Starting School Part 2: How to Unpack the Backpack

My daughter’s first day of school was one of the hardest days of my life.  Although we had  some times in the past when separating from one another had been full of feeKindergarten girl sitting on mat in classrooom looks at the camera. She looks happy.lings, we  worked through them together, and things, up to then, had been pretty smooth.  Cheerful up to that point, on this day she started to wail and cling to me as she lined up at the doorstep of the classroom.

The teacher looked increasingly alarmed, and then more and more annoyed with me.  Other children were beginning to waver in their confidence, considering joining my daughter in a serious cry.  Heartbreaking as it was, it just was not going to work for me to stay.  I walked away, my nerve ends on fire.  Over time it got easier, but I had to work hard at it.

Whether the summer is drawing to a close, or you are thinking about starting school in the New Year, it’s a good time to be preparing your child, and yourself, for the transition.

In Part 1, I discussed the important role parents and carers have in building an “emotional safety net” as our children start school for the first time, begin a new school or return to school after the long summer. We can make time to help our children and ourselves through the transition to school and offer Special Time to give our child the “connection vitamins” they  need to get through the day.

However, upsets will surely come.  How can we best help our children to unpack their “emotional backpack” and get rid of the difficult feelings which they bring home from school?

Expect Upsets

“She’s been so grumpy lately!” a father told me as we struck up a conversation.  “She keeps getting upset about little things, and she seems to be struggling with maths homework that I know she could do last year.”  After a few questions, I learned they had just moved into town, and she was a few weeks into starting at a new school.

It’s a common story.  Perhaps because we are big, and we know a lot about the world, we can take these kinds of transitions in our stride—although they rate amongst the most stressful for adults too. But for children, starting school, or a new school, can be huge. Perhaps they have had some preparation at childcare or preschool, but almost everything and everyone in the day is new.

Children can’t think when they are stressed.

Children can’t think when they are stressed beyond a certain point (a different point for each child, and each occasion). Often, they are not able to tell us in words that something is wrong.

Infuriating as this is, there’s a good explanation. Under stress, the part of their brain that deals with executive functions—the “thinking brain”—isn’t working. This is their pre-frontal cortex, which deals with reasoning, problem solving, analysing information, maintaining attention, and inhibiting emotional impulses. [i]

Under stress, our children are flooded with feelings, so their sense of “all being right with the world” goes off-line, and often, they don’t feel at all connected with us.

The gift of small upsets.

Children, unable to articulate what has caused the problem, find small pretexts for their upsets Girl covers face in frustration with homework.about—it could be that they “can’t” find the right dress to wear, they “can’t” do a maths problem, their hair is not right, there are peas on their plate, or they are being asked to sit in the wrong car seat.

All those little blow-ups are actually clearing the decks, allowing your child to drain tension they have accumulated during the day or the week.  They may be functioning really well at school—managing to figure out the rules, make friends, and absorb what they are taught.  But when they get home to you, it all unravels.

A father told me this story.  His son was a great swimmer, and in the previous school year had moved quickly and happily up the levels.  Over the summer, he was promoted to the “big pool” and was confident and proud of himself.  In the first week of school, however, when they arrived at the pool after school he refused to get in.  His dad kept gently encouraging him to get in, but the boy was in tears at the side of the pool.  The father told me:

Young man swimming teacher in pool instructs children sitting in a line on edge of pool“We stayed there, with me gently encouraging him into the pool, for as long I as could stand it.  I let him cry.  After a while, the swimming teacher came over and tried to ‘jolly him out of it’ and I decided it was time to go home.  I think my son was just drawing the line. Even though it was his second year at the school, and his return to school had gone well, the week had been just too much.  It all came to a head over getting in the pool.  He had hung onto those feelings all day and now that I was there it was safe to show how hard it really was.”


crying boy clutches to mother who holds him close- maybe they have to separateOne of the most common experiences for children starting school is separation from you These feelings are a bit like a scab—at first very raw, but over time the skin dries out and hardens and the feelings are less available to feel. But every now and again, something brushes against the scab and the feelings are right there again.

Starting school for the first time, or after the long summer holidays, can pull up old feelings of separation.  Be kind to yourselves and your children:  leave time for some extra upsets over the first few weeks, as the scab is lifted again, and as feelings about school and about leaving you surface again.  Take every opportunity you can to listen to your child—when he seems to be having big upsets about small things, or seems to be much more clingy than usual.

