Jonathan deBurca Butler talks to child psychologist David Carey who says readiness not age is what matters when starting school and advises parents to be wary of passing their anxiety on to their child.
ACCORDING to my mother, I did not cry on my first day at school.
“You set off full of enthusiasm,” she texted me in reply to a question I had sent, “which quickly changed when you discovered there were 29 other children and mums. Your chin wobbled a bit alright and you did suddenly become a little reluctant.”
In just under two weeks’ time, my first-born son, Fionn, starts primary school. Knowing him, there won’t be any chin wobbles.
I fully expect him to approach his first day in the same way he faces most challenges and get stuck in from the get go.
This is not Fionn’s first engagement with one of society’s institutions.
Since the tender age of eight-months, Fionn has been in some form of childcare either on a full-time or part-time basis.
Though looking back, we regret some of it, there are things about being in a creche that have stood to Fionn.
He is not shy, he is relatively confident and he doesn’t get intimidated very easily. His language skills are also better for his time in childcare.
But more than anything, his time in childcare will mean that the transition to school should be a lot easier than if he had never been away from his mother or single carer at all.
That said, there are of course changes that parents should be aware of.
“The main difference between a creche and the junior infant classroom is the focus on play,” says child psychologist, David Carey.
“Most creches feature learning through play. Quite often junior infant classrooms treat play as a break between formal learning experiences.
"Young children learn best through play, not through formal lessons and direct instruction.
"There tends to be too much focus on formal learning in infant classrooms, inappropriate amounts of homework and not enough opportunity to play. Of course, there are exceptions but the general trend is less play, more lessons.”
Last year some 71,500 junior infants started their journey through the education system. This year’s figures are expected to be similar if not a little higher.
Of those who enrolled for the first time last year, just under a third were four years old on January 1st this year. Fionn will fall into that category on the same date in 2017. In other words, he is young.
Carey believes that age is not the issue and points out that most young children adapt quickly to their new environment.
“Readiness is the key issue, not age,” he says.
“If you know your child is developing more slowly than other four-year-olds it may be best to send them to school at age five or six rather than four,” he says
“No two four-year-olds are at the same stage of developmental readiness. Learn how to read your child in order to do what is best for them.”
Anecdotally, there is some evidence that because of the extra year of subsidised childcare recently introduced by the Government, children are being kept back that little bit longer.
In some countries (yes it’s the Nordics again) school doesn’t start until the age of six or seven.
For us, all the indicators from carers and others around Fionn is that he was more than ready to start school. Not that getting a place in a school in Dublin is easy, particularly if your child, like ours, has not yet rid himself of original sin.
For a while, it was in fact touch and go as to whether Fionn would find a place at all.
In the end, we were offered two places and, crucially for us, a place in what was our first choice; a local Protestant school with five teachers and less than one hundred pupils. We were lucky, our scenario is not one you come across every day, not in Dublin at least.
Another positive about Fionn’s new school is that there is no uniform required which again might help with the transition somewhat.
In fact, the only immediate drawback apparent is the starting time of 8.20 — getting our star pupil out of the scratcher might prove a little tough but I’m sure we will manage.
In many cases, that first day at school is a breeze for the new pupil in question but for many parents it is a different matter. It is undoubtedly a watershed day.
That little boy or little girl is growing up and you feel you are letting go just a little bit more. For the next six years he will develop relationships and bonds that you might not know much about.
And then, of course, there is the worry. For David Carey, a parent’s anxiety needs to be dealt with with a brave face where possible.
“There is no reason for parents to become anxious and stressed about their child’s entry into formal schooling,” he says.
“It is a natural process of development and most children really love to transition to big school. Some parents transmit their anxiety to the children. Remember, anxiety is contagious and parental anxiety always is swiftly communicated to children in hidden ways.
“Stay calm, your child will benefit from your attitude but more than anything he is going to benefit from the infant classroom.”
Top tips for your new star pupil’s big day
Label it: Theirs is not the only Avengers bag on the planet. Imagine he ends up arguing with someone on his first day about who owns what. First impressions last, remember.
Get it together ... together: The night before that first day, get their bag, books, snacks, sambos, shoes, socks, shirt, trousers, undies ready to go. If you want to keep it that way for the next 14 years, get started tonight.
Tell them about your school: In the build-up to their first day, tell them about your own experience at school. If they know you’ve done it, then like anything else, it can’t be that bad.
Be on time: Don’t be late dropping them off. You’ll miss out as much as they will and you feel and probably look like a bit of an eejit. And be sure to pick them up on time. You don’t want everyone thinking Paddy Last’s mummy or daddy doesn’t love them; least of all your own child.
Fake it if you have to: If you think you will be overcome with emotion, get someone else to drop them in or just take some laughing gas. Be positive to the point of over enthusiasm. Keep the crying for later.
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