Starting primary school

children at primary school

The move from nursery or playgroup to ‘big school’ can feel like a huge step, for you as well as your child. 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.

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 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 the uniform is and other exciting details that they can start to process.

Here are a few more ways in which 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 she will know 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, too, about your child. If she has any big worries, anything she particularly needs help with etc. Any decent school 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 talking on the phone

Talk it up…

Try to talk about school in a positive way – but don’t bang on relentlessly. Four-year-olds aren’t as daft as they look. Tell your child about your own school days and who your first teacher was, what you played at lunchtime etc. You might also like to borrow books about starting school from the library, or talk to older children who go to school about what jolly good fun it all is (choose your witnesses carefully, though!)

…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 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 who wants everyone there to be happy and safe.

Build familiarity with the school

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

Many schools 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 her very first day.

mother pointing with child

Rehearse the school routine

Run through the school routine. If you've been collecting your child from a playgroup at lunchtime, explain about how at school you stay and have lunch with your friends. If it’s possible to extend their hours in their last term of nursery to introduce them to the 9-3 day, that’s worth thinking about, too.

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 pouring water from a jug (if they do that themselves) and anything else unfamiliar to her. If someone hands her a lunch tray on her first day and she’s never held one before she’s likely to drop school sausages on her shoes instantly.

child tying 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), so they don't perpetuate those awful tummy bugs that can take out whole families.

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, brainboxes 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.
  • Know how to use a knife and fork (and remember to do it).
  • 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 storytime at home, trips to the library 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 your last off-peak, out-of-school-holidays trip, that’s their loss.

mother reading with child

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 a 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 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!
The great ‘to enter the classroom or kiss and run’ debate has never been resolved on the Mumsnet Talk Boards. Some parents will tell you it’s terribly cruel to throw a four-year-old through the door and disappear. Others bemoan the parents who stand around for half an hour, hovering in the classroom, with their child becoming more anxious by the second and starting the other kids off, too.

Do whatever you feel is best, but know that most parents do at least poke their head round the door on day one, help their child find their peg and point out where the loo is.

Make sure you're early to pick up your child as it can be 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.

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 – an ice cream in the park or hot chocolate in a cafe in town – 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.

mother 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. They may suggest coming in to the classroom to settle them for a few days, or they might feel it’s better that you beat a hasty retreat. 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 with Chloe 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’, perhaps at a friend’s house or at a soft play centre.

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. 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).

children at 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 play time 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’.

Do you do playdates in Reception?

Having their new friends round is a lovely way for them to settle and solidify friendships, but don't overload your child in the exhausting first term – maybe one after-school thing a week is enough.

If they have a packed schedule of ballet, swimming lessons and other things, you might find they have enough on their plates after school and friends for tea is an activity best left for a weekend.

children playing outside

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 horribly 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 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 so you won’t be missing them for long.

woman looking sad

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:

“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 the physical education at that age.”

“All I know for sure: you need '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). And the teacher is quite generous with stickers, even for what I would recognise as 'low levels of attainment'. Erm, that's it.”

“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.”

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.)