This time three years ago we thought that we were as ready as we could possibly be for our precious firstborn starting school. We’d done all the stuff you’re supposed to do, the stuff that’s covered in the letter that you get from the school and in the back to school advertising campaigns.
The uniforms were bought, the nametags carefully ironed on (sewing was never my strongpoint). We had the books, his name clearly written on the outside, just like the school note had asked. His new lunchbox and drink bottle were kept carefully inside his shiny schoolbag that he’d been let choose himself. The forms were all filled in, we knew where to go and when. We were ready.
We had talked with Ciarán a bit about starting ‘big school’ but not too much for fear that we’d make too much of a big deal about it and he’d pick up on that. He was about to turn five, a great age to start we thought, not too young, not too old, just right. His ECCE year in playschool had shown him to be a sociable little boy, he wasn’t the slightest bit anxious and had settled in just perfectly there. Yet, I was nervous for him, and if I’m honest, for me too.
On the day itself he bounced out of bed and asked to put on his uniform and go to school immediately, excitement shining from his bright eyes. He was initially disappointed that he’d have to wait three hours before school was ready for him but he passed the time by asking us constantly whether it was time to go to school yet. The time finally came around and he jumped into his uniform, we positioned him outside the front door and took the obligatory photos and set off. Arriving at the school we lined up behind other families in the yard to find which class he had been assigned to, collected his name sticker which he proudly placed on his chest and we delivered him to his teacher, with one more ‘in classroom’ photo.
Looking around the classroom I was surprised by how few children seemed upset, most of the tears shed rolled down cheeks that were considerably older than five.
As soon as we said goodbye he just blended in with all the other children in their identical wine tracksuits, part of the class, a big boy now. I walked out the door of the classroom with a lump in my throat, watching my first born starting this big journey through formal education, thinking how he’d spend another 14 years now working his way through the system.
Walking across the yard towards the gate us parents looked at each other in solidarity, many wiping away tears. And that was it. He had started school.
Something slowly dawned on me as the first week passed. I realised that despite all the practical preparation and readiness, I had neither really considered nor foreseen the impact that starting school would have on my son.
It’s a big change, a culture shock of sorts, there are so many new things, or familiar things done slightly differently than before, all happening at once. It’s a lot to take in, but I’d thought that since he’d been going to playschool that really he’d breeze in without a thought.
It starts with the little things for the child – a new place to go every day, new children in their class, a new teacher, just one teacher for all of the class; in playschool there were two teachers for less children. Then the rules are different – you’re not allowed wander around and you’re supposed to put your “lámha suas” when you want to speak, you call your teacher “Miss” not by her name. And there’s the uniform – wearing the same thing as everyone else in your class is wearing and not your favourite top. You have to make sure to ask to go to the toilet, and teacher won’t go to help you. You get two breaks for lunch, so you have to decide what to eat now and what to eat later, or whether you have time to eat at all as there’s so much playing to do. The days are long in big school too, almost two hours longer than most ECCE preschools.
That’s a lot of change for a small person to take in at once, it’s exhausting for them. Those first weeks, your child will profess to be happy, but will be a bit (a lot) more emotional, more tired, and incredibly hungry.
Even without a child expressing the least negative emotion about it, you can see by their behaviour that they’re affected by the change, and if you’re expecting it then you can be prepared in that way too.
What can you do to help?
- Don’t leave home without a snack- shove a granola bar into their face at the school gate
- Go easy on them
- Keep after school activities limited for the first few weeks to let them rest when they come home from school
- Don’t quiz them too much about their day, they’re still taking it all in
- Manage his expectations – so he doesn’t think that explain teacher “took all his books from him” but is minding them, and how it’s normal not to be learning to read on the first morning, despite assurances that he was going to school to learn how to read
Another thing that sort of slipped my mind was the fact that it’s not just the child that starts school. When your first child starts a new school, you’re starting too, assuming a new role as a parent in your school community. You’ll be invited to attend meetings, to volunteer, to send in various bits and pieces to school, and you’ll get to know so many new people as a result.
I wasn’t really sure what she meant at the time, but I fully appreciate it now. It’s amazing to watch your child learning, to see a whole new world opening up to them as they sing the Jollyphonics songs and practice the sounds which will have them reading before you can hide all the inappropriate reading material around the house and change your phone pin code.
Education aside they also bring home new outside influences, born from the relationships they’re building with the kids in their class. The boys come home singing songs and doing “moves” that they picked up from a classmate, where friends went on holidays and which team will do well in the World Cup. I often try imagine the conversation of a group of four and five-year-olds at lunchtime, given some of the hilarious things that have been reported back to us.
He’s not the only one who’s been learning and changing either, we’re all in this together. We packed our second boy off to school last September with the benefit of all the experience of his older brother.
What I’ve learned
I’ve learned that it’s too late to remember school uniforms at 10pm on a Sunday night, I’ve learned to check the bottom of schoolbags for soggy notes and apple cores that escaped lunchboxes, and I’ve learned that if they do forget their school drink they’ll be fine with a cup of water. I’m now regularly corrected that “teacher doesn’t do it that way”.
Starting school is a big step for everyone, but as the parent of a Junior Infant you have a year full of wonder ahead of you as your little one ventures into the big school yard for the first time.
So when you’re ironing those tags on the uniforms this week try spend a few minutes getting your heart ready for starting school too, be prepared, not just on practical terms and you’ll all get on great.
A version of this article first appeared in the Irish Independent in August 2014.
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