How to Help Children Settle into School

Reading Time: 6 minutesWhether your child is in nursery or secondary school, settling into a new school or new school year can be stressful to say the very least. Here are some essential tips to help children settle into school.

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Summer’s out; school’s back in. Settling into a new school year or, even more nerve-wracking, a new school, can be an exciting yet daunting time for children and parents alike. As parents wave goodbye to their children every morning, they naturally hope that their little loved ones will enjoy new learning experiences at school, surrounded by kind friends and supportive teachers. Yet, as Paul Tough, former Vice Principal of West Island School in Pok Fu Lam, now Head of School at Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) explains, “Change in the school environment can provide exciting new opportunities, but is often also seen as a leap into the unknown. If not supported carefully and thoroughly, the change causes undue anxiety for all concerned.”

Often, parents and teachers can help to smoothly transition children of all ages into school by understanding and responding to their typical development needs. To allay parents’ fears and children’s tears, here are some words of wisdom from four of Hong Kong’s child educators.

The nursery years

Why is my child clinging to me? 

Tears are only to be expected if your child is attending nursery unaccompanied for the first time. And, according to Julie Lam, founder of Highgate House, a pre-school at the Peak, children are not the only ones who experience separation anxiety at this stage: parents, too, can find it tough to let go of their young children.

In the first instance, parents need to trust their own instincts and decide on what is right for their child, rather than conform to societal norms. Parents should be confident that nursery is a beneficial place to be for their child, says Julie. “If the child senses their parent is relaxed, ready and happy to let go during the sessions because they feel the child will benefit, this will go a long way to helping a child adjust.”

If a parent or child is not ready for nursery, the parent or primary caregiver can accompany the child for longer periods of time, she advises.

Possibly due to ongoing changes in her home, Rupal Agarwal’s daughter, Anaya, took more than four months to adjust to nursery at Highgate House. Every morning, Rupal would take her daughter, kicking and screaming, to school. Although she considered withdrawing Anaya from school, she had full faith in the nursery environment and teachers’ abilities.

Anaya’s teachers advised Rupal to switch Anaya from two-day nursery to three days, and to accompany Anaya until she regained her sense of security. When the teachers were confident that Anaya was ready to attend school without a parent present, Rupal was advised to leave, and after a couple of classes, Anaya overcame her fears and now enjoys her time at school.

Why is my child not playing with friends?

Once your child has settled into nursery, you may question your child’s social skills and ability to develop friendships. Rest assured, it is entirely normal for two-year-olds to focus on exploratory play whilst playing alongside each other, says Julie.

“The skills needed for successful cooperative play will typically develop when a child approaches the age of three,” she explains. “The child begins to learn to communicate, negotiate, take on roles, to give and take and adapt to others. This is when friendships can properly begin to form.”

Julie advises parents against expecting their children to develop friendships and play with peers until they are developmentally ready.

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The kindergarten years

How will my child cope without me? 

According to Frances Wilkinson, principal of ESF Abacus International Kindergarten in Clear Water Bay, children are more likely to settle into kindergarten if parents have provided them with opportunities to practise basic self-management skills.

“Some basic skills your child will need to be proficient at are toileting themselves (including wiping and hand-washing), putting their shoes and socks on, changing themselves if they get messy, blowing their noses and putting the tissue in the bin, opening their snack boxes and water bottles and feeding themselves; and managing their own equipment,” she comments.

By asking children to practise these skills at home, parents are also encouraging their children to listen to and follow simple instructions, skills that are necessary in order to follow classroom routines and activity instructions. Remember to prepare the right equipment – such as crayons, paste, or whatever is required – and label all items of clothing to make it easier for children and teachers to find their belongings, says Frances.

Will my child make friends soon? 

Play dates with classmates are a great way to help your child make friends at school, says Frances.

