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Starting primary school

The move from nursery to ‘big school’ can feel like a huge step, for you as well as your child. To help allay any anxieties you might have, we've pulled together some great advice from parents which should help make the transition as seamless as possible.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 13, 2021

Primary School Children

Preparing for primary school

In the months before they start school, you can begin to get your child ready for the big day. The drip drip campaign to persuade them that school is THE place to be probably starts when they have their primary school place confirmed in April. To a four-year-old, April to September will seem a long time away, but you can tell them the name of their school, what colour their uniform will be and other exciting details that they can start to process ahead of time.

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Here are a few more ways that you can help your child get ready for reception.

Communicate with the school

Find out as much as you can from the school about what the first day will be like, who might be in your child’s class, the safety procedures put in place at the school to meet the government's guidance on coronavirus and so on, so you can familiarise her in advance and give her some useful snippets of information.

Equally, give the school as much info as you can about your child – does she have any big worries? Is there anything that she particularly needs help with? Most schools will ask you for all this information at some stage anyway and will have it in reports from their pre-school setting, but it never hurts to mention things that might help.

Woman on Phone

Talk it up…

Try to talk about school in a positive way, but don’t bang on about it relentlessly. Tell your child about your own school days – who your first teacher was and what you played at playtime. You might also like to read books with them about starting school.

…but keep it real

While it’s great to tell your child what to expect from school and be positive, don't oversell it. Most children like school and find it fun, but talking about how fantastic it is and how they'll always have lots of lovely children to play with may not be realistic, especially in light of newly-introduced social bubbles.

Be positive, but also warn them gently that they may get tired and if they have any problems or feel sad they should tell their teacher who wants everyone there to be happy and safe. Also try to explain what safety measures might be in place such as separate groups and social distancing.

Build familiarity with the school

If your child hasn't been to the school's nursery and doesn't have siblings at the school, think about familiarising them early. While she may not be able to physically see inside the school due to COVID-19 prevention measures, some schools may set up virtual tours for parents and children.

Mother Pointing

Rehearse the school routine

Run through the new school routine. Explain that there will be staggered starts for different groups of children and that the school day will be longer than at nursery.

Talk about school rules

Some children get confused or anxious about school rules so keep it light. They may worry they won't hear the school bell, won't line up in time and then get some fearful punishment.

Reassure them that the rules are all just about keeping everyone safe and happy and that their teacher will let them know what to do but they can always ask.

Work on 'life skills' and independence

Forget phonics and early maths, the one thing your child’s teacher will really thank you for and will help your child get on is being independent about day-to-day tasks. Teach her to hang up her coat and bag, put her own shoes on and get changed by herself for PE. Also show her how to fold her clothes and keep them together. If she can learn personal organisation it will save you a fortune on lost school clothes. Find out how lunch works at the school and practise things like using hand sanitiser by herself and anything else unfamiliar to her.

Related: The best water bottles for kids

Tying Shoe laces

Practise the school run

It's worth taking the school run route with your child a few times, and pointing out where the entrance is and things you will see on the journey. Children like the expected because it makes them feel safe – the fewer surprises on the first day (like Mummy banging around trying to get into the school through the wrong gate) the better.

Get them loo confident

It's common – and often mortifying – for children to wet themselves at school, especially in the first few terms. Children often don't like the school toilets (and who can blame them) so they will often hang on until it's too late.

Have a word with the teacher if you have a child who’s particularly young in year or just a bit slow on the uptake with going to the loo, but also give your child a change of pants to keep in her bag so she can avoid the embarrassment of telling the teacher if she prefers.

Also make sure that as well as remembering to go, your child knows what to do when in there – how to pull up pants and wipe properly (lots of girls get infections in the first term from wiping back to front, instead of the other way). Teach them how to flush the loo and wash their hands properly.

What does my child need to know before starting school?