The healing process – unpacking the backpack

Just like play, I think children know  they need opportunities for emotional release.  Crying releases the sadness and tantrums release frustration. And laughter, it turns out, releases light fears and embarrassment. This is why the whole classroom starts to giggle when Johnny gets in trouble for being in the wrong place.  They are not being disrespectful.  They are releasing light fear.

This sort of emotional release will help a child to recover.  It’s especially effective when a child is “anchored” by a compassionate, caring adult who is able to see them through without reacting, rejecting, blaming, explaining away the upset, or rushing to reassure or comfort them.  We call this Staylistening.

When the upset has passed, the child will regain access to their “thinking brain” – which was previously offline and flooded with emotion.

“It’s not safe to cry there, Mummy”

This is what my friend’s daughter concluded about school.  Raised with Hand in Hand Parenting, she expected her feelings to be welcomed and worked through.  We had to explain that it was hard for the teachers to listen, given all the things they were trying to manage.  But we assured her that she could save it up until she got home.  We would listen to her then.

I think most teachers know that strong emotions can get in the way of a child’s ability to learn.  But they are seldom in a position to allow a full-blown upset. And there is the strong impression, in schools and in society in general, that the upset is the hurt.  We think that if we stop the crying, we stop the hurt.  But in fact the crying and the upset are the process of releasing the hurt.  Tears of upset contain stress hormones which are not found in the tears we shed when we cut an onion.[ii]

My friend’s daughter is remarkably clear about this.  Preparing for her first school sleepover trip, she said “The problem isn’t that I am going to miss Mummy.  I am.  It’s that no-one there will let me cry about it.”  And my daughter, when she was 11, said “I wish the teachers wouldn’t do all that stuff of offering us a glass of water when we are upset.  It just makes us stuff the feelings down.”

Becoming a school parent.

Part of the project of becoming the parent of a school-aged child is developing ways of helping your child with her feelings about school when she’s safely home with you. Building connection and closeness through Special Time, and knowing that upsets, big and small, are an opportunity you can respond to with Staylistening will help.

We want the best for our children. Starting or re-starting at school is a time of transition for adults and children alike.  To keep supporting your child in the way you want, you will also need to build support around yourself, so you can keep thinking and building the relationship you will need in order to be the best “school parent” you can be.  Why don’t you book a free 20 minute consultation, and we can work out how to get you the information and support you need.


[i] Medina, J. (2009). Stress – Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way. In Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school (pp. 169-195). Seattle, WA, USA: Pear Press.  On p. 80 Medina describes the role of prefrontal cortex.

[ii] Mann, N. (no date). The health benefits of crying. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from <


This article was first published on Hand in Hand Parenting. Free for reuse as long as you credit the author. See our copyright page for details.
© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.

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. Continue reading

Special Time is Always about Something

Bull and close up of head with pincers.My friend and I were doing Special Time together with her 4-year-old son, Cameron, at the local park. There were a lot of bull-ants (a large and very aggressive kind of ant) on the ground.

Cameron told us that ants were very dangerous, and scary, and that we should get out of their way. So following his lead, my friend and I did all the things we could think to do to get away from the ants: we hopped around, we shrieked, we climbed onto the picnic table and danced around on the benches. We pushed each other aside in our haste to get away from the ants; I jumped into my friend’s arms.

The more scared of the ants we looked, the more pleased Cameron got. He giggled and giggled as we frantically tried to get away. His instructions about exactly how to look scared of the ants got more and more specific. “No,” he said, “You can’t walk over there; you have to get up on the table and dance around. Watch out, there are ants on your leg!” After about 20 minutes the timer went off, marking the end of Special Time, and we went home.

In a vague kind of way, I wondered what all the fuss was about the ants. Sometimes, you can make a pretty good guess about what a child’s Special Time  is about – after all, as a parent, you know a lot about the life story of your child.  But sometimes, you have no idea what experiences the child is trying to work through. However, I’ve done lots of Special Time with young people, and have seen first-hand the benefits – the way it creates a sense of trust and closeness. I trusted that Cameron had worked on what he needed to do. I guessed that laughing at us big people acting like we were deathly scared of ants had drained some tension for him.

Indeed, his mother later told me that she knew exactly what that Special Time was about: not long after Cameron had started to walk, his father had taken him to the park and he had got caught in a bull-ant nest and had been badly bitten.

