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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
Starting school 'less stressful'
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

School gate
Starting school is less likely to be the first time away from home
Fewer children are having anxiety problems over starting school, says a leading educational psychologist.

David Webster says as more children are attending nurseries or going to childminders, the first day of school is not such a traumatic experience.

He says schools are also getting better at helping children to settle in.

But Mr Webster, president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, says it can still be a "scary experience" for youngsters.

Beginning primary school is one of the traditional rites of passage for children - with parents worrying that they will be frightened by their first days in formal education.


But for the current intake of pupils, this is no longer as likely to be such an emotional watershed as might once have been the case, suggests Mr Webster.

And he says that in his experience there are a decreasing number of referrals to educational psychologists over pupils having problems with starting school.

The expansion in free nursery places for three and four year olds - and the increase in families where both parents are working - means that many more children will have had experiences of childcare and pre-school settings.

And this early pattern of time away from parents and with other children makes school less of an abrupt step into the unknown.

In the past, starting school would have been many children's first regular experience of being separated from their family.

Building confidence

"Children are now more likely to have been away from home - and very few would be leaving their families for the first time when they begin school," says Mr Webster.

Nonetheless, he says that starting school can still be a daunting moment - and that there are strategies that parents can use to lessen the anxiety.

He says that children will be less worried if they know more about where they are going and are familiar with their new environment - and a pre-term trip to the school can help to reassure children.

Parents should try to talk positively about starting school - in an attempt to give children a greater feeling of confidence. If parents are anxious about the first day, this will be picked up their children, says Mr Webster.

There are also "tricks" which parents can use to help children realise that the first day at school is not going to last forever.

For example, he suggests that parents should give the child something to take to school - and tell them that they have to return it at the end of the day, emphasising that they will be coming back to family life.

Schools have also been developing ways to smooth the first days and to help them build confidence - such as allowing reception children to start a day before other children and staggering the start dates, so that new children are introduced in small groups.

Many schools also arrange classroom visits for children before their first day.

Some of your comments:

My four-year-old son started school this morning. He's been attending the attached nursery for the past year so has been eased into big school.

Mummy was the only one who had tears!
Caroline Juggins, Northumberland

On my first day of school I was smacked by the teacher. It was nap time and the children were told to put their heads down on their desks. I was still looking around when the teacher came up behind and slapped the back of my head. "Put your head down," she yelled. I kept my head down for the remainder of the afternoon. This happened in a Toronto Catholic school in 1965. My, what gentle times we live in now.
K Preston, Vancouver, Canada

I started school in 1961. I remember really cold class rooms, with only smoky coke stoves. If you sat within ten feet you cooked, if you sat further away you shivered. The toilets were outside. Basically the place should have been demolished even in those days.
Matthew, Swindon

I started school as a four year old at the beginning of the summer term. On my first day, I went in with my big sister (then five) and my new classmates all knew each other. I do remember that on my first day there was a raffle (which apparently they did occasionally) and I picked out the "X" and won the prize of a plastic clown-shaped wool holder. I was pleased as Punch to show my mum when I got home. However, it didn't give me any abilities in knitting - I can't knit to save my life.
Patricia Coyle, Romford

Starting school, as with any big change, is an anxious time, but we have to deal with anxiety all our lives in various forms. It is something we should be teaching our children to deal with appropriately, not avoid. It is a skill which will help them as adults.
Jackie, Hornsea, England

My four year old started reception today at 12.30. He was dressed by his brother at seven this morning and very excited about starting school. I had to then spend the morning explaining that for the next couple of weeks he could only go after lunch. The school asked the parents to stay to settle the children. As soon as the school gates opened he ran in and I had to catch up with him to take him into the classroom. I did not stay to settle, just hung his bag up and left. I even got a kiss, which is a rare event.
Mandy Dennelly, Cheam, Surrey

Childcare boost for two year olds
12 Jul 04  |  Education
Call to raise school starting age
08 Nov 02  |  Education
Demand for school counselling grows
19 Aug 02  |  Education

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