Starting school is a huge milestone for children and parents alike.
So, with just weeks to go before hordes of newly-uniformed four-year-olds pass through classroom doors for the first time, what can parents do to prepare their children, and limit the potential for tears – theirs and yours – on the big day?
Get your child familiar with the general idea of school...
Read storybooks such as Janet and Allan Ahlberg's Starting School, or I am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child. They're engaging ways to create positive impressions of what this school malarkey is all about. They will also help your child raise any concerns (and remember these can be things which seem obvious or silly to us grown-ups – from 'will there be any lunch' to 'how will I find the loo' and 'will I have to find my own way home'?) Ask (ideally admired) older cousins/ friends to chat with them about fun stuff they do at school (as long they won't mention someone thumping them at playtime or how they find assemblies really boring).
Discuss your own happy memories of school (provided you have some). Perhaps mention games you played at break time or how much you liked your first teacher.
Be careful not to introduce worries they haven't considered and try not to pass your own anxieties on.
...and with their particular school and prospective classmates
Walk or drive past, pointing out any appealing features. Whenever I showed my son the cool playground/ 'big field you can play football on' at his school before he started, his eyes lit up.
Attend any settling-in sessions. This can be tricky if you're working but they allow your child (and you) to case the classroom, teacher, classmates, and find out where those all-important loos are, removing some of the unknown.
If you know of prospective classmates, meet up over the summer - familiar faces on day one will help.
WHAT WILL MY CHILD NEED TO KNOW?Many parents worry their child will be the only one who can't tell an A from a Z or write their name yet. They won't be, and actually even if they were, it wouldn't matter.
Reception teachers don't expect children to know letters/ numbers as, after all, that's what school is for. What they're far more bothered about are practical 'self-care' skills.
They will thank you if your child can:
Go to the loo independently and clean themselves up afterwards, including washing hands.
Put their coat on and change for PE. Teachers/ assistants will help with tricky buttons/ zips but the more your child can do the better.
Recognise their name so they can find their coat peg and identify belongings which are labelled (and everything should be or it'll disappear into the depths of the lost property bin, never to be seen again).
Eat independently, using cutlery (although many schools help younger ones with tricky to chop foods).
Understand sharing, listening and being quiet/ sitting still for a short time when asked to.
If you'll go back to work or already work beyond school hours, start planning your childcare now. Childminders are particularly good for after school care - local councils provide lists of registered childminders or ask the school office if they know who picks up from there.
Also, if you don't have the uniform list or details of settling-in arrangements, contact the school before the summer holidays start, as after that the office will probably close until September.
THE TEACHER'S HOME VISIT
If there's one aspect of your child starting school that's sure to trigger a frenzy of domestic cleaning, it's the teacher's home visit. These seem increasingly common (although not all schools do them) and involve either the teacher alone or with the teaching assistant, coming round to see you and your child for a short period, usually just before term starts.
But is this all just an excuse for teachers to get a nosey at your house and check you really do live in the catchment area, or is there more to it than that?
Joanna Fleming, a teacher from Cumbria, explains that such visits are about building a link between school and home – a relationship between parent and teacher. "They're a really good opportunity to check things and explain any worries you or your child have," she says.
They are also very much a chance for teachers to see children in their own environment, where they're likely to be at their most comfortable. If a new reception pupil seems especially shy in the classroom once they start, but were less so during the home visit, this will help the teacher understand that they might just need to come out of their shell more.
But onto the crucial question: do teachers care if there are a few crumbs on the carpet or the living room floor is strewn with rather too many discarded toys?
Joanna is reassuring that teachers are not there to see how tidy your house is (within reason), although she concedes it's nice if someone makes a bit of an effort and offers a cuppa. She does like parents to turn the TV off too: "It's often left on, or just turned down a bit!"
Anna Plasett, a mother of two from North London whose daughter Ella's teacher did a home visit the September before she started reception, advises keeping preparations low key. "I didn't have a manic tidy up or get baking," she says. "I think it would have made Ella nervous." She recommends getting someone else to look after any (especially younger) siblings for the duration of the visit, if possible. "I asked my mother-in-law to look after my two-year-old as I didn't want her taking the teacher's focus away from Ella." Home visit tips:
• See this as some precious one-on-one time to get to know the teacher and vice versa.
• Use the visit to raise any concerns you have, eg. worries about toileting, development and the like. It's much easier to do this now than trying to grab her attention at the classroom door when you're among 29 other parents and carers.
• Explain to your child in advance that their new teacher is coming round to say hello and encourage them to get a favourite toy out to show them.
• Turn the TV off. Your child is unlikely to bond with the teacher if they're distracted by goings on on CBeebies.
• Offer a cup of tea and some biscuits. (No need to turn into the next Jane Asher – a good old-fashioned digestive or the like will suffice)
• Worry about making the house super-spotless. That said a quick clean up might be worthwhile if it makes you feel better.