Cameron’s Special Time highlighted that not knowing the “back story” behind the themes in a child’s play doesn’t mean that the play is not important. Even though Cameron was not much more than 1 year old when he was bitten by the ants, the experience was somewhere in his mind, waiting to be replayed – this time from the safe role of the onlooker who was not being attacked by ants. Giving us instructions about how to act around the ants made it safe for him to laugh off the fear he had been carrying.

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© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.
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It’s hard, and it’s not our fault

Covid-19 virus with crowns of hearts.

We need to keep a steadfast perspective: this is not our fault. What is being asked of us is necessary, but unreasonable. It is hard because of that, not because we have somehow not figured out the trick to doing it well. We are good. Our children are good. We want to come out of this holding each other close, if not physically, then emotionally. That is the most important thing. We all need to be held close.

A lot is being asked of us as parents at the moment. Managing school-at-home and work-at-home, working parents are running the risk of being “ground up in the gears” as the world of work and the world of schooling collide in the privacy of our home.

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Burning out

Mother pays attention to her child

This is fascinating. My own experience of all this is of a vague sense of displacement, discouragement, sadness, disconnection. Hard to put a finger on. Then I meet someone – today, the young GP at the local medical practice who I’ve never met before, and may not meet again.  And I feel better. We weren’t meant to be isolated from one another.

I’m not suffering trauma – illness, loss of work, serious financial stress – like so many are. But I’m suffering the loss of what was normal, predictable, finely balanced to keep me just on the right side of hopeful. 

This short news segment is worth a listen. He studies burnout, and says in the current environment, women are particularly vulnerable, as they shoulder the majority of the burden of managing work and children at home. So if you are feeling a little overwhelmed, take heart: it is overwhelming and impossible to do well enough. Its ridiculous to expect to be able to supervise young children and be employed at work at the same time in the same space. Be kind to yourselves, conscientious mothers.

Microscopic picure of coronavirus

School at home? Not!!

Personally…I’m not going to do school-at-home…I’m not going to turn myself into my child’s teacher…Let’s face up to what this really means – nothing will continue as normal, including the delivery of the school curriculum.

We find ourselves living in interesting times. Here in Australia we are more or less at the point of school closures, with parents being asked to keep their children home if at all possible. It’s probably just a matter of time before the restrictions on social gatherings are even more extreme. In many countries, physical distancing in response to the Corona Virus pandemic has meant that the schools are completely closed, and our children are at home. We are all being encouraged to stay home and limit our contact with others.

Many parents I have spoken to are optimistic about this chance to spend some extra time with their children. They are also anxious…if getting out kids to do homework is a hassle, what is getting them to do routine schoolwork going to be like, day in day out? Continue reading

Four lion cubs play together

Wild Adolescence – What Nature Can Tell Us

As parents, we worry about many things as our children head into adolescence. Are our children spending too much time on screens? Are they doing well enough at school and getting their homework done? Do they have friends and social support? Are they safe? Are they using drugs and taking unnecessary risks?

What if there was a better, biologically based way of understanding what we need to focus on, as parents of adolescents?

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz is an evolutionary biologist and a cardiologist, and has made a study, over the last 5 years, of animal adolescence.  Out of this study, she draws some powerful lessons for understanding the human experience.
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Baby very pleased with the pink food she has wiped all over her face.

Getting your baby-mind back…

I think that what it’s like to be a baby is it’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had four double espressos, which is a very nice way to feel in some ways but it does mean that you tend to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning crying.” Prof Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley

Professor Alison Gopnik studies how children’s minds work. Our understanding of how children’s minds are organised has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Rather an being a blank slate, or a “booming buzzing confusion”, Gopnik says “In many respects even the youngest babies are smarter even than grown-ups. They think, they make up theories, they try to figure out how the world works, and they pay attention to other people and try to understand things about what’s going on in other people’s minds.” Children have what Gopnik calls an “explore perspective”.[i]

Sometimes, parenting is hard because we have the wrong framework for understanding what a child is doing. Continue reading

They Will Ask Us “What Did You Do About Climate Change?”

I live in Australia, and it’s clear that we are facing a climate crisis of the most profound kind. As parents we have a special and particular responsibility to understand what the science is telling us, and to find ways to take action. Our children will ask us “What did you do?” There will be many ways we can respond.

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