IT was almost four decades ago but I can still remember my first day at school. I had been harassing my parents for months with my desire to have a lunch box like my big brother and a whole new set of colours, but when the day finally arrived and I realised I was actually going to be left in a room with a load of other children, I was horrified and had to be physically restrained from making a bolt for the door.
Fortunately, my despair was short-lived and I enjoyed a very happy school life, but the memory of the first day has never left me.
For thousands of children this month, their bags will be packed and their stiff new uniforms will be ready and waiting for action. While for some the transition will be very smooth, others will be nervous about the big day — and their parents probably more so.
To seasoned parents of older children, it can seem a lot of fuss about nothing, but preparing for the first day at school can be very daunting. And while the anxiety of whether or not your child will settle in and make new friends is very real, for some children the physical act of getting to school and staying safe in the schoolyard is more of a problem.
Sinead Kelly is married to Robert and has two children — Billy (6) and Grace (4). Her son started school two years ago without a hitch but her daughter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in 2011 and has had to cope with various side effects in her short life.
This means that her first day at school could take a little more adjustment than for her peers.
“Grace is going to mainstream school in September and while she has done fantastically in her nursery school and in the lessons and therapy she has had at Clare Crusaders Children’s Clinic, she has quite a few disabilities to cope with,” says the Clare woman.
“She is profoundly deaf in her left ear and has sight problems in both of her eyes. She also has all-over muscle weakness and very poor balance so there is a real risk of her falling over — which is our biggest worry when she goes to school because a knock to the head could cause damage to the tumour, which so far hasn’t grown in size.
“So for us, the issue of safety is far more worrying than whether she will settle in quickly or not.”
But the mother-of-two says teachers at St Senan’s School in Shannon are doing everything they can to accommodate her daughter’s transition to mainstream education.
“Grace is very bright and I know she will have no problems on the learning front, but the school will provide an SNA just to make sure that she is safe,” says Sinead. “We have been allocated the services of a teacher for the deaf and the school has been very positive about it all.
“But I suppose for us it’s the worry of her getting injured and the fear of the unknown which is making us anxious. Grace herself is very excited and because she went to summer camp with the Clare Crusaders, she has had experience of going into an environment with new children.
“Once we are comfortable that she is happy in her surroundings, is safe in the school yard, can use the bathroom with ease and is not in danger of getting hurt, then we can relax and she can enjoy the transition to big school like every other four-year-old.”
Aoife Lynch is a Montessori and Special Education teacher at the Clare Crusaders charity. She has been teaching Grace for the past three years and says she is very confident that the little girl is ready for the transition.
“When Grace first started in the clinic her mum’s goal was for her to be prepared and able to start preschool — she exceeded expectations,” she says.
“In the run up to starting mainstream school, she is now able to spell and recognise her name which is fantastic and was done with a lot of help from her brother Billy who takes part in all sessions as he helps her to understand what school will be like.”
Laura Haugh, Mum in Residence for online parenting community MummyPages.ie also has a child with a similar condition and he will be starting school in September. From her own experience with James and feedback from MummyPages mothers, she agrees that starting school can be more difficult for children with special needs.
“There is so much more for parents of children with special needs to consider from both a practical and emotional viewpoint when it comes to preparing for school,” she says.
“Many parents don’t get the hours of support recommended for their child due to budget cuts in the Department of Education, which is worrying for parents who wonder how their child will cope in a class of around 30 students.”
Child psychologist, Peadar Maxwell says while starting school is a daunting transition for all children, there are a number of ways in which to make the whole process easier.
“Look at this special time as an exciting and fun new beginning where your child (and maybe you) will meet new people, learn new things and grow into the competent person you hope he will be.
“However, for children with additional needs I would advise parents to discuss their child’s transition from pre-school to primary school with the professionals who have met and may have written reports on their child. These are often a valuable summary of information about the child. But even the best report cannot replace the invaluable contact between the assessing therapist and your child’s teacher.
“In the more personal conversation between the therapist and teacher the subtle uniqueness of your child’s learning needs can be fleshed out, giving the teacher assistance and insight that could make it more likely that your child will flourish in school.”
-Routine is essential Build your child’s routine around breakfast, getting home, homework, supper, chill-time and getting ready for bed.
-Teach independence skills Your child will need to take care of herself and her possessions when not in your direct care — so begin by teaching how to do simple task and chores such as setting or clearing the table, pouring a drink, getting dressed and using the toilet independently.
-Get to know the new school Make an effort to keep in the know by reading the newsletter, becoming involved if possible and getting to know the children and parents your child will know for their primary years.
-Be dependable and predictable Make sure your child always knows who, when and where he will be collected after school. And make sure you or that person is on time.
-Don’t make your anxiety become your child’s anxiety Parents naturally worry about their child and all of the new demands on the child. Be positive about school and relate that positivism to your child. nEmpathise before you reassure Let your child hear and see that you understand that they have a real worry, no matter how small that worry seems to you. Don’t ignore their feelings.
-Stay positive Make a conscious effort to engender a positive attitude to school, schoolwork and teachers. They’ll see that it means a lot to you and are more likely to value their learning experiences.