Starting school is a huge milestone for children and parents alike.
So, with just weeks to go before hordes of newly-uniformed four-year-olds pass through classroom doors for the first time, what can you do to prepare them, and limit the potential for tears – theirs and yours – on the big day?
Get your child familiar with the general idea of school...
Read storybooks such as Janet and Allan Ahlberg's Starting School, or I am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child. They're engaging ways to create positive impressions of what this school malarkey is all about. They will also help your child raise any concerns (and remember these can be things which seem obvious or silly to us grown-ups – from 'will there be any lunch' to 'how will I find the loo' and 'will I have to find my own way home'?)
Ask (ideally admired) older cousins/ friends to chat with them about fun stuff they do at school (as long they won't mention someone thumping them at playtime or how they find assemblies really boring).
Discuss your own happy memories of school (provided you have some). Perhaps mention games you played at break time or how much you liked your first teacher.
Be careful not to introduce worries they haven't considered and try not to pass your own anxieties on.
...and with their particular school and prospective classmates
Walk or drive past, pointing out any appealing features. Whenever I showed my son the cool playground/ 'big field you can play football on' at his school before he started, his eyes lit up.
Attend any settling-in sessions. This can be tricky if you're working but they allow your child (and you) to case the classroom, teacher, classmates, and find out where those all-important loos are, removing some of the unknown.
If you know of prospective classmates, meet up over the summer - familiar faces on day one will help.
Many parents worry their child will be the only one who can't tell an A from a Z or write their name yet. They won't be, and actually even if they were, it wouldn't matter. Reception teachers don't expect children to know letters/ numbers as, after all, that's what school is for. What they're far more bothered about are practical 'self-care' skills. They'll thank you if your child can:
Go to the loo independently and clean themselves up afterwards, including washing hands.
Put their coat on and change for PE. Teachers/ assistants will help with tricky buttons/ zips but the more your child can do the better.
Recognise their name so they can find their coat peg and identify belongings which are labelled (and everything should be or it'll disappear into the depths of the lost property bin, never to be seen again).
Eat independently, using cutlery (although many schools help younger ones with tricky to chop foods).
Understand sharing, listening and being quiet/ sitting still for a short time when asked to.
If you'll go back to work or already work beyond school hours, start planning your childcare now. Childminders are particularly good for after school care - local councils provide lists of registered childminders or ask the school office if they know who picks up from there.
Also, if you don't have the uniform list or details of settling-in arrangements, contact the school before the summer holidays start, as after that the office will probably close until September.
THE TEACHER'S HOME VISIT
If there's one aspect of your child starting school that's sure to trigger a frenzy of domestic cleaning, it's the teacher's home visit. These seem increasingly common (although not all schools do them) and involve either the teacher alone or with the teaching assistant, coming round to see you and your child for a short period, usually just before term starts.
But is this all just an excuse for teachers to get a nosey at your house and check you really do live in the catchment area, or is there more to it than that?
Joanna Fleming, a teacher from Cumbria, explains that such visits are about building a link between school and home – a relationship between parent and teacher. "They're a really good opportunity to check things and explain any worries you or your child have," she says.
They are also very much a chance for teachers to see children in their own environment, where they're likely to be at their most comfortable. If a new reception pupil seems especially shy in the classroom once they start, but were less so during the home visit, this will help the teacher understand that they might just need to come out of their shell more.
But onto the crucial question: do teachers care if there are a few crumbs on the carpet or the living room floor is strewn with rather too many discarded toys?
Joanna is reassuring that teachers are not there to see how tidy your house is (within reason), although she concedes it's nice if someone makes a bit of an effort and offers a cuppa. She does like parents to turn the TV off too: "It's often left on, or just turned down a bit!"
Anna Plasett, a mother of two from North London whose daughter Ella's teacher did a home visit last September, advises keeping preparations low key. "I didn't have a manic tidy up or get baking," she says. "I think it would have made Ella nervous." She recommends getting someone else to look after any (especially younger) siblings for the duration of the visit, if possible. "I asked my mother-in-law to look after my two-year-old as I didn't want her taking the teacher's focus away from Ella."
