Starting School Part 1 – How to Pack the Backpack

Young boy walks along path with big red backpack

Starting school – for the first time, or at a new school, or even after the long summer break, can be a challenge for both our children and ourselves. We carefully pack their school bag with the things that will help them through their day – a nutritious lunch, a spare pair of pants and pencils. But it’s easy to forget our children carry an emotional backpack as well. Our special role, as parents and carers, is to help them pack and unpack that bag. It’s at least as important as a healthy lunch or a good night’s sleep.

In this article, I discuss the good things we can add to the backpack, filling it with the “connection vitamins” your child will need to get through the transition, or return,  to school. In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about how to “unpack the backpack” when they get home.

The Special Role of Parents

Some schools are better than others.  In the end, however, as you send your child off each day, you will need to trust that the support you offer your child is at least as important as any loving, gentle and nurturing school environment or any dynamic educational curriculum.

Our children will face many upsets and difficulties in their school careers: separation anxiety,  trouble making friends, being bullied,  their teacher seems mean, they struggle with their school work, or they are bored.

But it turns out that these traumas and struggles, hard as they are for children, are not in themselves what cause the damage.  Resilient children can roll with the punches, and pick themselves up after a setback.

What Builds Resilience?

Dad and Daughter Nose Kiss

In my experience, there are three key ingredients to resilience.  Firstly, when children feel connected – seen, heard, understood, appreciated and delighted in – their minds work well and they can problem-solve and make friends.  And this is something we parents can easily help with.  We can learn ways to connect before the day starts, and reconnect when they get home, topping up their emotional backpack with “connection vitamins”.  This builds the safety-net which will help them bounce back from hard things that happen to them.

Second, we can help our children clear the emotional tensions which have accumulated over the day (or week, or years).  When we do this, things that otherwise would have been difficult for them suddenly become easier.   I call it “unpacking the backpack”, and we parents and primary carers are in the best position to help children do this. This is covered in the second article of this series.

There is a third ingredient in helping our children at school: we need to be in good shape.  It turns out that ensuring our own emotional balance and well-being requires much the same things as our children need.  We need to feel connected, supported and appreciated.  And we need a place to release the emotional tensions that we have accumulated.

Building the Safety Net – Connect, Connect, Connect

In HandinHand, we talk about balancing “correction” with “connection”.

Our experience is that difficulties arise in our relationship with our children when they have lost their sense of connection with us. Without a sense of connection, they sMum and boy in a vigorous snuggletart to behave in ways that are not workable. And you have a very special role to play in keeping a child’s “connection vitamins” topped up.

Sometimes, it is enough to offer a child a warm, playful snuggle or a “dad joke”.  This might be enough to reset things. (In the movie “Inside Out”, I think this would be like visiting “Goofball Island” – where things are silly, goofy, odd and full of laughter[i]).  If you are lucky, it might get some giggles going (laughter, amongst other things, is a great connector), and even eye rolling might just change the tone of things for the better.

When that is not enough and their behaviour has gone off track you may need to offer a firmer limit or extra warmth.  It’s important that you are prepared for the “blow up” that may follow limit setting – it is part of the process. When our children are full of tension, settling in to listen to their upsets about a limit can be an act of genius in parenting. When you listen well, without giving in, you relieve your child of feelings that may have been bristling for days or weeks.

So connect before you correct, and then listen until your offer of connection sinks in. More about this in Part 2, but rest assured this is your child off-loading the emotional tensions they’ve been carrying around in their backpack, and they will be better on the other side of it.

Keeping the balance right

Schools, in general, are not big on connection.  Teachers try their best, and by and large, do a marvellous job.  The teachers that my child has loved, and learned most from, have been the ones who understood how to use humour to release tension, were playful, and had a generous and loving attitude, even when being firm.  These teachers understood how important a sense of connection and fun is. (One favourite teacher used to take her shoe off and put it on her head in mock exasperation when things were not going well in class. It always seemed to get everyone’s attention.)

Even though everyone is doing their best, I’ve found it helpful to understand that the average school environment is mostly focussed on the “correction” side of things.  There are lots of rules, a big emphasis on compliance, co-operation, and doing “the right thing”.  My job, on the home front, is to re-balance the scales by adding extra connection.   Times of change and transition, such as beginning school for the year, or even beginning of the school day, are times we need to have our focus on connection.