• Bribe your little one to behave –they're bound to blurt out at the end, "Mummy, can I have that chocolate bar you promised me for being good now that Miss X is going?"
• Go over the top about how much of a genius your son or daughter is. If they are well-ahead of the game, it's certainly a mention but keep it brief. The school will do what's called a baseline assessment early on in the first term and should discover where your offspring is up to.• Bear in mind the teacher might only stay a short while as they probably have a lot of other home visits to get through that day.
GETTING SCHOOL UNIFORM AND SCHOOL KIT
A photo of your child sporting slightly too big but pristine uniform on their first day at school goes into pretty much every family's album.
But before you can take the pic, you've actually got to buy the stuff. So how difficult can purchasing a few pairs of grey trousers/ skirts and some shirts be?
Granted it's not the greatest shopping challenge ever, but school uniform is not quite as, well, uniform, as the name suggests. As I found out last year when my then four-year-old started reception, there can be quite a few choices to make.
A school might allow girls to wear trousers, skirts or pinafores, boys perhaps trousers or shorts, and there can be the option of different colours or styles of shirts and sweaters. Then there are decisions about whether to buy in an official uniform outfitters or head to the supermarket, shop early while there's plenty of stock, or wait in case of any last-minute growth spurts, and more.
So, if you're a uniform rookie this year, here's our guide to what, where and when.
What you'll need
First stop is obviously the back to school list. If for some reason you haven't been sent one and can't find it on their website, or you have any questions, get on the phone now in case the school office shuts for the summer holidays.
What the uniform list won't tell you is quantities. There's a laundry frequency/ cost trade-off here: the more you have the fewer times per week the washing machine will need to go on but obviously this means higher spending. Personally I'm in the cough up extra to get four or five sets camp, so I can get away with a wash only once weekly. Any less and I'd risk forgetting and having a panic at 8am because there's no clean uniform left.
Take into account too how mucky your pup is – if they're the kind of kid dirt is magnetically attracted to, again, go for a bit more rather than less. If they're usually quite clean, some items might manage a second day – there's no need to put freshly laundered uniform on each day for the sake of it.
And finally remember that school uniform is still sold after September (although you might have to shop online to get the full range), so if you have under-bought and find it a problem, you will be able to order more.
Here are our recommended quantities (the first figure is based on a twice-weekly wash, the second is for those preferring once weekly):
* Sweaters/ cardis/ sweatshirts x 3 (5)
* Polo shirts/ shirts – 3 (4 or 5)
* Trousers/skirts – 3 (4)
* Socks –4 or 5 pairs
* PE Kit – 1 set including plimsolls (normally needed but check the uniform list)
* School shoes – 1 pair
* PE bag – not always required – check with school
* Regulation book bag – as above. If there isn't one you'll need to choose your own school bag
* A tie if your school has them for reception – if so go for the clip-on/ elasticated pre-tied ones
if possible. Buy two in case one gets lost/ gets lunch down it
* If the list specifies a regulation coat, hat, scarf and/ or gloves, lunch and art aprons, one of
each of these should be fine.* Don't forget your name tapes and label everything (see below). A set of stickers with your child's name will be handy for any lunchboxes, water bottles, toys taken in for show-and-tell and the like.
Where to shop
Most schools mix 'generic' items with those which are school specific, such as sweatshirts with a logo on. Logo'd garments will normally need to be bought from a proper uniform shop and each school normally has links with one or two in the area, or at a specific online shop.
For generics such as trousers and skirts, save money by skipping the school official outfitters in favour of supermarkets or department stores. M&S and Next usually offer a good balance of reasonable prices and decent quality.
To cut costs, especially for logo items, find out if there's a second-hand uniform sale at school or ask any friends with children in the year above at the school if they have any old uniform to hand on. Even if you'd prefer to buy mostly new uniform, it's useful to have second-hand stuff as spares.
If your family income is low, you might be eligible for funding to pay for uniform. Contact www.citizensadvice.org.uk or your Local Education Authority for more information.
When to shop
Around a month before term starts is a good time to start buying. Whilst large stores do continue selling uniform all year, you might find stocks run low at the end of August. You'll have more choice if you start earlier but can still take things back and swap them for the next size up if your child has a growth spurt. (Keep labels on and receipts to hand just in case)
Do hold off purchasing shoes until mid August though as they are more likely to be outgrown. It's best not to leave it too late, as the shops get ridiculously long queues for fittings (and it's very much worth getting properly fitted school shoes as they will be worn every day), can run out of stock and also you ideally need to allow a few days for your child to wear shoes in at home before having them on all day.
Other uniform tips
Wherever possible pick clothing and shoes (velcro, not laces) which will be as easy to put on and take off as possible – reception teachers struggle to help all 30 in a class on PE day.
If you have colour options, darker shades rather than light will be better - stains will show up less.
Where your school offers a choice, eg. girls are allowed to wear trousers or skirts, but you're worried about your child being the odd one out, go past at picking-up time to see if most wear one or the other.
