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Start Well: A New School Year is Here!

Release Date: 24-Feb-2017 | Go Back

As Head of Junior School at Roseville College, a leading Anglican School for girls in Kindergarten to Year 12 located on Sydney’s leafy North Shore, I find that a warm welcome to parents plus a few helpful tips are well received at the start of each new school year.

For most children who have advanced with their cohort to a new level of learning and responsibility, the new school year brings a significant change, albeit a shared experience with many others at the same time in a familiar environment.

However, for others, including the littlest members of Kindergarten*, this new school environment and its rhythm are completely new. For these children, the initial response is essentially an emotional one: excitement or feeling uncertain, hesitant, even anxious perhaps. 

* I have previously written about four specific and practical areas in which parents of 3-4 year olds can help their daughters (or sons) get ready for Kindergarten.

In the first few weeks of Term 1 at Roseville College Junior School, our initial goals include helping each girl find her place and establish a sense of belonging, nurturing a growth mindset in her approach to higher levels of learning, and empowering her to opt-in to greater opportunities available across the spectrum of school life. Together, goals like these help us settle children into school life socially and emotionally, as well as cognitively and physically.

By supporting a child’s social and emotional adjustment to change (ie. their mental health and welfare), we nurture and empower the whole child while simultaneously making major steps in establishing the child’s underlying character; the inner fortitude they need when faced with far bigger challenges later in life.

How can parents help their children have the best start to school in 2017? 

My top ten (10) character-driven keys for “Starting the 2017 School Year well”, and a few practical tips for each, are:

  1. Be intentional about nurturing your child’s sense of belonging

    If a child feels welcomed, valued, trusted and respected at home, there is a high chance this will positively influence that child’s sense of belonging at school.

    How does this translate to the new school year? The impact of belonging on a child directly correlates with a child's approach to school, both how they relate to people (friends and teachers) and their attitude toward learning.

    Whenever you reconnect after a period of separation (ie. at the end of the school day), greet and respond to your child with a smile and signs of affirmation. Your child develops a template for how to greet others and reach out to new friends.

    As your child makes decisions about the contents of their lunch-box, they learn to respectfully discuss and negotiate their wishes against your criteria of, for example, easy-to-make and nutritious food.

    Engage in a personal-interest project together (eg. learning to sew or running a 5km fun run). Through the steps of listening to practical instructions, taking turns, assisting and encouraging, and engaging in social conversation, you are also nurturing inclusive relationships and demonstrating how to collaborate with peers at playtime, in a sport team or in group-work.

    In the same way you might commit to family dinners together, commit to participating in educational activities and having a family presence at the school early on. This is especially important during the times of at-school transition. From participating as part of an audience (ie. productions, open days), as co-learners (ie. parent seminars, parent-child breakfasts), as volunteers (ie. reading assistance, canteen) or at a greater level of voluntary commitment if you can (such as parent committees), your family’s belonging at the school will reassure your child that it is very much their place, too.

  2. Foster your child’s value of inclusiveness

    With well-placed encouragement, a child who is aware of their own, strong sense of belonging also develops a natural inclination to demonstrate inclusive leadership qualities, and be more understanding of, and able to navigate diversity in, abilities, opinions, values, cultures, and so on.

    How does this translate to the new school year? At Roseville College, a sense of community is at the heart of school life. For many children, schools are the first environment where they are challenged to get along with others in spite of the diversity and dissimilarities of others.

    At home, encourage siblings (cousins or friends) to help and guide each other in appropriate activities according to their strengths (rather than by age), even though an adult could more quickly instruct the desired outcome. In addition to nurturing leadership and respect for different abilities and learning paces, children reinforce their own knowledge by sharing it and often see how others might achieve the same goal differently.

    Join your child in the habit of welcoming new friends or getting to know familiar faces better by talking through scenarios that might empower your child in a range of situations, such as joining in others’ games or to inviting someone to join your game, connecting with a new classmate sitting on their own at the start of recess, or even scheduling an out-of-school playdate with a new family.

    Encourage a broad network of friendships (in school and non-school environments) and help your child recognise the unique qualities of their peers and friends. A balanced acknowledgement of strengths vs weaknesses, and how to celebrate and support their peers, can also help your child develop an attitude of selflessness, grace and forgiveness through the ups and downs of relationships.

  3. Model and engender attributes of kindness, courtesy and respect

    There are some things that simply cannot be told, but are taught, felt and learnt by example and empowerment. Among these are vital attributes that help us get along with others, such as kindness, courtesy and respect.

