Starting primary school

Even if your child has been at nursery or playgroup for a while, the leap to 'Big School' can feel like a challenge - for both of you

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To help allay any anxieties (or downright panics!) you might have, we've pulled together some great advice from Mumsnetters which should help make the transition as painless as possible.

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.)

Preparing your child for primary school

Tell your child what to expect from school but 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 will not stand them in good stead when some horrid kid pushes them out of the way to grab the last princess/pirate dressing-up costume.

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.

  • Visit the school beforehand

If your child hasn't been to the school's nursery and doesn't have siblings at the school, make sure he or she sees the school before starting so they know what to expect.

Many schools do set up 'taster' sessions for the new September intake at the end of the summer term: don't worry, they won't start grading your child's reading level or anything; it's just a little look-and-play in the classroom, so your child doesn't have to walk into a totally unfamiliar room on their very first day.

  • Rehearse the school routine

Run through the school routine. If you've been collecting your child from a playgroup at lunchtime, tell them that now they're more grown-up they'll be staying at school with the other children for the afternoon.

This can be a shock for some children who may get tired and tearful after lunch. You can reassure them that lots of children feel tired - and remind them of this when they refuse to go to bed at night.

As for the learning-things bit, do say they'll do lots of games to help them learn. You should be aware that some children will get upset that other kids in their class can read and they can't. Encourage lots of reading time at home, and visits to the library.

  • Talk about school rules

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

Reassure them and tell them to keep an eye on what the kids around them are doing. Some child-rearing experts suggest reading a book to your child about starting school and that's fine, as long as it's a happy one. Not Tom Brown's Schooldays.

  • Encourage 'life skills'

At school, children need to do things for themselves that, till now, you may have been doing for them - in fact, most parents do a shocking amount for their children at home. Realistically, teachers can't change 30 children into their PE kit so, ideally, you should teach your child to get dressed and undressed before they start school.

Also show your child how to fold their clothes and keep them together. If they can learn personal organisation (and goodness knows that's a lesson we all wish we'd learnt at the age of four), it will save you a fortune on lost school clothes.

Encourage your child to put things away. They'll be expected at school to put their pencils in a pot and to know where their PE kit is - every little bit of independence helps.

It's also worth taking the route you'll usually go to school with your child, and pointing out where the entrance is. 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.

  • Label their clothes

Label your child's clothes and show your child where you've put their name, so they can check it themselves. It's tempting to issue warnings about how you will tear them limb from limb if they lose another school fleece but kinder not to. Most schools have a lost property where you can ferret around and 'rehome' another one.

School toilets and personal hygiene

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 hang on until it's too late.

Have a word with the teacher about reminding your child to go to the toilet, but also give your child a change of pants so they can avoid the embarrassment of telling the teacher if they don't want to.

Make sure your child knows how to pull up their pants and wipe themselves properly (lots of girls get sore bottoms in the first term from wiping back to front, instead of the other way). Teach them how to flush the chain and wash their hands, so they don't perpetuate those awful tummy bugs that can take out whole families.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is common for both parents and children. It's quite traumatic saying goodbye to your tiny and defenceless child. You should make sure your child knows that you, or whoever is dropping them off, will come back (eventually).

If they're terribly distraught, discuss strategies with the teacher. Sometimes it helps if you leave your child, walk round the block and come back, so they believe you when you say you'll always come back. You can then gradually extend the length of time you take to come back.

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.

It can help to come into the classroom with your child (the first time, show them their peg and where the toilet is), hang up their coat and then bring them to the carpet to sit down and kiss them goodbye. This routine can get shorter as the term goes on.

And don't forget that if anything has happened at home - if Harry the gerbil has passed away or whatever - your child's teacher will want to know.  

The playground

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 with Chloe but I don't know how."

Schools try to help children make friends and teachers will do sessions about sharing and taking turns to encourage kids to be nice to each other in the playground and to make sure no one is left out.

Help your child to develop more social skills outside school by taking them to see people, especially if they also have children, showing them what sharing means and encouraging them to have conversations. Kids are like adults - they like confident, chatty mates.

Talk through the events of the day: "Wasn't it nice when we saw Tom and Alice? We went to the park, didn't we, and did you enjoy the slide?" Ask them open questions (how, what, where, why) and encourage them to have opinions and ask questions.

  • Playground disputes

Rather than bustling in and dispensing justice when your child falls out with a friend, help them to negotiate. Let each give their point of view and then ask what they think should happen.

As long as the school allows it, let your child take a small toy to play with in the playground. This can sometimes make them feel more able to cope - if there isn't anyone to play with at least they'll have something to do. If you are competitive Mummy or Daddy, you can find out the latest playground craze and buy your child whatever it is in an attempt to make them popular. Kids can be just as shallow as adults, so it may work.

Home time and after school

Make sure you're early to pick up your child as it's upsetting for them to be the last child (OK, so someone has to be). Children are usually starving by home time, so you may want to bring a snack and drink to the school gate.

When your child gets home, let them have a rest and snuggle with you or their 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.


While it is nice to have playdates (friends round) and after-school activities, don't overload your child in the exhausting first term - maybe one after-school thing a week is enough.


Don't worry too much about homework. If your child is resistant, sit with them and do it together.

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.

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 may 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.

Don't phone up other parents to try to find out what has happened because usually you won't. All that happens is that you parents will fall out indefinitely while your children will have made up and become best friends again within the week. So stay calm. Your child will usually work it out.

Your feelings about your child starting school

Try not to not sob loudly in front of your child 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.

It can feel horribly empty if your child 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 or volunteering, meet with fellow stay-at-home-parents or simply luxuriate in the peace and quiet. Don't forget - the holidays are always round the corner.

What Mumsnetters say about children starting primary

  • By all accounts, PE lessons in Reception consist of about 45 minutes of dressing and undressing, with about 10 minutes haring around in the hall in the middle. I reckon the dressing and undressing is physical education at that age. Smithagain
  • All I know for sure is you need to use the toilet necklace when you go to the toilet. Someone wore it home once. You need to learn to kick a ball properly, not in a silly manner. This is important. The teacher is quite generous with stickers, even for what I would recognise as 'low levels of attainment'. Erm, that's it. Anchovy
  • As a teacher there's nothing worse than snivelling parents making fond farewells inside the classroom. 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! Clutteredup
  • I think if there is general stuff like 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. Enid
  • They all change 'best' friends about 500 times in the first couple of terms anyway! Porpoise
  • 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. DumbledoresGirl
  • 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. Rhiannon 

Liked this? Try these:

Starting secondary school

School uniform essentials

How to help your child with homework


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