How to cope with the stress of starting school - if you're a parent

Thousands of children will be joing reception classes next month, but its mums and dads who need comforting

By Sarah Ebner, August 30, 2011
That long walk through the playground can be nerve-wracking. But Sharon Baker (below) is drawing on her experience of when her daughter Maya started at Akiva School to prepare for her son Ben's first days in reception when he joins Akiva next month

That long walk through the playground can be nerve-wracking. But Sharon Baker (below) is drawing on her experience of when her daughter Maya started at Akiva School to prepare for her son Ben's first days in reception when he joins Akiva next month

Marc Polivnick is, in his own words, "excited and nervous". He is excited because his daughter, Ariella, who is nearly four, is soon to embark on a new stage in her life. And he is nervous for exactly the same reason. Why? Because Ariella is starting school.

"I think I'm going to burst into tears when I see her in her first school uniform," says Polivnick, who is originally from Sydney, Australia, but now lives in Edgware. "It's amazing how time flies. When you realise that your oldest is starting school [Ariella is going to Mathilda Marks-Kennedy in north-west London], it's a revelation."

Starting school is a big step for a child, but it is similarly (and sometimes more) emotional for their parents. Nothing else demonstrates how big your once-tiny baby has become - they are growing up.

"I have mixed feelings about Ben starting school," says Sharon Baker, another parent of a nearly four-year-old. "A part of me is relieved that I'll have more time. But another part can't believe that my son's not going to be there as much, that I won't have my special time with him and that he's going into the big bad world which I don't have control over."

Ben has been going to Gan Alon nursery at New North London Synagogue for the past year. In September, he starts at Akiva School, in Finchley. Baker - who has an older daughter, Maya, already at Akiva - knows that it is a big step.

Your children don't need you less, they need you at different times

"Until now, it's been up to me who Ben plays with and it's been easy to find out what he's been doing from speaking to the nursery teachers. I know it's soon going to be very different, as I've found it quite weird watching Maya grow up and realising that there are a lot of things which are just out of your hands. They include speaking to the teachers whenever you want - they're just too busy."

Parenting is a constant "letting go," and this starts from when your son or daughter is just a baby. You want them to be independent, but that does not mean you do not feel saddened by the fact that they seem to need you less. Starting school really emphasises this process.

"It's difficult for parents," says Baker, "because you've had years of being with your child quite a lot and you're not going to have that again. I think we all find that it's flashed by and that it's happened while we've felt too tired, too stressed and too wrapped up in our worlds of trying to juggle everything."

Educational psychologist Alexis Beaver knows that many parents feel this way. However, she has some words of comfort.

"Your children don't need you less, they need you at different times," she says. "When your child starts school, you have to enjoy the moment and see it as a new opportunity. There will be lots of other moments you can enjoy too. It's all about living in the present."

However, our emotions can sometimes catch us unaware. I became quite melancholy when my son started nursery, as it seemed to mark the end of his babyhood. And it does not matter whether it is your first child, second, only or last - you are sure to have some kind of reaction when they're grown-up enough to go to school.

Teachers are well aware of the situation, not least because they have children too. Debra Vaughan, a reception class teacher at Moriah School, also in north-west London, has one daughter just finishing year 1 and another starting in reception next month.

"Having school-age children myself, I think I am now even more aware of the importance of placating parents," she says. "I make sure I find the time to reassure them that their child was fine, especially if they were crying when their mum or dad left them. That's what I would want to hear in the same circumstances.

"I think that it's the parents who worry more than the children, who are usually OK after five minutes. But parents need to have confidence that we as teachers know how to help their children and that we've done this before. We are the professionals, but we also know that the children are very precious."

The run-up to school can seem like a turning point in your and your child's life. If you are feeling a little bereft, try hard not to let your child pick up on this. Children can reflect their parents' moods very easily. Instead, you need to be positive, whether you feel that way or not. This holds true even for parents who did not like school very much themselves. This is not about you - it is about your child. And of course, things have changed a great deal since your day, so you will soon discover that you are finding out almost as much as your child.

"Coming from a completely different schooling system, we've had to familiarise ourselves with how it all works in the UK," says Marc Polivnick, whose learning process began with the school application arrangements. "We were very keen that Ariella should receive a Jewish education and are delighted that she's starting at Mathilda Marks-Kennedy. I'm sure she'll make friends pretty quickly."

Making friends, of course, is a key element when it comes to starting school, both for the children, and once again, their parents. But parents should not get too stressed about this, as it comes with time. And it gets easier with each child.

"I'm much less nerve-wracked than I was when Maya started school," agrees Sharon Baker. "It was so new to me then, there was so much I didn't know. With Ben it'll be different. I feel much more prepared and will try to enjoy the summer holidays as much as I can. Because after that, it all changes."

Sarah Ebner is the author of the 'Starting School Survival Guide: everything you need to know when your child starts primary school', published by White Ladder

Last updated: 10:57am, August 30 2011