    How does this translate to the new school year? Coaching children about how to care for others (kindness), treat others (courtesy) and regard others (respect) benefit your child in a range of physiological, emotional and other ways. These qualities, which have a positive effect on the brain and subsequent decision-making, “feed” social bonds (eg. peer acceptance) and feelings of belonging, pride, gratefulness and trust, while operating in opposition to bullying, cliques and low-esteem. Therefore, these are vital characteristics to promote at home and at school.

    Participate in (or initiate) “acts of kindness” or “good deeds” with your child, whether among family friends and relatives or within your child’s wider social circle. These acts help set the expectation of “how things are done”. The endorphins are addictive and it’s amazing how willingly children embrace your “feel good” initiatives and begin to instigate them on their own!

  4. Teach her the importance of mindfulness and sleep.

    The act of mindfulness has a similar physiological impact to being kind; both release serotonin and enrich complementary characteristics such as appreciation, thankfulness, empathy, optimism and considered helpfulness. Sleep promotes learning, so adequate sleep the night before is important part of preparing well for each school day. How does this translate to the new school year? There is a direct correlation between serotonin levels and the quality of learning and cognitive reasoning, information recall, attitudes and outlooks, physical and emotional wellbeing, and ultimately sleep.

    Before the mind can be stilled for reflection and prayer, or even sleep, it is constructive to address your child’s physical environment. A calm bedtime, for example, is aided by setting beneficial, enforced routines. These may include avoiding screen time in the hour before bed, practicing relaxation and deep breathing, and creating a peaceful atmosphere throughout the home (ie. choosing softer lighting, lavender bath scents, relaxing music and gentle, happy connections with each other).

  5. Champion a mindset of “dare to be brave”

    Children need encouragement (from someone they trust) that school is a safe place to try new things, and that trying (whether succeeding or not, but trying again) is of higher importance than not trying and never knowing. To “dare to be brave” elevates personal growth as more valuable than the risk of disappointment and discouragement!  

    How does this translate to the new school year? The encouragement to “dare to be brave” underpins a child’s ability to evaluate and attempt new things, step outside their comfort zone with the goal to learn, and to manage the big emotions that rise to the surface when things don’t work out and children need to regroup to try again, differently.

    Demonstrate bravery yourself with a smile (even clenched!), and be transparent in letting your child see how you handle some of the big emotions she struggles with (such as a fear of public speaking or anxiety of introducing yourself to someone new). Be willing to grow if your reaction doesn’t mirror the sort of reaction you hope your daughter has in your position! You will share greater empathy with her struggles and may just give her the courage to be a life-long learner!

    Tell your child how proud you are of her and choose well-timed moments that are not only connected to “doing well”. Affirm her when she assesses and navigates a situation well, even if the end result isn’t “success”. Use prompts from teacher feedback or your own observations; for example, as your child demonstrates courtesy, consideration, wisdom or selflessness.

    Allow independence at her pace, so if she is asking to take responsibility –age-appropriately with all care taken – work to “let her go” to grow. Follow her cues and respond with encouragement and wisdom.

  6. Share their excitement about… whatever

    As the school year begins, the excitement on Day 1 (and at memorable moments in their schooling) is electric. And guess what? Your child expects you to understand why she’s excited and to share the feeling with her! Also, as you engage and connect with your child, you’re nurturing their interpersonal skills (ie. social and emotional literacy, such as expressing empathy and sharing joy).

    How does this translate to the new school year? Despite many parents envying the (tiring) high energy levels of children and wishing they could express unbridled excitement as an adult, many instead find themselves subduing it and begging their children to “calm down!” However, when experiencing significant change, your child looks to you for permission that it’s okay and safe for her to be intrepid and excited about the “big things” ahead.

    Consciously demonstrate genuine inquisitiveness in your child’s interests and try to respond appropriately to their energy and enthusiasm. At times of change and transition, your consistent engagement with them will be a great source of comfort and reassurance. Try not to dismiss achievements or news too early. Remember they are still a child on a voyage of discovery, for whom many ordinary events (for you) are amazing to them.

    When your child is facing a change in school or a major at-school transition, be positive in your language and link the reasons why this school/ opportunity is a great match for your child’s unique interests, skills and qualities (as acknowledge by them); ask lots of questions and listen to their opinion, concerns and areas of peak interest.

  7. Stretch her capacity wisely

    By the end of the year, children’s weekly schedules are very full and brimming with end-of-year celebrations, presentations, parties and more. It is tempting to busy children equally at the start of the year, too.  Be mindful that transition phases are challenging for every child and all benefit from a thoughtful balance between the opportunities to explore and grow, and opportunities to rest, reflect and recover.

