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Starting school: a developmental milestone for children and parents

Starting school is significant developmental milestone for children and their parents.  A recent survey for PACEY found that the majority of parents (71%) are anxious about their child starting school. This is not surprising as change brings uncertainty and anxiety is nature’s way of making sure that we prepare ourselves well for this change. 

Anxiety becomes problematic when it is so overwhelming that we feel that we can no longer function in the way that is required. Childcare professionals can play a valuable role in supporting children and their parents during this potentially anxious time. 

What are parents anxious about?

Making friends (36%), settling into a routine (23%) and bullying (15%) were the top three concerns of parents in the recent survey.  Parents’ anxieties are likely to be influenced by a combination of how they understand their child and also their own memories of starting school. 

It’s possible to see how a parent who had a positive experience of school may be more excited than worried for their child.  Whereas, a parent who didn’t enjoy school may be concerned that their child may be unhappy at school.

Encouraging parents to reflect on their own experiences can be beneficial as it can help them to distinguish between worries based on their own experiences and worries about their child. 

Parents may find it helpful to talk to childcare professionals, friends, a partner, family and/or other parents who’ve already been through it.  It may also be interesting for you to reflect on your memories of starting school and how this may influence the way you approach this transition with the children in your care. 

It is helpful for parents to remember that all children are different and will approach friendships in different ways. Childcare professionals can support parents by talking to them about their child’s friendships in their current childcare setting and make suggestions about how parents will be able to support their child at home, for example, practising turn-taking, having play dates, and so on.

It is helpful to explain to parents that knowing how to be a friend to other children is the most effective way for children to make friends and this can help with anxieties about bullying too. Settling into a new routine may be helped by childcare professionals and parents working together to make gradual changes to the child’s current day in order to prepare for starting school.  

Parents’ versus child’s anxiety

According to the survey, about a quarter of parents (27%) said that they were about as anxious as their child and nearly half of parents (48%) said that they were more anxious than their child about starting school. 

Children pick up on their parents’ feelings very easily so it is important that parents try to avoid letting their child know how anxious they feel.  Parents need to try and communicate to their child that they have confidence in them as children look to their parents for reassurance.

Parents and children can read books together about starting school, draw pictures and play games about starting school, or take a walk past the school and talk about it. One of the most important factors for a successful transition is a strong parent-child relationship.

Preparing together for starting school is a really good way to strengthen this relationship and support children to process their feelings about the transition. This will help parents to see what their child may need support with but also what their child is excited about.  If children feel secure in the relationship with their caregiver/s then they are more likely to be able to deal with any challenges they may face when starting school. 

How do childcare professionals’ support parents and children?

The majority of parents (71%) felt that their childcare/early education provider had played a ‘significant’ or ‘very significant’ role in preparing their child for school.  For example, through encouraging independence, laying the foundations for learning, and developing confidence with other children. It is heartening to see the important role childcare professionals play recognised by parents.  

It’s interesting to hear about the Starting School Together programme PACEY is piloting. It looks to further encourage these partnerships between not only childcarers and parents, but also teachers to help families through this important transitional stage. 

Anxiety is a natural response to transition in both parents and children.  Childcare professionals can work collaboratively with parents to create an environment that enables children (and parents) to safely embrace the challenges of the transition in order to successfully progress to the next stage of their development.

  • How do you currently work alongside parents whose children are approaching starting school?
  • What else could you do to support parents who are anxious about their child starting school?
  • Do your memories of school influence how you approach the transition with children and their parents?  If so, how?

Find out more about preparing children for starting school and helping to support parents through this transition with PACEY's School Ready resources.

About the author

Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice.  She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London.  Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.

Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.  To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.

Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals.  When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.

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