again later, maybe with a different angle (see below). Immediately after school isn't usually the best time to get them to spill the beans anyway. They'll often be tired and over-stimulated.
Make a game of it. Ask each other for your three favourite things about the day – no more than three and they have to be able to ask you too. Or take turns to guess aspects of each others' day – so they have to guess what you had for lunch/ whether you spoke to Grandma/ went to the shops, and you give them clues, and then vice versa.
Discuss your day. Talking about what you got up to might make them mention what they did. Be careful not to highlight anything too exciting so they don't think they missed out when at school though.
Mention aspects of school you liked as a kid. Along the lines of "I remember my first day at school. I met a girl called Clare and we ran around the playground, did you talk to any other children?" or "my favourite part of the day was break time as we used to get a snack and milk – did you eat anything?"
Get info from the other parents and use it as a peg. This worked a treat in my son's class. Once I got to know a couple of the other parents, sometimes we'd mention an aspect of the day we'd heard about and then use it as a conversation opener with our own kids. School newsletters are good for this too.
When your child does talk, take some things with a pinch of salt. Children of this age might tell you versions of events which didn't actually happen – either intentionally (perhaps because they're scared you'll be annoyed or disappointed by the truth) or unintentionally because they've got mixed up. Proceed with caution if it's a story to do with anything remotely controversial, eg, they say another child hurt them, and find out more before piling in to the teacher or the other parents. If you can't find out what happened, tread carefully and ask open-ended questions, rather than making accusations.
Speaking to the teacher ...
Be mindful that, with up to 30 kids in the class, teachers won't have time to chat to every parent every day about how all the children were, even if they'd like to in an ideal world.
Try and leave minor issues a few days to see if they resolve themselves - they often do. If they don't, catch the teacher after school for an informal chat. This is usually better than the start of the day when they'll be trying to settle the children down and get going with activities or assembly.
But don't hesitate to talk to the teacher if you have serious concerns – perhaps bullying, a child who's persistently upset about going in in the morning, or important problems at home such as a bereavement or divorce. They will want to know and should always find time for this sort of thing. If it's a particularly sensitive or serious issue, or needs to be discussed out of earshot of other parents, phone the school office to make an appointment.
Read more of our back to school series of articles here.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, available for pre-order on Amazon.
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