Home visit tips:
• See this as some precious one-on-one time to get to know the teacher and vice versa.
• Use the visit to raise any concerns you have, eg,. worries about toileting, development and the like. It's much easier to do this now than trying to grab her attention at the classroom door when you're among 29 other parents and carers.
• Explain to your child in advance that their new teacher is coming round to say hello and encourage them to get a favourite toy out to show them.
• Turn the TV off. Your child is unlikely to bond with the teacher if they're distracted by goings on on CBeebies.
• Offer a cup of tea and some biscuits. (No need to turn into the next Jane Asher – a good old-fashioned digestive or the like will suffice)
• Worry about making the house super-spotless. That said a quick clean up might be worthwhile if it makes you feel better.
• Bribe your little one to behave –they're bound to blurt out at the end, "Mummy, can I have that chocolate bar you promised me for being good now that Miss X is going?"
• Go over the top about how much of a genius your son or daughter is. If they are well-ahead of the game, it's certainly a mention but keep it brief. The school will do what's called a baseline assessment early on in the first term and should discover where your offspring is up to.
• Bear in mind the teacher might only stay a short while as they probably have a lot of other home visits to get through that day.
A photo of your child sporting slightly too big but pristine uniform on their first day at school goes into pretty much every family's album.
But before you can take the pic, you've actually got to buy the stuff. So how difficult can purchasing a few pairs of grey trousers/ skirts and some shirts be?
Granted it's not the greatest shopping challenge ever, but school uniform is not quite as, well, uniform, as the name suggests. As I found out last year when my then four-year-old started reception, there can be quite a few choices to make.
A school might allow girls to wear trousers, skirts or pinafores, boys perhaps trousers or shorts, and there can be the option of different colours or styles of shirts and sweaters. Then there are decisions about whether to buy in an official uniform outfitters or head to the supermarket, shop early while there's plenty of stock, or wait in case of any last-minute growth spurts, and more.
So, if you're a uniform rookie this year, here's our guide to what, where and when.
What you'll need
First stop is obviously the school's uniform list. If for some reason you haven't been sent one and can't find it on their website, or you have any questions, get on the phone now in case the school office shuts for the summer holidays.
What the uniform list won't tell you is quantities. There's a laundry frequency/ cost trade-off here: the more you have the fewer times per week the washing machine will need to go on but obviously this means higher spending. Personally I'm in the cough up extra to get four or five sets camp, so I can get away with a wash only once weekly. Any less and I'd risk forgetting and having a panic at 8am because there's no clean uniform left.
Take into account too how mucky your pup is – if they're the kind of kid dirt is magnetically attracted to, again, go for a bit more rather than less. If they're usually quite clean, some items might manage a second day – there's no need to put freshly laundered uniform on each day for the sake of it.
And finally remember that school uniform is still sold after September (although you might have to shop online to get the full range), so if you have under-bought and find it a problem, you will be able to order more.
Here are our recommended quantities (the first figure is based on a twice-weekly wash, the second is for those preferring once weekly):
* Sweaters/ cardis/ sweatshirts x 3 (5)
* Polo shirts/ shirts – 3 (4 or 5)
* Trousers/skirts – 3 (4)
* Socks –4 or 5 pairs
* PE Kit – 1 set including plimsolls (normally needed but check the uniform list)
* School shoes – 1 pair
* PE bag – not always required – check with school
* Regulation book bag – as above. If there isn't one you'll need to choose your own school bag
* A tie if your school has them for reception – if so go for the clip-on/ elasticated pre-tied ones
if possible. Buy two in case one gets lost/ gets lunch down it
* If the list specifies a regulation coat, hat, scarf and/ or gloves, lunch and art aprons, one of
each of these should be fine.
