Primary school places were announced last week and with the usual apprehension about first place offers came a strange sense of disconnect amongst parents whose babies are due to start school this September. Those of us lucky to get our first choice school would normally be jumping with joy but the day was oddly overshadowed by the question:
what if my pre-schooler is not school ready?
This year the announcement of where our children will attend school has reminded us just how different life is right now. For many of us, the current lockdown is a source of worry about how our pre-schoolers will transition to ‘big’ school.
For older children, school ended with packs of work, online contact with their teachers and plenty of concern for their continued development. For those in preschool, the situation was very different. My four year old daughter attended her usual Wednesday at the preschool she loves last month, unaware that this was likely the last time she would be with her friends and ‘teachers’ for some time. Potentially forever. Come Friday, everything was closed and she had not even had a chance to say good-bye to her beloved key workers.
The bond that preschoolers have with those who look after them is very different to the ones they have with their teachers at school. These adults are key providers for their emotional and social development with small ratios and lots of one-on-one time. To have this removed so suddenly has left a noticeable hole in our little ones’ lives.
We send our children to preschool to help them learn about routine, social interaction with their peers and get an initial understanding of the academic learning involved at school. They get used to independence whilst being stimulated and engaged in a way that us parents are simply not qualified to offer.
And now, with their only social interaction coming from ‘Ben and Holly’ and our eyes twitching at the thought of any more Play Doh colours being squished together, our preschoolers are left to be entertained by our questionable Pinterest fails whilst we try and keep up with our own work and engage our older children with their curriculum based ‘homework’.
For many parents I speak to, the gaps our little ones are experiencing are nothing to do with phonics. One mother I spoke to last week confided that she’d gone from confident to concerned that her son was ready to start Reception in just a few short weeks. Her son struggled to settle into preschool: there was pant wetting, upset and he even stopped speaking for a short time as he was so anxious about the new setting. With support from the staff there, however, he had made great progress and he was really enjoying getting ‘school ready’ ahead of September. Now she is worried about how difficult it will be for him and that if there is a return to preschool before the end of this academic year. “The disruption may actually do more harm than good,” she told me.
I've gone from confident to concerned about my son's school readiness in just a few short weeks
At the other end of the scale are the families with children who are ready and raring to go. Many have older siblings and their pre-schoolers are keen to follow in their footsteps. They have been in the playground daily and cannot wait to be allowed into their own classroom surrounded by faces they are already somewhat familiar with. They already know many of the teachers by name, have been to assemblies in the school hall and are familiar with the school day routine. Starting school is not a concern, but that lack of social interaction and independence right now still is.
Fiona is a childminder who works a lot with children transitioning to school and reminds us that preschool attendance isn’t a requirement – it’s optional. ‘It is not necessary to know and understand phonics, numbers or be starting to write,” she said. “Actually, most teachers prefer to start from scratch so that all children are on the same page and there are no bad habits.”
So if we don’t need to worry about where they are at education-wise, what should be the focus?
Fiona is clear: “Emotional development is far more important than academics and that is what we should all be focusing on for all of our children in these unusual times.”
Katie, a primary school teacher, agrees. Her message is simple: “Stop the worrying! The teacher’s have got this.” Katie reminded me that all children will be in the same boat and that teachers are experienced and understanding. “Children always start school from a range of settings and experiences,” she added. “Some have been in full time nursery since they were tiny and others have never spent much time away from home. Teachers, and especially Reception teachers, are experienced in building trust and relationships. I know it will all work out.“
Experts from pre-schools and primary schools agree that the following are the most beneficial things to focus on in the coming months:
These skills allow children to be ready to learn when they start school and limit the time teachers have to spend on physical care. The more of their thirty children who can get themselves ready for a PE lesson, the quicker they can get on with the lesson itself.
So, rather than spending hours online trying to find the perfect mentally stimulating activities to entertain your pre-schoolers for the full five minutes of their attention span, our energy is much better spent focusing on key life skills to help them start school with independence and confidence. We can leave the rest to the professionals.
Reception teachers are the experts and have years of experience at supporting children in their first steps away from home into the exciting world of ‘big school’ education. Children at this age are highly adaptable and will embrace this new adventure with the same zeal they face life with. They are showing us daily at the moment just how adaptable they are.
No parent is ever really ready to send their baby off to school. This year will be no different. Before we know it, we will be standing them against a door with their freshly ironed school shirts and their brand new out-of-the-bag bookbag ready for their ‘First Day at School’ photo. Just like thousands of parents every year, we will be trying to hold back the tears of pride and fear as our babies suddenly don’t look like babies any more.