How to Start School Smoothly – Tips from a Teacher

It’s almost time to go back to school and for the new kids this can be an anxious time (for them and their parents!). But it’s not just Reception students this year that might feel unsettled – as most kids have been out of school for so long due to lockdown the return this September will feel like a fresh start for many. Fortunately former teacher / The Ready to Learn Mum Emma is here to answer questions in detail to help make the start of school a smooth transition for the whole family.

Please introduce yourself…

Hi, I’m Emma, mum of three girls ages 7, 5 and 19 months, and a qualified primary school teacher with over 12 years’ experience. I lived in East London, firstly Stoke Newington then Leyton for 10 years before upping sticks 3.5 years ago to move to Surrey to be nearer family. I am now a full time mum as well as a local tutor, parent governor and ‘The Ready to Learn Mum’! I was a teacher for many years in an outstanding Primary School in Arsenal, north London. I’ve taught across years 1-6 and was a phonics leader for the borough of Islington. In my last year I was SENCO (special needs co-ordinator) working alongside families and pupils who needed extra learning support. I have now had two of my children start school and I feel have experience of both sides of the school gate. Since leaving the classroom I’ve wanted to find a way that I could share my understanding and knowledge of child development from years of teaching, as well as being a mum of three and package this into a helpful resource that I can share with other parents. My aim is to reach as many parents as I can regardless of background, so that all children and families can benefit from the best start to their child’s education.

What is The Ready to Learn Mum and why did you start it?

I started ‘Ready to Learn’ during lockdown, but I had been trying to start it for a number of years, however the timings never seemed right; I was always busy at work juggling being a working parent, or pregnant with another baby on the way. When my eldest daughter started school, I felt like I wanted to prepare her as best I could, so we started playing little games and activities, practising some of the skills that she needed before starting school. My friends then started to ask me whether I would share some of the activities. Most people haven’t stepped foot inside a school since they were a pupil themselves, so felt quite anxious about supporting their child. I thought how wonderful it would be to create a space were parents got the 1:1 time with an experienced teacher but also a parent who understands the logistics and limitations of family life. The best way I thought I could achieve this was through running small group, face to face interactive workshops for parents essentially training them on how support their child with their learning. Then lockdown happened and I realised that parents, more than ever, needed some guidance and reassurance of how to support their child during this difficult time. Therefore, one day I opened up Instagram and Ready to Learn was born!

What services do you offer parents?

Ready to Learn aims to bridge the gap between home and school. Learning happens everywhere and I believe that the home is an opportunity to embed and explore concepts in a playful way which will further deepen learning. Home shouldn’t become school, but similarly learning doesn’t stop at home. My aim is to provide parents with enough knowledge and insight into education and how children learn, so that home becomes a place to experiment, explore, question and most importantly learn through play. For me, play is by far the best form of research and due to the limitations of school life, particularly as the children get older, the opportunity to learn through play diminishes. Therefore, it is even more important to provide these opportunities elsewhere. Ready to Learn consists of two streams. One of those being workshops, whereby I provide training for parents on skills that will support their child throughout primary school. The other element is to provide ongoing continuous support for parents and children through educational games and activities shared on my social media platforms. All the activities are easy to set up, uses materials you’ve got around the house and are tried and tested either in the classroom or on my own children! At the moment I run two different workshops:

1. Reception: What to Expect –this workshop focusses on developing the skills children need before they start school as well as preparation for the Reception curriculum.

2. An introduction to Phonics –this workshop concentrates on how children learn to read and writethrough synthetic phonics. My ambition for 2021 and beyond is to run new workshops on Key stage 2 maths, preparation for KS2 SAT’s and how to encourage reluctant writers.

What are your three top tips for parents with children starting school in September?

1. Independence – life skills are important not only to help the smooth running of a classroom, but also to give the child confidence in their own ability and reduce anxiety. All the little things like going to the toilet or putting on your coat as adults we take for granted, but if you are a child who is unable to do this, it can become a problem and distract them from concentrating on learning and having fun. The more practise they have of doing these tasks the more instinctive they will become. Independence skills can also mean making their own decisions, having the responsibility for those choices and carry out tasks on their own. For example, choosing weather appropriate clothing or choosing the correct cutlery for their meal. Letting them make these decisions and having this responsibility promotes a sense of achievement and confidence in their ability as well as what we call a ‘growth can-do mindset’.

2. Develop a sense of wonder about books and storytelling. Read books with no pictures. These are the first books that we send home in early years as they are wonderful for developing language and vocabulary. It honestly doesn’t matter what you say, just play with it, and you’ll feel more and more confident each time. The books that you are already reading are great, but don’t overlook the popular fairy tales. Your child will no doubt come across Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the three bears and Little Red Riding Hood at least once during their time at school. Ask questions…what do you think will happen next? What if…? When did that happen? Etc. Read old family favourites. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book a hundred times, children love repetition and familiarity. It is also great for word recognition if they can almost ‘read’ the book from memory. One top tip is find out what book your child will be focussing on in the Autumn term and buy/borrow it. That way your child will be familiar with the story before they get to school and will undoubtedly give them confidence when they are in the classroom.

