The countdown is on: only nine sleeps until Hattie and Joe start school! Joe is fairly annoyed at the prospect of wearing (boring) blue shorts and a (boring) blue polo shirt every day, and Hattie is relieved that the school’s Reception room is so much like kindy that she fondly imagines she’ll be playing all day and “not having to do much boring stuff, like writing” (direct quote). On the whole I think they’re both excited and apprehensive – a state which is, I’m sure, totally normal for brand new five year olds. Here’s a recent photo, in which they’re either watching the sun rise, or summoning the Forces of Darkness to banish vegetables from our kitchen for evermore:
However, I’m quite stressed out at the prospect of them starting school. I’m worried about how they’ll cope – will Joe meet other little boys who share his distaste for dinosaurs and chasing games, and his love of drawing and pretty things? Will Hattie manage to stick to a task if she doesn’t nail it instantly?
More selfishly, I’m mildly terrified at the prospect of managing their transition to school. Throughout 2017 Hattie and Joe were at kindy on Monday, Thursday, and Friday, and by Saturday they were exhausted, which brought with it all sorts of delightful behaviour. How feral and deranged are they likely to become after five full days of school, every single week? The mind boggles!
Being a solutions-oriented kind of a parent, I decided to crowd-source some life hacks for parents of new school kids: I asked for advice from my friends with school-aged children who’ve been through this transition and lived to tell the tale. I’m sharing the fruits of their collective wisdom for the benefit of anybody else with freshly hatched five year olds just about to start school. These aren’t twin-specific (and I’ve written elsewhere about the perennial question of whether twins and triplets should be separated at school), and I’ve listed them roughly in the order that they’ll be relevant throughout the day, with some extra comments at the end.
My mum friends have urged me to get my shit together and make sure our house is organised for school. They suggested packing school bags the night before, laying out school clothes, and even making lunches ahead of time (I saw in my newsfeed that one mum I know has made and frozen sandwiches for the entire first week, which is #mumgoals).
When packing the school bag, remember that even the most accomplished toilet-goer can have an occasional relapse as they adjust to life at school, so pack spare shorts and knickers.
“Do not go near Duraseal. You will lose the will to live. Buy www.ezcovers.co.nz.“
Thankfully for me, we’ve been explicitly told not to cover the kids’ books. Yay!
Set up a routine
Good school day routines are essential, apparently. My crew of mums suggest making sure everybody has got dressed, eaten breakfast, and brushed their teeth before they’re allowed to read, play, or watch TV. We’ve followed this approach on kindy days for the past two years, so we’ll stick with that approach.
Somebody also suggested allowing extra time in the mornings – I guess kids who are apprehensive about school might not bound about enthusiastically getting dressed each day. As Hattie can often take half an hour to eat a small bowl of cereal, owing to her habit of either chattering incessantly or staring out the window, daydreaming, this may mean we have to get up even earlier…
Cancel after-school activities
Everybody mentioned this one. Even preschoolers who’ve enjoyed a rich and varied life of activities will need to take a break for at least a few weeks, and ideally for the entire first term. New school kids are just too tired to cope with additional stimulation. With this in mind, we’ve cancelled gymnastics until the second term, at least, and won’t push for new after-school swimming class slots until at least six weeks have passed.
We’ll also wait for at least two or three weeks before attempting any after-school catch-ups with old friends (most of their kids will have also started school very recently, so at least we’re all in the same boat), and we will keep our weekend low-key as well. One friend wrote about having a lot of very relaxed pyjama days during the weekend, which sounds like a winner to me.
Make life easy (for them and for you)
My mum friends emphasised the importance of being empathetic as your kids adjust to a whole new life at school. Even in your hurry to establish a good routine, don’t expect miracles. For example, you’re better off just unpacking their bags and putting stuff away yourself in those early weeks – there’s plenty of time to knuckle down and teach them about this kind of responsibility once they’ve adjusted to life as school kids.