Lorraine Shaw, a mother of two who recently moved to Hong Kong, concurs. “I was worried about how Katie would cope with being in a new school in a new place. I joined an online parenting forum and reached out to parents whose children would also be attending Katie’s class. Hong Kong is such an easy place to meet people! In no time at all, we had play dates set up with school friends. She has become very chummy with a couple of girls, and I like their mums. I think she’ll be fine at her new school!”

The primary school years

Is my child ready to attend big-kid school? 

Perhaps a more appropriate question would be: Are you ready for your child to attend big-kid school? According to Timothy Rogers, principal of Island Christian Academy in Sheung Wan, parents are more likely to experience separation anxiety than their children of primary-school age. “It takes less than ten minutes’ absence from the parent before the child adjusts 100 per cent to the reality of being without mum and in the company of others,” he says. “The anxious mum should exit the school promptly and join fellow parents for tea/coffee immediately so they don’t linger on the separation.”

Separation anxiety is not the only challenge that parents face, says Michie Gerard, mother of two. When her daughter Juli joined Hong Kong Academy, a primary school in Kennedy Town, Michie found it challenging, albeit exciting, to adjust to school life. “Juli has settled in perfectly. It was more me who had the separation anxiety! Also, school presented drastic changes in Juli’s daily life and mine – waking up at 5:45am to prepare healthy snacks and get her ready for school; having a timetable; having these things to prepare for school projects, etc. I had forgotten what school was like!”

To ensure that children are best equipped to cope with primary school, teach them self-management, resilience and self-assertion skills, says Timothy.

“At school, children will have to take their turn, won’t get praised constantly and will have to operate as one of 22. They will get knocked, bumped and, at times, ignored by other children, not maliciously but just as part of the wear and tear of everyday life,” Timothy advises. “If a child is shy, self-assertion skills are needed. A peer can’t be allowed to snatch the ball from them as an ongoing practice, or dominate group activities constantly.”

But what if my child is being bullied?

According to Timothy, most, if not all, schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. He advises parents to immediately report the matter to the school and put it in writing if there is a second instance. “It is easy for teachers to observe once they are tipped off and the school will commence processing the matter by the designated steps of its anti-bullying policy,” he says.

On the flip side, parents can encourage their children’s socialising skills by coaching them in how to engage, not to be egocentric in conversation and play, and explaining the principle “be a friend so you can make a friend”, says Timothy.

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The secondary school years

Will my child be able to keep up with the curriculum? 

According to Paul Tough, a successful transition to secondary school involves students’ experiencing curriculum continuity, developing new friendships, building self-esteem and confidence, and getting used to new routines.

To ensure curriculum continuity, some schools, such as West Island, use “bridging materials” which allow for a series of lessons using the same skills and concepts to be developed in Primary 6 and into the first term of Year 7. Information about each student, including strengths and identified difficulties are shared amongst relevant teachers, and baseline assessments are undertaken to check where students’ learning levels are to identify required levels of support.

How do we support our teenager? 

A child’s academic achievements are not the only concern that parents may have at this stage. After all, their child is entering his teenage years! Paul believes that communication between parents and teachers is imperative at this stage.

West Island, for example, runs a series of parent forums during the academic year, which help parents support their children in a number of key areas. “These have included sessions dealing with students’ organisational issues, cyber safety, use of the internet and teen pressures,” says Paul.

No matter how capable, confident or clever children are, at every stage parents will have concerns about how their kids are settling into school. With appropriate support from parents and teachers, children will most likely adapt well to school life. As Michie concludes, “Most children love school, love learning and, best of all, they are happy! To the mommies: as always, your child will amaze you and make you proud of them with their high adaptation ability.”

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Angela Baura
Angela Baura is a content writer, copywriter and communications strategist for large and small businesses across the globe that focus on healthcare, corporate wellness, executive coaching, education and families. She has 20 years of experience and is an award-winning storyteller and freelance journalist working for clients like the SCMP. She also writes for publications that want real stories to inspire positive action. Angela is also a member of the 2020 Diversity List, an initiative by the Zubin Foundation. More about Angela on her website www.inkspirer.com

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