3. Communication – focus on speaking and listening skills. If you’re not sure what to say, just give a running commentary on your daily life. It doesn’t need to be perfectly crafted sentences just general everyday conversation about what you’re doing. You can add in adjectives and make it a bit more exciting. For example; “your ice cream looks delicious! Its melting and dripping all over your hand!” It’s great for children to rehearse certain phrases that they will need for school for example; asking to go to the toilet, asking if they can join in a game, explain their feelings to their friends or teachers. Having the confidence to communicate their needs to another adult is a fantastic skill to practise over the summer holidays. One way you can do this is to speak with grandparents, extended family, friends on holiday etc to develop their confidence. Play lots of listening games; Simon says, I went to the shop and I bought, memory games, whispering games, all of these build up confidence and ability to listen carefully and then carry out a task-this is a fundamental skill for success in the classroom. Aim for your child to carry out 2 pieces of information i.e “Simon says put your finger on your nose and jump up and down” if they can do this build it up to three pieces.

What can parents do in the week before school starts to help prepare for a smooth transition?

Try and gently open up the conversation of starting school. Some children will be very excited, others refusing to talk about it and everything in between! Start gradually reading books about school and/or watching TV programmes. Be brave and ask them “how do you feel about starting school next week?” let them feel the big feelings if they have any and try to listen and stay calm. They will feel better afterwards, those big feelings are much better out than in. Name the emotion too “It’s OK to feel a bit worried and excited when you start something new”.

With my children I do an activity exploring the things that will stay the same, things that will be different. Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle then write ‘same’ on one side and ‘different’ on the other and discuss it. There are actually lots of things that will stay the same and that is reassuring for children.

Remind them of their teachers name and the friends (if any) will also be there. The name of the school, their classroom, the head teacher, teaching assistant. I sometimes play a little quiz with mine and see if I can remember too!

Ensure you have all uniform ready, shoes bought and everything labelled. •Do the journey to school at 8.30am so that you know what the traffic is like, how long it takes to walk etc.

Ensure the children are getting enough sleep. Everyone’s routine goes a bit wayward over the summer holidays but the week before school try and make sure your child is getting 11-12 hours sleep a night.

‘My child is an August baby and I’m worried that they will struggle academically and social/emotionally because they are the youngest in the year’ – What do you suggest to parents with summer born babies?

This is a question I get asked a lot and I was worried about too because my girls have May and June birthdays. Firstly, I would reassure you that although in September they might seem young and take a bit longer to adjust, they do all catch up and statistically by the end of Year 1 everyone is roughly achieving at age related expectations regardless of their birthday. Some children who are born in the late summer are totally ready to start school and are raring to go, others still seem so young and could do with another year in nursery. It is worth reminding the teacher that your child is a summer baby so they can be mindful if they need a few more cuddles or to reconnect throughout the day to make sure they’re doing OK.

What will school be like in September with all the new COVID precautions and guidelines to follow? Will it be more stressful for the children and parents?

For anyone with older children it may seem different, but for those who are just starting out, the whole experience will be new, so it is more likely to be their parent’s anxiety rather than their own. One thing I can reassure you of is that the teachers, governing body and all the staff at your school have been working tirelessly for the last few months in preparation for the reopening of school and they are so excited to meet the children and get learning again. The government are still planning for schools to reopen in September for ALL children. These are some of the differences: •Staggered start times/ finishes •Bubble of 30 children •Frequent handwashing •Staggered playtimes •Reception children having a different settling in period-maybe parents not allowed to enter the classroom all together.•No school trip or visits •No assemblies •Extra cleaning required by staff. •Children have their own set of equipment.

What if your child has not been in school for almost six months and is worried about returning to a new year group, classroom and teacher?

The first few weeks will be all about reacquainting with school routine, informal assessments and getting to know you activities. The teachers understand the children may be anxious and a bit overwhelmed at first, but things will soon settle down with new routines in place and begin to excite the children will all the wonderful things they’ve got to look forward to in the coming term. Teachers also know that home schooling has been different for everyone and whatever home learning parents have been able to do, will ultimately be of benefit. All children will be back up to speed by the end of the term and meeting the age related expectations by the end of the year.

When you were a teacher what did you wish you could say frankly to parents – are there any parental behaviours you saw repeatedly that are just not helpful in terms of kids and school?

This is a great question! I have taught hundreds of children all from different backgrounds/ethnicities, economic circumstances, parenting styles and levels parental engagement. Not every parent is easy to talk to about their child. However, one common parent/teacher issue is the occasional tendency to monopolise teacher’s availability at pick up and drop off time. It would be helpful for some parents to remember that as teachers our onus is to provide the very best lesson content and pastoral care for every single child in our classroom. Drop offs and pick up times are a special1:1 opportunity for every parent to share their child’s need for that day. Our job is to put every child first and this can be difficult if one parent regularly dominates this time. For discussions beyond that appointments can be made via the office to meet with the teacher at a mutually arranged date. But, thankfully not everyone needs to be reminded of this and to them I am grateful! When your child starts school, you join a special community of harvest festivals, world books celebrations, mufti days and summer fetes. This year has been challenging for so many different reasons, however one thing will always remain the same – when your child starts school you become part of a unique family and regardless of COVID you and your child will be a part of the fabric of the school and that is an unforgettable experience.

Best of luck with everything and I will be thinking of you all come September!

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