The first days of school... mixed emotions

Starting primary school can be exciting and daunting for both youngsters and their parents. ELAINE DUGGAN recalls her daughter’s year in Junior Infants and what mum learned
The first days of school... mixed emotions
Kids all over the country are enjoying their first days of school. Picture: posed by a model

THIS time last year I had no idea of the emotional thunderbolt heading in my direction as my eldest started school. As I left her classroom on that first day her teacher gave me a little poem which had me in tears by the time I got to the car. Some of the lines read:

Just know that as you drive away

And tears down your cheeks might flow

I’ll love each as I would my own

And help them learn and grow...”

It seemed like only yesterday the had handed her to me in the hospital, how could we be here already, at the classroom door of junior infants. But here she was, dressed in her little pinafore, the same one I wore, and her nana before her, when we attended this very same school. It’s little wonder I found it emotional, as memories flooded back and I anticipated many new ones to be made over the school year.

So I wiped away my tears… but there were many more to follow, not from me, but from little misses, as she settled into big school in the days and weeks ahead.

The hardest lesson I learned all year was in those first days — I had totally underestimated how big a change it would be for her. Leaving her montessori school that she loved and moving into a more structured environment; sitting in a classroom, at her desk, from 9am to 1.30pm, with role calls, lessons to learn, homework to be done, must have seemed like a big change, a scary one. There were 28 children in her class, so the more intimate setting of preschool/ and virtual one on one attention was now gone.

My advice to other parents as their child heads off to school for the very first time is be prepared for them to be unsettled, as I clearly wasn’t. Maybe I should have explained more in advance to her what it would be like, how different it would be, what to expect? Maybe I should have sought advice from friends who had been here before? But the main thing to remember is that this will pass... it could take days, or weeks, but the day will eventually come when she is no longer clinging onto you for dear life, with tears streaming down her face, but rather running through the school gates, turning back only for a brief kiss goodbye as she races to the assembly line.

Despite a bumpy start, she had a wonderful first year — yes there were lows, but extreme highs too, more laughter than tears, singing both in and out of tune (out mostly!), friendships new and lots learned, by us all. So here are some tips I have picked up on how to make it through that first year at school.

THE FIRST DAYS: Get your routine right from the get-go. Early to bed… early to rise. Get a healthy breakfast into them. Walk to school if you can, the exercise and fresh air will do you all good.

Where possible have the same person drop them to school each day. I found the melt downs came when I took days off work to bring her, or the day grandad did.

If drops offs can get emotional, see if you can walk with a buddy of hers to school/ or arrange to meet at the school gates — it takes the edge off and can be a distraction.

If a melt down occurs, stay with your child in the class for a while and help settle them, but take your cue from the teacher on when to leave.

GIVE THE TEACHER TIME: Remember that it’s the start of a new school year for teacher too. They need time to get to know each new child in their class. In preschool you might have have been used to regular chats with teacher on how they are getting on, did they eat their lunch today, was she a bit off form today. I found the information void at big school at the start a bit uneasy, until I went along to the parent teacher meeting and I realised how much teacher could tell me about my child. They will get to know each individual pupil and give you valuable feedback and advice… but it takes time. Be patient.

THE OTHER PARENTS: I set up a WhatsApps group for all the mums (dads can be included too!) which turned out as a great resource — do it early in the year. We used it to organise a present for the teacher, to arrange playdates, send reminders about birthday parties and one mum who was laid up over the summer with a leg injury also put out a call for support. It’s proved a really helpful resource.

COSTUMES: Don’t be caught on the hop! There will be green days and red days, and wear whatever you don’t have in your wardrobe days.

Schools are busy places so expect to get last minute / day before notification that your child has to has to dress in a certain coloured ensemble for school.

There will be the usual Paddy’s Day (green), and Xmas Jumper Day, as well as costumes for school plays. This year we’ll be a bit more prepared for these eventualities — when I see a green t, especially one in the sale, pick it up!

The poem handed to Elaine on her daughter's first day of school
The poem handed to Elaine on her daughter's first day of school

LUNCHES: At the start of the year her lunchbox was packed with home-made granola bars, banana bread, tasty couscous… but the end of the school year it was a case of ham sandwiches and a piece of fruit. I am sure I’ll start with the best of intentions again this week. But don’t be so hard on yourself, stick to the school healthy eating policy and your child won’t starve! It’s not Masterchef!

HOMEWORK: They might only be in junior infants, but yes they will have homework and for them it will be a chore after a long day at school. It can be tough sustaining it too for mum and dad, as life can be busy. You will all love homework is at the start — expect another deluge of emotions when they read their first ever book to you. I’ve learned it’s best to try do as much of the homework early in the week as by the Thursday they won’t be in the mood! Also try do it early in the day. Mummy wanted to do it with her when she got home from work, not a good idea, as come 6pm she was too tired to concentrate.

NITS: Yes you are itching already aren’t you. Expect letters, emails, texts, lots of them, telling you about the various cases during the year. Thankfully mine haven’t had them (YET!) I swear by using tea tree shampoo and conditioner — another mum recommended it to me, it’s fab at keeping them at bay!

SICKNESS: I’m already stocking up on the Vitamins… within days of my daughter starting school chickenpox hit the class, and I mean the entire class! From here on in it was a domino effect, with her picking up everything going, from tonsillitus, to vomiting bug, to ear infections. Build up their immunity from the get-go with Vitamins and a healthy diet!

PARTIES: There’ll be lots of party invites coming through the door. We decided to invite all classmates, as in Junior Infants and Senior Infants kids might be upset if they are excluded.

So on the issue of pressies, as there will be lots — buy a few aged five and six birthday cards at the start of the year, and some handy back up pressies too. Or agree with the mums and dads, that €5 in a card is just fine too!

AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES: Your kid is going to be tired after their five day week in school, so while after school activities are great, choose wisely. It is a great time for them to explore different interests, from music, to dance, to sport… we have three on the go at present and it’s probably enough juggling of drop offs and collections we can manage. Be realistic about their time and yours and how they spend it.

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