Don’t panic about this one. There is such a difference between September-born kids and summer babies, those with older siblings and those without, brain boxes and average Joes and Joannas. And it all shakes down in the end. But here are a few things it’s worth having a stab at before they start school, that might just give them a bit more confidence in the early weeks.

  • Be able to go to the toilet alone and wash hands well.
  • Be able to change in and out of a PE kit.
  • Be able to put their own shoes on.
  • Recognise their name (both hearing it and seeing it written down).
  • Be able to write their own name so they can label their work.
  • Be familiar with the letters of the alphabet.
  • Be familiar with the numbers up to 20.

Remember that some children will be upset to discover that others in their class can already read and they can’t. Just reassure them that they will also be able to read soon, and ensure they continue to enjoy books, with lots of story time at home etc. And definitely don’t sweat it yourself. If other parents want to spend their summer cramming Biff, Chip and Kipper in advance while you were enjoying a much-needed staycation, that’s their loss.

Related: The best backpacks for school

Mum Reading

Tips for starting school

When September looms and the time comes to make the big break, be prepared for a few tears, possibly on both sides. But with a bit of forward planning and some clever PR, you should both be in the swing of school in no time.

First day at school advice

Try to make the morning as relaxed as possible. If you can take a day off work so it’s less of a rush, even better. Most schools start Year R children off on half days, so you may find they finish before lunch (and your first day of leisure is significantly shorter than you had imagined).

Take your (hopefully well-rehearsed) route to school arriving – not first hopefully – but with plenty of time to spare.

As a teacher there's nothing worse than snivelling parents making fond farewells. Children settle in much better if parents send them in confidently, smiling, wishing them well. Then you can go and weep round the corner. I did!

When it comes to hovering or doing a classic kiss and run, some parents will tell you it’s cruel to throw a four-year-old through the door and disappear. Others bemoan the parents who stand around for half an hour with their child becoming more anxious by the second and starting the other kids off too. Do whatever you feel is best.

Schools will likely have staggered finishing times for different year groups to reduce the number of parents arriving at the same time, so make sure you’re there at the correct time to pick up your child. Children are usually starving by home time, so you may also want to bring a healthy snack to the school gate.

After school, try not to bombard your child with questions and don’t be surprised if she can’t remember much at all. It’s a lot to take in. She’s likely to be tired, so don’t arrange anything too taxing for that afternoon, but a treat to celebrate a successful first day – ice cream in the park, anyone? – is probably in order. When your child gets home, let her have a rest and snuggle with you or her carer. You may want to let them watch telly for a while to unwind. If ever quality time was needed, it's now. You can ask them what happened at school but be prepared to hear “nothing.” Try not to interrogate them.

How to resolve problems with starting school

If it all seems to go pear-shaped early doors, don’t panic. It’s a rare child that has absolutely no worries about starting school, but rarer still is the child that doesn’t eventually settle in. Here are a few common problems and strategies for dealing with them.

Mum with Crying Child

What to do if your child doesn't like school

You child may suddenly refuse to go to school, have tummy aches at the school gate in the morning or refuse to go into the classroom. This can even happen after your child has happily skipped into school the previous day. Don't panic or get impatient (even though it will always happen when you really don't have time to talk them round).

Gently try to find out why – if there has been an incident in the playground or if they're worried about the work or the other kids. Children can say very painful things, such as “I don’t think anyone likes me.” This is usually not true but you need to listen and talk to their teacher.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety tends to affect younger children, but the start of school can sometimes kick off the same old worries. It sounds obvious but do make sure your child knows that you, or whoever is dropping them off, will come back (eventually) and they aren’t being left at school for good.

If they're terribly distraught on successive days, discuss strategies with the teacher. Good reception/P1 teachers are expert at looking after upset children and don't mind if you leave a screaming child. Ask if you can phone the school office later to check your child's OK. Children don't cry for as long as you imagine they will.

