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The Learning Curve

If you thought back-to-school time was stressful, spare a thought for the little ones heading off to school for the first time ever next month. The first day of school is a major milestone for both children and parents and it often stirs up a roller-coaster of emotion, from excitement and anxiety to fear and sadness.

Tears and tantrums are common and nerves will likely be frayed, but it's important to remember that this is par for the course.

"Most children settle into school quickly but do not be concerned if it takes a little longer. Your child will soon settle down and grow to enjoy the company and activities," says junior infants teacher Mairead Barry, of Schooldays (www.schooldays.ie).

"Anxiety at first separation is usually to be expected," adds child psychologist, Dr Joanne Cooper, "particularly if the child is unused to being separated from the parent or is joining a new situation."



uncertainty

"It may be helpful for parents to remember that anxiety upon separation is often just the child's way of showing surprise and uncertainty as to why their attachment has temporarily been disrupted.

"It's a good indicator that the child is entirely and positively attached so it doesn't have to be viewed negatively at all."

Most professionals agree that it is the duty of the parent to stay calm and collected and not to transfer any anxiety to the child.

Nicole Frei, whose daughter, Alexandra, started school last September, agrees: "I think the big thing is to remain calm. Once you get through the first day, try to treat it like it's really normal and really natural. Try not to get stressed and work up the child."

Letting go of your little one's hand at the classroom door is daunting for a parent, but the transition will be smoother for those who have prepared well in advance.

THE FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL: HOW TO PREPARE YOUR CHILD

>THE CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST Remain calm: As with all strange situations, children look to the adult and significant others in their lives to find out how they should feel and think, says Dr Joanne Cooper (inset). A display of strong or upset emotion on the parents' side suggests to the child that there is something to be afraid of.

Prepare in advance: Beginning a couple of weeks in advance, and continuing right up to the morning of the first day of school, calmly and matter-of-factly explain to the child that this is the day they will start their new school. Explain the events of the day in sequence, such as who will drop them to the school, how long they will be staying and who will collect them. Get the child to reiterate the arrangements to be sure they have understood them.

Review: Review the events of the day afterwards, reminding the child that the event unfolded in roughly the same way that the parent had previously explained. This builds trust and the child learns that they can believe the parent on how events will unfold in future scenarios. The child will recognise that in fact everything was OK and his or her anxiety over future separations will gradually diminish.

Dr Joanne Cooper is a psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with young people and adults. Further information available at www.rewindcounselling.ie.

>THE MOTHER No long goodbyes: You have to let go and walk away. I have witnessed women who hang around and their children still need them to hang around at the end of term. Start as you mean to go on. Be confident and the kids don't feel they have anything to worry about.

Get excited: Involve the child when buying the uniform and stationary. Once you start hyping it up, it creates a sense of excitement.

Change your child's diet in advance: I started introducing Alexandra to lunchbox-size portions one week in advance of her starting school. I also cut out sweets and cookies as most schools have 'no junk food' rules.

Limit extra-curricular activities: In my opinion, it's important that children don't have a lot of structure in their after-school care. School is so structured and it's a big deal sitting at a desk and behaving all day. They need to be able to kick back afterwards. I had to take Alexandra out of after-school because the poor child was just too exhausted.

Organise play dates: I organised playdates during the summer with children who I knew would be in her class come September. Once we arrived at school on the first day, she was thrilled because she knew some kids from her playschool.

Nicole Frei is mother to Alexandra (5) who started school at St Brigid's, Cabinteely, Dublin, last September.

>THE JUNIOR INFANTS' TEACHER Routine, routine, routine: Establish a routine which includes earlier bedtimes and earlier morning rises at least a week in advance.

Arrive on time: Arrive on the day on time and have everything they need -- books, uniform, etc. Children of that age don't like to be different; they like to be the same.

Be positive: Don't give your child a negative view of school before they start. Sometimes parents might say, 'they'll sort you out when you start school' and immediately that can be a threat to the child.

Prepare the teacher: If you have a message for the teacher, write it down and give it to them. There's only one teacher and he or she is going to be very busy on the first morning of school. They won't remember specific requests unless they are written down.

No transmission: Don't let children watch TV in the mornings before school. Studies have proved that it impairs concentration during the school day.

Miriam Nolan, principal and former junior infants teacher, Holy Child School, Ballycane, Naas.