In lieu of extra-curricular activities, we should let the kids just veg out a bit – even if this means blobbing out in front of TV for a while. This isn’t necessarily the time to introduce or enforce a hardcore no-screen policy! Hattie and Joe have always watched some TV in small doses and definitely view it as a relaxing activity, so I’m all in favour of this suggestion.
When dealing with tired, fractious children struggling to cope with hot summer days in a new school (speaking as a Southern Hemisphere mum, obviously), my mum friends suggest the healing powers of cool water – even if it’s in a paddling pool, or the bath. One of my friends recommended taking Hattie and Joe to our local beach straight after school for a quick splash around, and given that it’s sweltering here at the moment, I think we’ll give that a try in the first couple of weeks.
Feed early and often
Everybody talked about feeding your kids as a good meltdown-avoidance strategy. Here were my mum friends’ suggestions, which you can view as an smorgasbord to pick and choose from as you see fit:
- Take a snack with you to school pick-up, for the walk or drive home. Apparently you’re a mad fool if you show up without food. I guess little kids might not eat much lunch at school, so they could be ravenous.
- Provide an undemanding after-school snack platter for when they kids get home. You can load this up with healthy options – suggestions included cheese and crackers, fruit, vegetable sticks and dip, cold ham or chicken, etc.
- Bring dinner time forward. New school kids are knackered, and knackered children tend not to want to eat (this is the story of my life with children, by the way).
- Bring dinner time forward so far that you feed the kids their big meal as soon as they get home from school, and then follow that up with a small snack before bedtime if they’re still hungry later.
I think we’ll try the ‘dinner for afternoon tea’ option at first, as dinner time is always fraught with our two. I’ll also make sure I’m packing a healthy supply of cereal bars at all times. And I’ll push a water bottle into their hot little hands at every opportunity, too.
Oh – and one mum sensibly pointed out that this probably isn’t the time to get militant about vegetable eating, or any other food-related things. I guess I’ll keep dishing up macaroni cheese for a while longer…
Tackle homework effectively
Even tiny school kids get some homework, and my mum friends had different views about it. One mum of triplets recommended trying to tackle it straight after afternoon tea and a bit of TV, and offering help as required (even with things like colouring in for phonics). Another mum suggested setting aside time in the morning to do homework with them, particularly if they’re too worn out to face it after school. And my sister Victoria pointed out that some kids will be really excited to go through their work from that day, so it pays to be available and ready to go if that’s what they prefer.
Bring forward bedtime
It goes without saying that bed is the best place for seriously tired children.
Everybody talked about the importance of ensuring your new school kids get enough sleep, so early bedtimes are strongly advised. If you’ve brought dinner forward this shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but another suggestion was to not stress out about a daily bath or shower – sleep is more important, and you can always give them a quick sponge down or shower in the morning if necessary.
Brace yourself for (inevitable) meltdowns
Regardless of how awesomely we prepare for this transition, there will be tears. As one mum put it:
“When they see you at 3pm pick up, expect melt downs. They’ve been holding it together all day and finally their safe comforting parent is available to lean on.”
Another mum friend (with four school-aged boys) commented:
“Their brains are full. Expect histrionics armed with extra hugs/space/whatever they need. Be grateful if they don’t happen.”
A mum who went through the school transition recently reported that her daughter definitely needed more cuddles and emotional validation, which makes perfect sense. So get ready to dish out the cuddles, and resist the urge to ‘manage’ the meltdowns too much – they’re a rite of passage by the sounds of it, and hopefully they’ll be at a minimum if we prioritise relaxation, food, and rest.
However, one mum counselled on the need to keep an eye out for some physical effects from the stress of starting school:
“The other thing to watch out for, I remember a lot of ‘sore tummy’ complaints. This is really common for new entrants apparently and is usually anxiety/nervousness or extreme tiredness (usually all quite new feelings) rather than illness. In our experience the teachers are well versed in this stuff. The reality is kids are often unable to isolate where exactly in their body they’re uncomfortable, so it often ends up being a tummy complaint when it might just be an overloaded brain! It’s hard to concentrate on stuff all day long.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. I guess all we can do, faced with non-specific sore tummy complaints, is up the ante with the comfort and cuddles, and ride it out.
