A teacher's view: how to get children ready to start school


Emma Thomas is a KS1 teacher from Abergavenny, in Mid Wales. Here are her top tips on helping your child get the most from school.

Before school starts

Explain key words

Some words and phrases seem so commonplace to us that we forget they mean nothing to small children before school starts: phrases like taking the register, or going to assembly.

‘Children often start school with no idea what these things mean,’ says Emma. ‘Parents can really help to orientate their child by explaining what a register is; what happens in assembly; what a headteacher does and even what school dinners and play time are.’ To make it even easier to understand, try having a school role play with your child and his soft toys – sitting on the carpet, taking the register and going to assembly.

Read all about it!

‘One of the simplest ways to get kids excited and prepared for school is to read them picture books about what school is like,’ says Emma. There are loads out there, including:

Starting School by Janet & Allan Ahlberg (Puffin)

Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton (Harper Collins)

I am TOO absolutely small for school by Lauren Child (Orchard Books)

Topsy and Tim: Start School by Jean Adamson (Ladybird)

Usborne First Experiences: Going to School by Anna Civardi (Usborne Publishing)

The Wolf Who Wouldn’t Go to School by Caryl Hart (Orchard Books)

Let them choose the lunchbox

‘Children get very excited about their bags and their lunchboxes and their bottles,’ says Emma. ‘So letting them choose their own is an easy way to get them feeling positive about school.’ If you want to stick to a budget we advise giving your child a choice between three appropriate options.

Practise ‘please’!

‘The social side of school is really important,’ says Emma. ‘When children understand concepts like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, sharing, taking turns – that helps them build positive relationships. All children need reminders about this – but it definitely helps when parents model friendly, social behaviour, praise their children for being well-mannered and play games that teach them about turn taking.’

Give the school a heads-up

If there is an issue that your child struggles with and you think it’s something that might affect them at school, it’s always worth having a chat with the teachers before term starts.

‘This doesn’t have to be anything major,’ says Emma. ‘It’s useful to know simple things – for example, maybe your child struggles when it’s very noisy or is having trouble pronouncing certain letters (“th” is a common one). If we know, we can put in place things to help them.’

Make sure they’re toilet-trained

‘By the time they start school children need to be able to go to the loo by themselves,’ says Emma. ‘Reception classes usually have one teacher and one teaching assistant (TA) to around 30 children. We simply don’t have the resources to take children to the loo.’

Build a love of books

‘If there’s one thing that will kick start your child’s learning, it’s coming to school with a love of stories,’ says Emma. ‘Loving books encourages children to learn to read and to write. It builds their creativity and encourages skills like empathy and conversation. Nothing beats a daily bedtime story. If it’s possible, try and make sure that children are being read to by both parents – boys in particular are encouraged to value reading when they see their dad doing it, as well as their mum.’

Buy paints, chalks and ribbons

‘Children don’t need to be able to write when they start school,’ says Emma, ‘but it does help if they’re used to the motions we make when we write – moving our arms, wrists, hands and shoulders. So get them outside, swooshing ribbons around or daubing paint on big sheets of A5 – or drawing with chalk on the pavement.’

Understanding emotions

It's worth reading these books that help children discuss behaviour:

Temper, temper by Norman Silver (deals with tantrums). £7.99, Worth Publishing.

Little Rabbit Foo Foo by Michael Rosen (deals with behaviour and consequences). £6.99, Walker Books.

How are you feeling today? By Molly Potter (teaches children about different emotions) £9.99,  Featherstone Education

Think lower case letters

‘It’s brilliant when children are keen to try writing,’ says Emma, ‘but two common problems for Reception teachers are children who can only write using capitals and children who form their letters incorrectly. It’s easier to start teaching these skills from scratch than it is to correct a habit that a child has already got into. If your child is keen to get going with a pencil, please teach them lower case letters first, and please make sure that they’re forming the letters properly (starting in the right place).’

‘But children don’t need to be able to write when they start school,’ says Emma. ‘And some children simply won’t be able. Being able to hold a pencil requires reaching a particular developmental stage – and so does forming some letters – you can’t force it. Different children reach that developmental stage in their own time.’

Limit background noise

Homes tend to be noisy places these days – people talking, TVs and radios on, video games playing. ‘All this noise teaches kids how to tune out,’ says Emma. ‘And that ability to tune out makes it harder for them to learn the useful skill of listening! So, to boost your child’s listening skills it’s good to have direct conversations with them, making eye contact and exchanging ideas. It’s also useful to turn off any sources of noise that they aren’t engaging with, so that background hubbub is limited.’

Teach them to count backwards

‘There are lots of opportunities to count,’ says Emma. ‘Going upstairs, putting cutlery on the table, counting toys. Children don’t need to be able to do it when they get to school – but if they can it gives them confidence (and helps them learn to add up). And if you can teach them to count backwards too, you’ll make it easy for them to learn subtraction!’


At school

Get to know the school

The more embedded you feel in the school, the better you’ll feel about how hard the teachers work, how committed all the staff are and just how much is going on to support the children and give them the best possible start. ‘Volunteer to do reading or to join the PTA,’ says Emma. ‘Come on a class trip. Go to a coffee morning to get to know other parents. It is hard when you’re working, but there are ways to get involved– like coming along to the Summer Fair, which is usually held on a weekend – or just suggesting an evening meet with parents in your child’s class.’

Reinforce the school pattern

‘Some children can’t get their heads around the fact that school isn’t a one-off,’ says Emma. ‘They’re excited about the first day – but they’re less excited when they realise they have to go to school every day. It’s helpful just to keep reminding them that they go to school on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – and stay at home Saturday and Sunday.’

Talk to the teacher

‘If you have any worries at all, come and talk to the teacher,’ says Emma. ‘Children can say things that make you feel anxious – but the teacher can help you get to the bottom of what’s going on. As an example, I had a parent come and see me because her child was worried about boy in an older year. She thought her daughter was being bullied. I promised to keep an eye out and I realised that this child was scared of the older boy – not because he was doing anything to her – but because he was a boisterous lad. So, I called them both over, introduced them and told the older child that the younger one was feeling worried by him and that he needed to look out for her. He promised he would and from then on, he was really gentle near her – and everything was fine. It’s always worth talking to the teacher, just to get another perspective.’

Ask specific questions

‘Parents want to know what their kids get up to in school, but so much happens for children during the day that a questions like, ‘What did you do today?’ can feel overwhelming,’ says Emma. ‘It’s best to ask something specific like, ‘What did you learn in maths today?’ or, ‘What was the funniest thing you did today?’ And if you want a coherent answer, don’t ask anything until your child has had a rest!’

Build resilience

‘Children do come across difficult situations in school,’ says Emma. ‘Like, falling out with friends, or dealing with children they find tricky. The best thing that you can do when your child is going through this is to help them learn resilience. Remind them, ‘If someone doesn’t make you feel good, don’t play with them. Your friends make you feel good.’ And again, always talk to the teacher if you’re worried.

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