This is even more the case when there are extra pressures on your family – the arrival of a new baby, someone is working extra hard or has lost their job, someone is sick, or the world has turned upside down in a pandemic.  These pressures use up “connection credits” which you might have stored up in your “relationship bank-account” with your child.  You may need to pay extra attention to building and maintaining a sense of connection, to help everything go smoothly during extra-hard times.

Make Time

When our children start at school for the first time it will mark a change for most parents.  For some, it may be a welcome change.  For others, it may bring new challenges.

In these few months while your child is getting used to school, it will make a difference if you are not under pressure.  If you can, carve out some extra time to help them, and yourself, through the transition. Financially this might be much easier said than done, but it’s worth it. Having a little less pressure so that you can take more time over the trip to school, or can do some Special Time (see below) before heading into the day, will really make a difference.

You may find it more challenging than you expected.

You may also find yourself challenged in ways you did not expect.  Your own experiences starting school (or other unfamiliar or difficult experiences as a young person), or of learning new things, will be “playing in the background” and may be cluttering up your judgement.  This is the “emotional backpack” you carry into the school-ground.  You may not be aware of how it is influencing you but it will be having an effect. [ii]

My daughter starting school catapulted me into a crisis that made no sense to me, and which I had no idea was coming.  Luckily, I struck up a friendship with another mother that I met at the school, and we began a Listening Partnership.  We would meet after the drop-off, and listen to each other, in turn, about what we were thinking and feeling.

I discovered that going back to school was bringing up painful memories of starting my own “formal education” – in a foreign country where I did not speak the language.  Every time I walked into the school ground with my daughter, or had to face her upset about being left, I was being flooded with old feelings of panic and loneliness.  Over time, I worked through the experience, and was able to relax more in the school environment, but I am so glad that I had the time to do this.  You can learn more about my experience with starting school and how Listening Partnerships helped here.

It’s a long day…

Kindergarten girl in Hijab yawnsSecondly, starting school can be really demanding – physically challenging and emotionally stressful – for children. Children themselves identify this as one of the things that worries them about starting school.[iii]

Some of them are starting at four (at least here in Australia) which is very young.[iv]. Had they stayed at pre-school another year, many of them would not have been attending full time, and would be likely to have had a more play-based and child-centred routine.

Some parents give their children the odd day off from school, or even hold them back a year, to give them extra time at home connecting and building their reserves. I know that some teachers feel strongly that it’s not right to occasionally keep your child home from school. However young children can get exhausted by the demands of their first few weeks. A bit of extra time at home connecting with you might be just the thing they need to keep their reserves, easily making up for the odd day of school missed.

It helps if you can get involved.

Thirdly, if you can make time to get involved at school, it will make a difference.  I made some of my closest friends as we bonded over the steep learning curve that was “becoming a school mum” and got involved in school.

Encourage Play

Two young boys play together in a sandpit, very involved in their game together.It was not until I had my own child that I realised just how important free play is.  By free play, I mean play that is directed by the child, at times and with materials and companions chosen by the child.  Adults can be supportive of this kind of play, but we need to be very careful not to “take-over”, not to make the play go towards something we want to do, or that we think the child “should” do.

A mother of a preschooler told me that she and her daughter would come home after a busy day out, without many opportunities to play, and her daughter would say “I have to play, Mum.” Sometimes she needed her mother’s input, but often not.  The mother said “It was clearly a burning need, sometimes, coming at the expense of other critical bodily functions!”

My daughter had also made friends easily at pre-school (which was play-based).  At school it seemed to be taking a long time for her to really connect with other children.  Eventually, I worked out that at least part of the problem was the lack of free play opportunities. It is in play that children get to know one another.

Her pre-school relationships could have been transplanted from suburban Sydney to the Simpson Desert, and they would have found some way to play happily together.  This was because they had had years of play – where they had sorted out the rules of the games, they had worked out how to take account of each other’s preferences and personalities, they knew what worked and didn’t work.

All sorts of important stuff happens in this kind of play.  You can stop worrying that your child should be getting down to some “serious learning”. Children’s play is a serious business.  There’s a ton of research to support the value of free play – assisting children’s social and intellectual development. [v]  In fact, it is so important that it is defined as a human right in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.[vi]

Children themselves know how important play is.  In research that has been done into children’s worries about starting school, high on their list is the question “Will I get to play?”.[vii]

Opportunities for play are reduced.

Unfortunately, going to school means seriously reduced opportunities for play, especially free play, both at school and at home. At school, the staffing ratios mean that even when the children do get to play at recess and lunch, there isn’t a lot of adult support when things go wrong.