* Don't forget your name tapes and label everything (see below). A set of stickers with your child's name will be handy for any lunchboxes, water bottles, toys taken in for show-and-tell and the like.
Where to shop
Most schools mix 'generic' items with those which are school specific, such as sweatshirts with a logo on. Logo'd garments will normally need to be bought from a proper uniform shop and each school normally has links with one or two in the area, or at a specific online shop.
For generics such as trousers and skirts, save money by skipping the school official outfitters in favour of supermarkets or department stores. M&S and Next usually offer a good balance of reasonable prices and decent quality.
To cut costs, especially for logo items, find out if there's a second-hand uniform sale at school or ask any friends with children in the year above at the school if they have any old uniform to hand on. Even if you'd prefer to buy mostly new uniform, it's useful to have second-hand stuff as spares.
If your family income is low, you might be eligible for funding to pay for uniform. Contact www.citizensadvice.org.uk or your Local Education Authority for more information.
When to shop
Around a month before term starts is a good time to start buying. Whilst large stores do continue selling uniform all year, you might find stocks run low at the end of August. You'll have more choice if you start earlier but can still take things back and swap them for the next size up if your child has a growth spurt. (Keep labels on and receipts to hand just in case)
Do hold off purchasing shoes until mid August though as they are more likely to be outgrown. It's best not to leave it too late, as the shops get ridiculously long queues for fittings (and it's very much worth getting properly fitted school shoes as they will be worn every day), can run out of stock and also you ideally need to allow a few days for your child to wear shoes in at home before having them on all day.
Other uniform tips
Wherever possible pick clothing and shoes (velcro, not laces) which will be as easy to put on and take off as possible – reception teachers struggle to help all 30 in a class on PE day.
If you have colour options, darker shades rather than light will be better - stains will show up less.
Where your school offers a choice, eg. girls are allowed to wear trousers or skirts, but you're worried about your child being the odd one out, go past at picking-up time to see if most wear one or the other.
Check out new clothing technology - non-iron garments save on the laundry time and Teflon coatings are great for limiting stains.
Tights are notoriously tricky for little girls to get on and the bane of many a teacher's life on PE day – if you can avoid them, do.
If your child is a bit skinny, M&S and Next, among others, do trousers and skirts with adjustable waistbands.
Two-in-one coats are great for school – typically a waterproof layer over a fleece – you can use each layer separately in Autumn and Spring but together in Winter.
You won't need to buy pencils, crayons or a pencil case as schools normally provide these for reception children.
If you want to do things 'properly' by all means order traditional embroidered sew-in name tapes and get your needle and thread out, but there's really no need to go to all this trouble. Time-saving options include iron-on name tapes (although watch out as some fall off in the wash after a while), taggits - little button-like tags which clip the nametape in place, or the real cheat's option of writing their name on the garment label with a laundry pen or biro.
If you've got younger children who you might pass uniform items down to, stick with your surname only (unless it's Smith or the like) - this will do the job and mean no re-labelling in future.
THE VERY FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Grab the tissues - it's time for the big day!
A child's first day at school can be crammed with emotions and it's just as likely to be the parents in tears at the classroom door as the children.
If you've read the first in our starting school series, about what to do over the weeks leading up to September, you'll have laid the groundwork. If not, don't worry, there's still time.
A couple of days before
Create positive feelings. If you've bought a book about starting school, read it again with your child. Perhaps share some tales of fun things you did at primary school (obviously avoiding anything negative – they really do not need to hear about how scarily strict Mrs Smith was/ how diabolical the lunches were).
Remind them of things they liked if they went to settling in sessions ('ooh I think you'll be able to play with the puzzles/ bikes again'), or something the teacher mentioned during any home visit she made. But don't go over the top - helping them feel good about school is one thing, creating a utopian vision of endless fun and instant friendships might be setting them up for disappointment. Let them know that if they are worried about anything, they can talk to the teacher, or to you about it after school.
Pre-empt anxieties they have by mentioning how the basics work – food, loo, where you'll meet them at picking up time. It's fear of the unknown that will usually be underlying children getting upset on their first day.