    How does this translate to the new school year? In my experience, children will accumulate new activities and interests as the year goes on, so scheduling down-time at the start of the year helps facilitate a balanced lifestyle and helps avoid burn-out as the inevitable “next things” are added in.

    Observe how your child’s adapts to the new routines, activities and expectations, and be supportive, inquiring and helpful. Try not to instruct your child about how to solve any problem or challenge they may be facing, such as signing up to something for the term that they’re now not so keen on, or juggling conflicts in their schedule. Empower their own sense of resolution and discovery and, by all means, communicate with the school and your child’s teacher if extra support or understanding will be helpful for your child and family.

  8. Promote optimism and resilience 

    For many children, the uncertainty of change is complicated by fears and worries about “what if” I can’t do it, they don’t like me, I don’t know. In response to permanent and absolute limitations (“I will never be able to…” “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow”), nurture more holistic reasoning with a greater sense of perspective (“It might take some time and a few mistakes, but what if I try this…” “No one knows what will happen tomorrow and we’ll all figure it out together”); in doing so, you’re promoting optimism and resilience.

    How does this translate to the new school year? The notion of “fixed intelligence” (ie. you’re born with your IQ) is redundant. Children today are empowered with a Growth Mindset, whereby effort is rewarded by discovery and learning. The process of learning effectively makes people smarter and there’s no limit!

    If parents were educated in the “fixed intelligence” era, my best advice is to re-educate yourself and search for constructive phrases that foster optimism and resilience in your children. For their benefit, work to change your own vocabulary and outlook if necessary. There are excellent resources available online (such as Growth Mindset resources by Prof. Carol Dweck), or tap into resources available to parents though your child’s school.

    As you discuss your child’s day, include how and what questions to help a child realise that the process of learning is as important as what they learned. This is equally as beneficial for areas of character and social skills development as it is for academic and athletic achievement. Be mindful to praise and encourage related attributes such as hard work, perseverance, innovation, problem solving, and courage.

    Focus on your attention to the progress your child makes socially, emotionally and academically, remembering to coach them at their pace and celebrate small and big steps along the way.

  9. Let your child lead

    As children are exposed to a myriad of situations and a diversity of personalities, they need to learn how to master themselves. This includes developing self-control, self-discipline, self-regulation and self-awareness. Where learning is required, guide them through social stories and invite them to suggest alternative ways that situations could have played out.

    How does this translate to the new school year? Childhood is a time for learning, just as school is a place for learning. The ability to manage feelings, responses, interactions and relationships all contribute to a child’s sense of ease in the range of situations they find themselves at school. Allowing them to lead their own self-discovery at a young age empowers them to work through challenges independently as they move through their Junior years into Senior School.

    When children speak with you about things they found hard at the time, allow them to lead the discussion to resolution and to come up with constructive ideas for next time. Offer suggestions, being mindful that this is their self-discovery and, if we listen, we might just learn from them.

  10. Whisper to her, “to just breathe”

    The #1 antidote to stress is controlled breathing: even one good, deep breath helps!

    How does this translate to the new school year? To “just breathe” is a conscious reminder of an involuntary function. To breathe deeply on purpose injects a boost of oxygen to the brain and vital organs, relaxes muscle tension that impacts our posture and sense of wellbeing, and takes the brain off high-alert to enable clearer thinking in the moment to make the most of each moment.

    A little whisper of courage at moments of stress, anxiety or general uncertainty can equip your child for at-school moments when you might not be beside her. In a heightened situation for your child, a considered breath allows the brain to pause and catch pace with learning, and gives them a moment to regroup before proceeding.

    Reinforce key ideas about learning from school into other areas of your child’s life. At Roseville College; for example, learning is a process that may include taking initiative, making mistakes, regulating emotions, evolving ideas, and persevering. Connect with the school’s pedagogy and be willing to take some principles into your home life. They may just enrich your whole family!

    Offer plenty of positive feedback on school work and when you notice your child apply aspects of new learning to their other activities. Talk to teachers and other parents you trust about how they give positive affirmation to your child and the sorts of qualities they are recognising in her.

Each fresh school year provides your daughter (or son) with growth-inspiring challenge and passion-fueling opportunity. Annually, I witness the value of strong character in young children as they advance at school or experience major change or transition. I hope that these ten ideas are helpful in making 2017 a milestone year in the growth of your child.

A helpful resource for parents of children experiencing significant change is http://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/

Tanya Vaughan
Head of Junior School, Roseville College