Check out new clothing technology - non-iron garments save on the laundry time and Teflon coatings are great for limiting stains.
Tights are notoriously tricky for little girls to get on and the bane of many a teacher's life on PE day – if you can avoid them, do.
If your child is a bit skinny, M&S and Next, among others, do trousers and skirts with adjustable waistbands.
Two-in-one coats are great for school – typically a waterproof layer over a fleece – you can use each layer separately in Autumn and Spring but together in Winter.
You won't need to buy pencils, crayons or a pencil case as schools normally provide these for reception children.
If you want to do things 'properly' by all means order traditional embroidered sew-in name tapes and get your needle and thread out, but there's really no need to go to all this trouble. Time-saving options include iron-on name tapes (although watch out as some fall off in the wash after a while), taggits - little button-like tags which clip the nametape in place, Stamptastic's ink stamps, or the real cheat's option of writing their name on the garment label with a laundry pen or biro.If you've got younger children who you might pass uniform items down to, stick with your surname only (unless it's Smith or the like) - this will do the job and mean no re-labelling in future.
THE VERY FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Grab the tissues - it's time for the big day!
A child's first day at school can be crammed with emotions and it's just as likely to be the parents in tears at the classroom door as the children.
If you've read the first in our starting school series, about what to do over the weeks leading up to September, you'll have laid the groundwork. If not, don't worry, there's still time.
A couple of days before
Create positive feelings. If you've bought a book about starting school, read it again with your child. Perhaps share some tales of fun things you did at primary school (obviously avoiding anything negative – they really do not need to hear about how scarily strict Mrs Smith was/ how diabolical the lunches were).
Remind them of things they liked if they went to settling in sessions ('ooh I think you'll be able to play with the puzzles/ bikes again'), or something the teacher mentioned during any home visit she made. But don't go over the top - helping them feel good about school is one thing, creating a utopian vision of endless fun and instant friendships might be setting them up for disappointment. Let them know that if they are worried about anything, they can talk to the teacher, or to you about it after school.
Pre-empt anxieties they have by mentioning how the basics work – food, loo, where you'll meet them at picking up time. It's fear of the unknown that will usually be underlying children getting upset on their first day.
Ensure you know where you're meant to be and when on day one. Mummy spending 10 minutes getting flustered about where to park or which school entrance to use will not create a relaxing mood. Unless the journey is very straightforward (or you have older children already there), do a 'practice run' beforehand and while you're at it, point out attractive features to your child – the lovely playground equipment or the field for running around on.
Get them into a routine that's compatible with school hours. They might need an earlier bedtime and waking up time. Move towards the new routine over a few days rather than starting it suddenly the day before.
Double-check you've got everything you need on the uniform list and that all items are labelled with nametapes or a laundry pen.
Have your child wear their new school shoes around the house for a few hours to wear them in.
If you won't be dashing into work on the first morning or looking after a younger child, plan a treat for yourself. It will take your mind off wondering how they're settling in or feeling a bit lost without them.
The night before
Get everything ready so you'll be less rushed in the morning – uniform set out, packed lunch made (unless of course they're having school dinners), and crucially get that alarm clock set! Turning up late on day one isn't the ideal first impression to give the teacher...
On the morning
Getting children from bedroom to classroom on time is a challenge typically involving parents barking "hurry up, we'll be late" about 100 times. Minimising distractions helps - perhaps no TV/ no playing before breakfast. Be clear with your child about what needs doing, when and how.
If they're a messy eater, keep them in their PJs and put uniform on after breakfast not before.
Don't overdo the pics. We all want that perfect first day photo but don't make them pose for hours trying to get it.
Keep your goodbye short but sweet, reminding them to have a good time and that you'll be back to pick them up later. Stringing it out for too long can end in tears which otherwise wouldn't happen.
If they're wobbling at the classroom door employ a (quick) ritual. In reception, my son liked me putting two kisses in each pocket which he could 'grab' if needed.
Avoid saying you'll miss them – it puts ideas in their heads that they'll miss you too.
If you're upset, try not to let them see. Children starting school can bring out all sorts of emotions in parents, from pride to concerns about their ability to cope without you and the classic "how did my baby get so big so fast?'. This is one occasion when putting on a brave face is a good move.
A four-year-old will just be confused if you say you're crying because they're such a big boy/ girl now. If you feel teary, do your best to hold it in until they're out of sight, then disappear round the corner and grab the tissues.
If you aren't already working out of the home, and are a bit unsure about what to do now, focus on positives and plan new challenges. If a new job or career is on the cards take a look at www.workingmums.co.uk, www.familyfriendlyworking.com and www.womenlikeus.org.uk for inspiration and job opportunities.
If you've got the day to yourself, instead of disappearing back home to do that clearing out you've been putting off for the last five years, how about suggesting a coffee to the other parents? It'll take your mind off things and help you get to know each other.