A teacher friend whose twin girls started school last year had good advice regarding drop-offs, which I’m sure can be challenging if the kids are reluctant:
‘If they are tired and feeling a bit emotional at drop off just remind them about the great things they’ll get to do at school and who they’ll see there and once they are there and settled they have a ball. Often their melt downs are done just for us!”
If school drop-offs are truly terrible it’s worth discussing it with the school, because the new entrants’ teacher will have seen it all and will no doubt have great advice. Apparently the ‘quick cuddle and leave’ approach is usually better than an anguished long goodbye, but I guess you’re going to want to make sure that the teacher is standing by to mop up your precious child as you stumble to the car, questioning whether home-schooling could really work for you after all (I joke, but I imagine it must be awful to deal with that, so I’m bracing myself…)
Consider the occasional day off
One mum friend suggested that, if things are really grim, you might want to keep your five year old home for the occasional recovery day. I checked in with my teacher friends to see if they endorsed this idea, and they agreed that it can be a very sensible approach, but they recommended checking with your child’s teacher to make sure they won’t miss something that later writing or class discussions will be based around, like a visitor or a trip. Another teacher friend who doesn’t have twins pointed out that this could be quite difficult to do in practice when you’ve got two kids, and I agree with her, particularly if you have twins like Hattie and Joe, who’ve rarely been apart. So we will play that one by ear!
Prepare for the ‘reality strikes’ wobble
Apparently there’s a certain point at which kids suddenly realise that school isn’t just a fun novelty: this is life, for the next 13 years. A mum friend who is also an ex-new entrant teacher reckons it often strikes after three weeks; other parents thought it was half-way through the term that the reality of the daily school grind sunk in for their kids. Whenever it happens, this realisation can result in a resurgence of meltdowns, so get ready for that. One suggestion from Komal, who is a smart cookie (like all my mum friends, let’s be honest) is to do a chart after Week 7, so your kids can see how close the holidays are.
One cool mum talked about ‘Milkshake Mondays’ with her kids, which sounds like a superb way to keep them excited about the start of the school week.
Play it cool
Possibly because they know I like to talk, several of my mum friends warned me not to be all up in the kids’ grill about what happened at school each day. I need to step back and wait for them to tell me stuff. One friend mentioned that her son tends to chat about his day when he’s lying in bed, so she allows extra time for that.
And if you really can’t resist finding out about their day, apparently we need to be more creative than simply asking “How was school today?” type questions. Friends suggested establishing nice ‘name your favourite thing about today’ habits at the dinner table. Hattie and Joe will do almost anything other than actually eat their dinner, so this could work for us (although it won’t necessarily help with the whole ‘eating dinner’ thing).
Or you might find other times when your kids are particularly chatty, and you could ask good questions like “What’s the funniest thing somebody said today?”, rather than just interrogating them.
Work with the school
A mum friend with three school-aged kids mentioned the importance of listening to your kids’ teachers, and not dismissing their feedback about your child if it isn’t what you expected. Try to keep an open mind. Also, try not to take it personally that the school environment may try to keep parents at arms-length a bit, in order (I’m guessing) to help your children to develop independence.
“Be kind to yourself…. and stock up on booze”
(A recommendation made by several mum friends)
And one more comment from teacher mum:
“Also don’t doubt the kids. They are actually very amazing at adjusting to things we often over think about. Lots of positive talk about the exciting adventure and how much fun it’s going to be and what they can look forward to each day certainly helps.”
We’ve all survived newborns, teething, sleep transitions, toilet training, tantrums, and God knows what else. And our kids have survived our clumsy and ill-qualified attempts to guide and support them. We will survive!