Adapting to primary school
Starting primary school is an exciting time but can also be a big step change for children and families. For many children it will be the first occasion they spend time away from their family or in a more formal group setting.
For some children, this stage of their education may increase anxiety around separation from their main care-giver. These feelings can also be exacerbated by a parent or carer who transmits their own feelings of anxiety onto their child. However, this phase is usually temporary and can be successfully managed through partnership working between school staff and parent/carers.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Many schools have preparatory strategies in place such as family welcome meetings, assigning a keyworker for each child and family (who helps to ensure that care is tailored to a child’s needs), and having induction processes and settling in periods. This example of a policy from a primary school in Surrey gives a good outline of what parents and children can expect.
- Liaising and engaging with parents: a child’s ability to settle into primary school is highly reliant on close collaboration between schools and parents. Contact and communication at this early stage can also set the tone for good quality parental engagement throughout a child’s education.
It can help if parents/carers talk positively to children in advance of their first term, read books and complete activities together about the move to primary school (see resources below); walk them through what will happen and talk to them about things they may be looking forward to or worrying about. This article from Pentagon Play, highlights some ideas and strategies for how parents can work with schools to help with this important process of settling in. Older siblings can also be key in helping children successfully transition from home or early years’ settings to school.
- Liaising with early years’ practitioners: good liaison/joint planning between schools and early years’ practitioners (if children have been in such provision) is also important to facilitate successful transitions. By connecting with early years’ staff, schools can:
- Develop a shared understanding of school readiness and what it means. This will create a common baseline of understanding about how children can be helped to develop important transitional skills.
- Identify children early on who might need additional help (e.g. pupils eligible for Pupil Premium support) to get settled in. For children with other complex or SEND needs it may be useful for staff to participate in ‘exchange visits’ to see how children may be best supported, as well as home visits to understand how parents interact with their children. Home visits would need to take into account risk assessments and safeguarding issues but they can be a useful way for staff to understand a child’s home environment and for children to meet staff in a setting that is familiar and safe for them. This article from the Council for Disabled Children/4 Children gives further advice on early years’ transitions for children with disabilities or SEND needs.
- Co-develop a system for sharing important information on children’s needs as they transition to primary schools. This short video (from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) illustrates one example of how early years staff are being encouraged to establish systems to share their knowledge with primary school settings.
Anxiety about separation
Reluctance to be separated from one's caregiver is a normal, healthy response in young children and indicates the development of a healthy attachment with them. Mastering separation is also an important developmental step forward for children, both socially and emotionally. For most children anxiety about separation is a temporary phase which can be managed through good partnership working between parents and school staff.
Staff can help this process of separation in a number of ways including:
- Introducing themselves to the child and encouraging them to play with toys or have a snack.
- Helping parents manage their own separation anxiety, behaviours and rituals. For example:
- Dissuading parents from just sneaking out.
- Coaching parents in creating a quick exit ritual during which they say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Making sure that any departure is not prolonged and that goodbyes are calmly and cheerfully managed whatever the parents are feeling.
- Dissuading parents from coming back after this departure ritual.
- Helping parents reassure a child that they will be back, using concepts children can understand.
- Reassuring parents/carers: letting them know that most children settle, offering the opportunity for a concerned parent/carer to ring or email to confirm that a child has settled, or take photos/videos to send to them.
- Never criticising children for feeling sad or anxious.
This US website called Helpguide gives information and tips for understanding the differences between separation anxiety and separation disorder and to help a child manage separation. For more information on supporting children with excessive anxiety, see our section on the anxious or worried child.
- Support children’s social and emotional skills (understanding feelings, kindness, developing empathy, building relationships and valuing oneself) from the moment they start school. See, for example:
- Follow familiar routines in school to provide security and stability. If a child struggles with particular new routines, work with parents to develop a ‘story-based intervention’. These are stories created by children, parents and school staff using visual reminders and words to help a child become familiar with what to expect or how to manage and embed new skills in different situations. They are particularly useful for children with some special educational needs (e.g. children on the autistic spectrum). See these top tips from the Queensland government in Australia.
- Create an environment and culture where pupils feel valued and supported. Use everyday interactions, contact and relationships to build a sense of connection and school belonging. It also involves the small things such as:
- Welcoming children (and families) and addressing them by name each day.
- Displaying children’s artwork on the walls of the classroom and school.
- Noticing when they are struggling and communicating support with small gestures (acknowledging a child with a nod, warmth in your voice, a note on his/her work etc.).
- Giving a child responsibilities/chores for the classroom to boost their self-esteem by providing them with some control over their environment.
- Develop positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, safety and security. These help to develop resilience, promote pupil wellbeing and help children talk about worries that might be affecting them.
- Make sure there are opportunities for children to develop strong relationships with school staff who support and believe in them, have high expectations and who provide a secure base for the development of trust, autonomy and initiative.
- Provide a visual timetable for children. This will help young children to see what comes next in their day. It will also support those children with communication difficulties, other needs or with English as an additional language.
- Provide clear and consistent boundaries and ground rules so that children know what behaviour is expected of them.
- Make sure that the environment is safe and secure but at the same time allows children to take small risks in a safe way to extend their development. The aim is for children to develop confidence and explore new experiences.
- Encourage children to have confidence to ask questions – again in a new environment for some children this will be a challenge.
- Help children communicate and help them to develop appropriate language so that they can ask for help.
- Establish a formal ‘settling in’ review to help staff and parents stop and reflect about children’s progress and whether they might need any extra help (e.g. through counselling or other support).