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School – Not Quite The Final Frontier

By Ron Thow

We are now 4 weeks into probably the greatest change my son has yet known – he has started Primary School.

Now some children start school without a backward glance at their parents. They are eager to be there and adapt almost instantly.

It was looking as though I got the other type. The ‘don’t want to go to school after all’ type. Oh joy. The other parents faces reflect that unique mixture of sympathy and ‘glad it’s not me’ that we reserve for those parents less fortunate than ourselves. I know, I’ve worn that expression myself at different times.

Now I know it’s just a temporary issue, just a confidence hiccup but it’s still tough not to be able to fix a problem for your child. Especially when it seems to be such an emotional upheaval for him.

In truth this is the first great trial that children must face largely for themselves and like all the important lessons in life it is as hard on the parents as the children. Harder in many ways perhaps.

As a parent we may want to wrap our child in safety and protect them from the world outside but in doing so, we can prevent them from developing the emotional strength and armour they need to face the world in later years. The first lesson is for the parent – you can’t fight your childrens’ battles for the, no matter how much you might want to.

Starting school is a good opportunity to allow our children to take steps away from us in a safe and protected environment, to affirm themselves as individuals and masters of their own fates.

As one teacher commented to me ‘Today’s children are often emotionally soft from over protection – lacking
emotional skills at the very time that we ask them to rapidly adapt to more and more complex emotional demands’.

So, as the first of many steps to independence how do you prepare your child for school? How do you select the right school and not just the closest? Just how, in practical terms, do you get your child into a good school where they will continue to learn, both academically and socially, the skills and values that you instill at home?

First things first. Laying the groundwork for the big shift.

While your child is at kindergarten or similar, start introducing the idea of moving to school. This is a built-in process at kindergartens as most of them are linked in some way to a local school.

If your child has never been in a kindergarten or pre-school you should consider putting them into one rather than going straight into school. Children need to learn a lot of social skills and non-sibling children are an excellent education for each other. This socialisation is really important both for the here-and-now and also for the rest of their lives.

There are many information sources for finding out about potential schools.

We used the main 3 – other parents, our own eyes and ERO (Education Review Office) reports.

Practicality first, unless you are a glutton for travelling, the general school area you look at will be as close as practical to where you live.

Make a list of the schools in that area and see what the other parents at kindergarten etc., think of them. In many cases we found that they already had children attending schools, so we asked them about their experiences.

For us that narrowed the list from a dozen or so down to 3 or 4. Neither of us had the income to support private school and objectively the quality of education really didn’t seem any better, in any case, when compared to a good public school.

Next we looked at the ERO reports. These are available from the office by writing to them or more easily from their website. Most schools are listed there by name, both Primary and Secondary.

There is a list of various criteria that schools have to meet and any areas they need to address. The reports are by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, so be aware that they tend to dwell on reporting techniques and other paper pushing stuff rather than just curriculum.

They will also give information on the school budgets, deficits or credits. Whether you care for it or not, the amount of money a school has to play with will directly affect the quality of education that the school can give your child. The sad reality is that no amount of commitment and skill by teaching staff can effectively overcome an inability to buy text-books and teaching resources.

If you like the school but they are skint – roll up your sleeves and help them fund-raise. The decile rating of a school in the report is a reflection ‘ of the socio-economic level of the area it is sited in. As a side effect of this it also indicates what sort of economic/skill base it is likely to draw upon from parents.

The next step is good old-fashioned footwork. Set up interviews with the principals of the school(s) you are interested in and make a list of any questions you want to ask. Be sure to ask about non-curriculum issues as well – anti-bullying policies, sports etc.

Apart from the fact that it was an excellent school, one factor for picking the school we did was social – a number of children from Bens’ kindergarten would also be attending it. Knowing’ even a few children can be a big difference for a child in a big new school.

The next step is school visits.

These are normally spread over a period of time that suits the child, the school and the parents. Since the idea is to acclimatise the child to the school environment visits will vary, but 3-4 visits over a month seem typical.

Finally the big day, most kindergartens have some sort of ceremony to mark the leaving of a child and it also serves as a rite of passage into school.

Now when our son realised that neither Dad or Mum was staying all day, day school suddenly seemed a lot
less attractive to him.

It was at this point that the teachers in his new school really came into their own. They and the head of the junior classes helped prise him from me and got him settled. They didn’t coddle him but showed that they cared, talked to him and involved him.

They were objective enough to see the bigger picture and – let’s face it – they had had plenty of practice with this situation.

When I picked him up at 2pm the world hadn’t ended and it turned out that Ben had had a pretty good day and collected plenty of stickers for getting involved. Things were pretty good until he realised that this was all going to be repeated the next day – and the next.

This is where the parent’s side of things is really important. His mother and I compared notes on our respective strategies, each picking up ideas from the other that might help and also ensuring consistency.

I talked with an acquaintance who works as a counsellor with families and we also talked with teachers a great deal to gauge how Ben was doing when we couldn’t see him. What we have in place is a bit of a mix.

A weekly star chart for good attendance at school (ie. not fussing when it’s time to go). It was suggested that the maximum period for each star chart only be 1-2 weeks for maximum effectiveness for a 5-year-old.
Lots of hugs, congratulations and general positive encouragement have been the order of the day, of course.

Questions about school work, much parental involvement in reading homework and focussing on the tasks of school.

Talking about feelings also seems to work especially discussing the positive aspects of school.

A major one has been not to react 4 strongly to his ‘no school’ comments. I have just about mastered the calm reply that he will be going to school, so how about we think of some more positive things to say about it? Setting a framework of routine as a structure to hang all of this on has also been a priority.

Children need to know what limits and boundaries exist after all, both for their own feelings of security and also to give them something to test against.

What is Ben learning really? Well aside from learning to first tolerate, then finally like school. He is learning to verbalise his emotions, to self-soothe himself by focussing on positive feelings rather than dwell on negative ones, and that sometimes he has to do things he doesn’t like to do.

These are important life skills that he will be able to apply in different circumstances in the future. He is also learning about self-discipline and that perhaps is most important of all since intelligence will only take him so far in life. Intelligence, focus and discipline however, will take him wherever he wants to go.

So how has it gone? Two weeks after starting the settling process we are having to get up earlier so that we have time to cycle to school – the resistance to school has gone and the enjoyment level for all concerned is finally where it should be – the perfect win-win situation.

Next: Back To “Fathering The Future”

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