How to talk to your child on their first week of school

Be School Ready Parents Primary Schools Secondary Schools
07 September 2023
The first day of primary or secondary school marks a significant milestone in both child and parent’s life. It’s a day that can be filled with mixed emotions – excitement, nervousness, apprehension.

Whether your child is going to their new school surrounded by friends from a pre-school setting or primary school, or they’re starting somewhere with all completely new faces, they’re sure to be experiencing some big feelings, which may manifest in several different ways.

As a parent, having the tools to ensure effective communication with your child as they get used to this new way of life can help ease their transition and build a strong foundation for their school journey. Preparing yourself for the first few days is also important, especially if your child doesn’t adapt as quickly as you’d hoped.

Below, you’ll find some key strategies to help you with this time of change, as well as some questions to ask, expectations to have and steps you can take if bigger issues arise, written by the team at Parentkind with help from Louisa Rose, CEO of Beyond, a youth mental health charity tackling the growing mental health crisis affecting young people in the UK.

Establish open and supportive communication

Use the days leading up to school to talk with your child about what to expect from their new school and help them get used to starting somewhere new. Some parents suggest trying on the uniform to get them excited, or you can give your child a sense of power by letting them to choose their new shoes, water bottle or for secondary starters, their backpack or pencil case.

Use this first week at school to create an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Assure them that you’re there to support and listen to them. If you, or another close adult like a grandparent or carer, is able to be there to see them off and pick them up or welcome them home for the first few days, that will give you a chance to connect with them and catch up whilst the day is still fresh in their mind. If this isn’t possible or it suits your child better, maybe instead you could sit together for dinner and talk about your days to give them space to share without the attention being solely on them.

Questions to ask

Here are a few examples of open-ended questions that might allow your child space to share. However, please don’t feel disappointed if you don’t get as much detail as you’d like; this is normal, especially as sometimes big changes mean they’re not exactly sure how they’re feeling themselves yet!

How are you feeling? This simple yet powerful question allows your child to express their emotions. Whether they’re excited, nervous, or a combination of both, their feelings are valid.

What was your favourite part of the day? Encourage your child to focus on the positive aspects of their day. This question can help shift their attention away from any more negative experiences.

Did you make any new friends? Inquire about their social interactions. Celebrate any new friendships or connections they’ve made.

What did you learn today? This question keeps the conversation centred on their academic experiences, promoting a sense of accomplishment.

Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Leave the door open for them to share anything that might be on their mind.

What to expect from your child

For the first week of school, your child might display a range of behaviours:

  1. Excitement: Many children feel eager to explore their new environment and make new friends.
  2. Nervousness: It’s natural for children to feel nervous about the unknown. Reassure them that it’s okay to feel this way and that things will get easier with time.
  3. Clamming up: Some children might be more reserved, especially if they’re introverted. Give them space while gently encouraging them to share their experiences.
  4. Mixed emotions: A combination of excitement and nervousness is common. Acknowledge both feelings and help them find a balance. It’s useful to help your child identify that the sensations in their body, while they experience both of these emotions, can be similar. Noting this can help to reduce the intensity of the feelings. 

A combination of excitement and nervousness is common. Acknowledge both feelings and help them find a balance.

Addressing issues

If any issues arise, approach them with sensitivity and a problem-solving mindset:

  1. Bullying or social isolation: If your child shares concerns about bullying or feeling left out, take them seriously. Contact the school and work collaboratively to address the situation. There are some excellent resources to support parents and carers whose children are experiencing bullying. A good place to start is The Diana Award.
  2. Academic challenges: If your child expresses difficulty with schoolwork, then you’re off to a head start, as children don’t always find it easy to communicate what’s going on for them. It’s important that you create space for them to explore this, as academic challenges can lead to feelings of inadequacy and impact their mental health. Supporting them to foster a growth mindset is useful. Try to add the word yet’ when they say they can’t do something. A growth mindset helps children understand that their abilities can develop over time with hard work. Involve the school and raise your child’s concerns with them. They may able to provide additional academic assistance. Alternatively, a mentor (Oppidan Education are a fantastic organisation for this) or a tutor could be a good way to support your child.
  3. Anxiety: Anxiety is a healthy emotion to experience unless it persists beyond the first few days, in which case consider speaking with school staff in the first instance. If your child’s anxiety continues, speak to their GP who will assess and advise if further mental health support is required.
  4. Communication blocks: If your child is having trouble opening up, be patient. Try engaging in activities they enjoy, like drawing or playing, as a way to encourage conversation. For younger children, consider purchasing a mindful colouring book like this one from Usborne and spend some time colouring with them during a relaxing time of the day, perhaps at bedtime. During this time, your child may open up more.

Top tip — try to add the word yet’ when they say they can’t do something.

Celebrate achievements, big or small

Every step your child takes on their first day of school is an achievement worth celebrating. Praise their bravery, efforts, and positive attitude. Acknowledging their accomplishments will boost their self-confidence and enthusiasm for the days ahead.

Establish a routine

Routine is comforting for children, especially during times of change. Create a daily routine that includes time for schoolwork, play, relaxation, and family interactions. This structure can provide stability and alleviate any anxieties they might have.

Reflect and adjust

At the end of the day, reflect on your communication. Consider what worked well and what could be improved. Remember that each child is unique, so be prepared to adjust your approach based on their responses and needs. It’s also important to remember that not everything may go smoothly – you’re only human! Make sure you give yourself time to process these first few days and ask for support from the school or your family if you need it.

Visit the Be School Ready hub

Our regularly updated hub of resources, tips and tricks is specially curated to support you and your child with their transition to primary, post-primary or secondary school.