In addition, teachers and professional carers must be very careful about the way they interact with children, and restrictions on physical contact and other things may limit how effectively they can help.

Without enough thoughtful adult assistance during the day, your children may come home asking for help with the feelings left over from difficult social encounters at school.

Children love for us to join them in play.

I love how these Danish researchers put it (apparently, in Denmark, the benefits of free play are highly valued and implemented in the education system).

“We have to remember that what children want most of all is to feel calm and good with their parents. Where do you feel most calm, at ease, and free from the pressure of others? Where can you relax and create more ‘hygge’ (cosy time) with your family? Children need time to decompress from their days and take life in and reflect. They need to play to act out what they experience in the adult world and they need to feel loved even when they aren’t performing.”[viii]

As parents  we are in a unique position to help.  We can actually join in and help play to happen. And our children really want us in there!  They are dying to show us who they are, what they have learned, and what they are troubled about, even if they can’t answer the question “How was school today?”  in much detail.


Man delights in child in play

Special Time is a one-on-one adult-child Listening Tool which is a wonderful way to create that “cosy time”.  Decide how long you have got (five, ten, thirty minutes), and tell your child you will play with them for that long.  Ask them what they would like to do.  Set a timer and for that time, put aside all distractions – put away your phone, don’t answer the door, decide not to notice the dishes in the sink and the clothes that need folding.  Then warmly, enthusiastically, do whatever your child wants to do.  And resist all temptation to make suggestions for what, or how to play.

In Special Time children work through their experiences

When my friend’s daughter started school, I would pick her up and take her to my place for a couple of hours after school.  We had been doing Special Time for a couple of years, so she knew exactly how to use my attention.  From the exact minute that she started school, she came home to play “schools” in Special Time.  I and the teddies were lined up, and given strict instructions about how to behave.

Over time, the game evolved.  Sometimes she would give us all tests, and mark our work with red pen, or tell us we were “old enough to be able to behave properly”.  I remember one time I had to jump through a series of hoola-hoops “just so” – in the right sequence.  When I got the order wrong, I had to go back and start again.

Wondering what this game was about, I remembered watching the “sports” classes in the playground at school, and it was clear to me that she was working through the experience of these organised games and activities.  Up ’til then, she had been in a pre-school where she was able to play much more freely.  I could see why this organised activity might have seemed strange to her, and not have made much sense. In general, the changes in the game reflected changes in what was happening at school – discipline issues, tests and assessments, learning new skills.

Sometimes you will be able to tell that the play is about their school experiences. Other times, it is not so clear.  But I can guarantee, Special Time is always about something, and either way, your child is re-supplying his “connection vitamins”, soaking in your warm attention and enthusiasm, and storing it up.

When a child can be “in charge” something very special happens.

In this kind of play, what you want to allow is the child to be “in charge”.  It makes sense that this can boost their self-esteem and sense of control over the world.  It’s a long day at school being told what to do, and Special Time is a chance for children to “turn the tables”.  The relief they get from doing this is hugely helpful.  And because Special Time is timed and has a clear beginning and end, no one gets confused about a parent’s responsibility to exercise overall judgement in the family – you can pick that role up again once Special Time is over.  You remain in charge when it really is important.  What this kind of play does is give a child a break.

Sometimes, for instance, just replaying the experience from the position of being the teacher not the student allows a child to decompress and recover from a long day of being a learner, of encountering hundreds of new experiences in the day, of sitting still for longer than was comfortable etc.

As well as allowing you to reconnect after school, you can use ten minutes of Special Time to help make the whole morning routine go smoother, making sure your child feels connected at the start of the day.

The thread of their connection with you will get them through their day.

So in preparing your child for school – over the next few months, or on the first day, know that the most important thing is their sense of connection to you.  The thread of that connection is what they will need to hang onto through the next few weeks or months as they start or return to school.  In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about how you can help unpack your child’s emotional backpack using the Listening Tool of Staylistening, but it will all go better if you have connected first.

[i] Pixar (2015) Inside Out, Film. Goofball Island is one of Riley’s “Islands of Personality”, and is explained here.

[ii] 1 Siegel, D., & Hartzell, M. (2004). More Information

[iii] Centre For Equity and Innovation In Early Childhood (CEIEC), 2008.  More Information

[iv] Whitebread, David (2013) More Information.

[v] David Whitebread, in the same article as above, says “Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

[vi] United, Nations (2013). More Information.

[vii] See [iii] above.

[viii] Hintz-Zambrano, Katie (2015) More Information.

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