Playground worries

Some children are naturally outgoing, physically capable and cope well in the playground. Others hang round the edges and can't work out how to get into the games. We all hope it's not our child who is moping on the sidelines but, if it is, there are things you can suggest they do.

Tell them to ask an adult in the playground to help. They should say: “I want to play, but I don't know how.” It’s also worth encouraging them to ask to join in games at times when you’re present as ‘back up.’

Schools try to help children make friends and teachers will do sessions about sharing and taking turns and making sure no one is left out. Playtime may also look a bit different this year. So don’t lie awake at night picturing your child sitting cold and alone on the concrete floor of the playground while 300 other children ignore her. It won’t be like that at all (even if she tells you it is).

Primary School Playground

Friendship issues

Be prepared for the constant revolving door that is primary school friendships. If your child has made a friend at school but has a falling out or the friend has drifted off, it can feel pretty big in their world, but do resist the temptation to bustle in and dispense justice.

They all change 'best' friends about 500 times in the first couple of terms!

Instead, you can help them to negotiate to sort out a disagreement. Encourage her to tell you her side of the story and then ask how the friends feels and what she thinks should happen.

Having ‘lots of friends’ rather than a ‘best’ friend is the best way to shore your child up against best friend heartbreak, so do all you can to encourage a wide range of friendships, and mention it at school, so they are aware if there is an issue. The teacher may be able to ‘set her up’ with a friend for playtime or a classroom activity to help her form some new friendships.

Behaviour at home when starting school

In the first year of school, and especially the first term, children can be extremely tired. So cut them a bit of slack and be prepared for the odd tantrum or a few tears in the afternoons/evenings.

Most reception/P1 school children go to bed between 7pm and 7.30pm and a routine with a bath can be calming for a child after a long day at school. You might even find (particularly as half-term draws near) that she gets herself ready for bed and toddles upstairs at 5.30pm (or simply falls asleep face first in her dinner). This is pretty normal and nothing to worry about. If you think she’s really overtired and it would be viable for you, you could talk to the school about letting her do some half days for a short time. They’re usually very flexible about this, especially with children who are ‘young in year.’

Children Playing

Do children get homework in reception?

This differs from school to school. Most will at least expect them to do some reading with you a few times a week. Some may set other little projects or a few sums occasionally, though not usually in the first term.

Don't worry too much about homework. Mostly you’ll find it isn’t compulsory at all. If your child is resistant, sit with them and do it together. If they’re really getting stressed out by the idea or are just too tired, speak to their teacher about it.

Your feelings about your child starting school

The start of school can feel quite emotional, particularly if it’s your first child or last child (or both!). Try not to not sob openly as you say goodbye on the first day. Your child needs to feel confident, so even if you're still scarred by your first day at school, act normal and be supportive.

The house can feel empty if your little one has always been around for some of the day and then they're gone for all of it. Make the most of the time and find a way to fill it that suits you – you may want to pick up some hours at work, take up a hobby, volunteer or simply luxuriate in the peace and quiet. Don't forget, the holidays are always round the corner so you won’t be missing them for long.

Sad Woman

What Mumsnetters say about children starting primary school

Advice from parents who have been there and pushed their child firmly through the door of reception:

“I think if there is general stuff about bullying going on, then the teacher talks to the whole class. If someone is really naughty (like Oliver sticking his finger up his bottom and then putting his finger in Max's sandwich – the stuff of legend) they get sent to (horrifically scary) headmistress.”

“Quite soon, you lose the negative feelings and enjoy all the new experiences having a school-aged child brings – the new social life, the reading books they bring home, the Christmas play etc.”

“They need to go. They need the progression and the social interaction. They need to find out about things without us looking over their shoulders all the time. Start planning what you're going to do with your free time. Enjoy yourself. She'll be back by 3pm. You'll be fine.”

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You can talk to other parents on our primary school forum and/or our behaviour and development forum. And if you're indecently happy about the prospect of a few child-free hours a day, you can share your happiness there too.

Read next: How to help reluctant readers