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Surviving the Start of School - From Head to Parent

Published: 28.07.2021

Guest blog from The Unyoung Mum.

(you can read more of Karen's tales here, and I assure you you'll love them!)

How many times have I stood there?

How many times have I smiled a reassuring smile to welcome a fresh-batch of parents?

All those encouraging nods as they comment on how low down the chairs are, the smell of school dinners and their recollections of how much smaller primary school seems. All the confidence that this school was the right choice for their child. The heart-felt promises that their most precious gift will be in the best possible hands.

But this time, the shoe is on the other foot for me. I am the one nervously shuffling in, notebook and questions at the ready, with a desperate smile that says: “love my child please.”

It very quickly dawned on me how I had underestimated as Head of School, the magnitude of this milestone – the lurch in the very core of parents as they see their baby, their dependent baby, take a leap towards standing on their own feet.

But switching hats I know that however daunting for parents and guardians to leave their offspring at the gate, that Reception class is a place of warmth, of exponential growth and one of the most exciting times in schooling.

Where Do I Begin?

So, where do you start in preparing your prized possession for this momentous step? This one is easy – you have been doing so since birth.

All those conversations, that time you let them loose with the scissors or tweezers, looking out for the number 18 bus – every single bit of encouragement and reinforcement has helped upskill them for ‘big school!’ Yep – even watching 23 episodes of Blippi back-to-back has given them an in-depth understanding of the world. Big tick!

But what’s this with the changes to the curriculum? She’s not writing her name! Should I be worried that he always skips number 16 and 17? I need concrete ideas I hear you cry!

Take A Breath

There have been changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum in the UK and these will be rolled out as of September 2021. But frankly, no matter where you are in the world, there are certain things I would be concerning myself with and an awful lot that I would be quite happy to leave to the professionals – curriculum changes included.

My concerns are focused on fostering a child who is excited by learning, inquisitive, resilient, confident and able to put his socks on! Lately I’ve started to worry that maybe I haven’t done enough academic prep for him. I haven’t drilled him with letter sounds. He doesn’t have much interest in mark making. He can’t write numbers. But then I check myself and think of his passion for snails, how he hunts numbers in the environment and his love of singing “Twinkle, Twinkle” (changing the lyrics for comedy value). I’ll take word play, a sense of humour and fascination of nature over a perfectly formed letter ‘A’ any day!

Still no ideas!” I hear you holler. OK – I’m on to it.

Here’s what I will be focusing on over the next eight weeks in the run up to STARTING SCHOOL!

My Top Tips For Preparing For School

Disclaimer: I’ve never had a Reception Class myself. Frankly they scared me a little. All that snot and the changing for P.E. - my comfort zone was firmly in Year 6! But I’ve worked with enough Reception teachers and observed enough lessons from a leadership position to know what helps. So please consider these tips from one parent to another but with a grounding of twenty years in a school setting.

1. Getting dressed

Twice weekly your little person will have a P.E. session. Now I struggle with trying to get one child dressed in the morning. Put yourself in the position of a teacher and assistant with 20-30 little people trying to shoe-horn themselves in to socks. Do them a favour – support your young folk in getting themselves dressed and undressed. And label everything! Every darned sock! Making it a challenge often helps. Have a timer – can they get their socks off quicker than last time?

2. Finger dexterity

So they’re not writing. Don’t panic. There’s plenty of things you can be doing in preparation for writing. Finger strength and fine-motor skills are the prerequisite for good pencil grip. Get them squishing playdoh balls, using tweezers, cutting with scissors, squeezing spray bottles, pressing their thumbs to fingers in a race and painting, drawing and using a range of mark-making equipment… All will help with dexterity and strength to support that tripod grip and writing stamina. Don’t be scared to leave the rest to Reception.

3. Playing with sounds

If your child has attended a nursery or preschool you may find that they’ve done some work around letter sounds but explicit phonics teaching is not expected till they gate-crash Reception. If your little one is anything like mine, they can recognise the sound of some letters. I take no credit for this. Ben the Train on Amazon Prime is solely responsible for any phonics development (that and a slight American twang to his accent). It is so important to make sure you’re pronouncing the ‘true sounds’ if you’re practising phonics, for example ‘mmmmm’ instead of ‘muh’. If you’re after some support, try Mr Thorne Does Phonics” on YouTube.

The pre-requisite to representing sounds on paper as a letter is hearing them. I cannot stress enough the importance of hearing the sounds in words. In the car we play lots of games. I Spy is great. “I spot something beginning with ssssss” using the sound rather than the name of the letter.

Another one shamelessly pinched from the ‘Letters and Sounds’ (the UK government scheme used by many schools) is sound treasure. Have a play tray with different objects. Can they ‘bin’ the object that don’t start with your focus letter? Can they put the objects in the treasure chest that do (an image of a bin and chest could be used to sort or just two containers)? Start with their interests: Harry will be very familiar with ‘t’ thanks to trains!

4. Name Recognition

Every morning they will need to hang their coat up. They will often find name cards to mark their place at an activity. Names pop up everywhere in Foundation Stage so it’s a real bonus if they can spot theirs.

Magnetic letters are great to move around. As are tactile activities e.g. tracing letters in sand and playdoh letters. Can your child find the letters of their name from a tray filled with dried chickpeas and stars with letters on (get the tweezers out for added fine-motor skill bonus points)?

We played a game where I had pairs of cards: one had the correct spelling and the other had a letter altered. The element of challenge was all my son needed to spot a Harry from a Barry!

5. Sharing is Caring

Something we’ve struggled with, particularly as a result of being locked away without peers or siblings during lockdown, is the capacity to share. I can’t emphasise enough this is a learned skill and not something we are born with. Don’t, like I have done, beat yourself up if everything is ‘mine, mine, mine!’

Playing games with turn-taking is one way to support this, helping your young folk realise we can all have a turn. My one-stop-shop for games ideas is the Move Laugh Learn website. Not only will it get them physically active, they will have the opportunity to develop their capacity to share whilst having quality time and fun with you.

6. Play Dates

A longgggg summer looms ahead. If you’ve been used to term-time early years provision, then you are on fun duty for the next 6-8 weeks. What better way to help them socially than to organise some play dates with their new classmates?

If you haven’t already swapped numbers with some of the new mums then I will bet my bottom dollar that a cheeky Facebook post on local sites will hook you up with some of their fellow September starters.

You’ll have the chance to let them run off some steam, make bonds with their peers and practise so many of the areas we’ve already mentioned.

Don’t Panic

It can be a daunting prospect but know that every school wants your child to not only survive the transition but thrive. If you’ve got worries and concerns, don’t hold them in. Children do their best when home and school work together so never be afraid to talk to staff – I bet whatever your worry; they’ve dealt with it before.

But most importantly, enjoy the process as much as you can.

Over the next year you will see your child flourish and grow in every area!

Sit back and wonder as you hear them talk of the world, of friendships, of how they dealt with a problem… as you hear them read, watch them count and see them write!

Send them off with a lump in your throat and a smile plastered over your face. Then sit back and enjoy a hot coffee without the soundtrack of Paw Patrol or Peppa Pig.

You’ve got this!

Boy and mum laughing laying on ground

Want more of Karen's wisdom? Check out her blogs here.

About The Unyoung Mum:

Having spent almost twenty years in education, working with little people, everyone believed it would be a breeze – I’d know what I was doing right? As Harry has hit the ripe old age of 799 days (that’s two years and two months of sleep deprivation), I felt it was time to embrace my sterling successes and spectacular fails as a first-time and full-time mum who is the fabulous side of forty...(read more)

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