Ensure you know where you're meant to be and when on day one. Mummy spending 10 minutes getting flustered about where to park or which school entrance to use will not create a relaxing mood. Unless the journey is very straightforward (or you have older children already there), do a 'practice run' beforehand and while you're at it, point out attractive features to your child – the lovely playground equipment or the field for running around on.
Get them into a routine that's compatible with school hours. They might need an earlier bedtime and waking up time. Move towards the new routine over a few days rather than starting it suddenly the day before.
Double-check you've got everything you need on the uniform list and that all items are labelled with nametapes or a laundry pen.
Have your child wear their new school shoes around the house for a few hours to wear them in.
If you won't be dashing into work on the first morning or looking after a younger child, plan a treat for yourself. It will take your mind off wondering how they're settling in or feeling a bit lost without them.
The night before
Get everything ready so you'll be less rushed in the morning – uniform set out, packed lunch made (unless of course they're having school dinners), and crucially get that alarm clock set! Turning up late on day one isn't the ideal first impression to give the teacher...
On the morning
Getting children from bedroom to classroom on time is a challenge typically involving parents barking "hurry up, we'll be late" about 100 times. Minimising distractions helps - perhaps no TV/ no playing before breakfast. Be clear with your child about what needs doing, when and how.
If they're a messy eater, keep them in their PJs and put uniform on after breakfast not before.
Don't overdo the pics. We all want that perfect first day photo but don't make them pose for hours trying to get it.
Keep your goodbye short but sweet, reminding them to have a good time and that you'll be back to pick them up later. Stringing it out for too long can end in tears which otherwise wouldn't happen.
If they're wobbling at the classroom door employ a (quick) ritual. In reception, my son liked me putting two kisses in each pocket which he could 'grab' if needed.
Avoid saying you'll miss them – it puts ideas in their heads that they'll miss you too.
If you're upset, try not to let them see. Children starting school can bring out all sorts of emotions in parents, from pride to concerns about their ability to cope without you and the classic "how did my baby get so big so fast?'. This is one occasion when putting on a brave face is a good move. A four-year-old will just be confused if you say you're crying because they're such a big boy/ girl now. If you feel teary, do your best to hold it in until they're out of sight, then disappear round the corner and grab the tissues.
If you aren't already working out of the home, and are a bit unsure about what to do now, focus on positives and plan new challenges. If a new job or career is on the cards take a look at www.workingmums.co.uk, www.familyfriendlyworking.com and www.womenlikeus.org.uk for inspiration and job opportunities.
If you've got the day to yourself, instead of disappearing back home to do that clearing out you've been putting off for the last five years, how about suggesting a coffee to the other parents? It'll take your mind off things and help you get to know each other.
Double check picking up arrangements if you're not 100% sure – mummy not turning up at on time on the first day could be quite traumatic for your child (and again, definitely won't impress the teacher!)
If despite all your best efforts, one or both of you end up in tears, don't worry. The other parents won't remember yours was the child (or indeed you were the mum) who cried and they/ you probably won't be the only one anyway. The teachers have seen it all before and should have experience of dealing with upset children. Most kids will settle quickly once you've gone but if you're worried ask if you can phone later to check they're okay (but don't call repeatedly).
Give them a snack as soon as they come out. Reception children are prone to hunger-fuelled strops after school – fend them off with a cereal bar, banana or whatever they can scoff on the walk home/ in the car.
Keep things low key and relaxing. Hold off on organising extra-curricular activities or 'playdates' initially – they might be exhausted from all the newness.
Come 3pm, you'll doubtless be desperate to know how things went. Chatterbox types might well regale you with every tiny detail but most will mutter "nothing", "dunno" or "can't remember" when asked what they did for the last six hours. Don't bombard them with questions – they'll probably clam up. For ways of making them talk, at least a little bit more, see below.
HOW TO FIND OUT WHAT YOUR CHILD GETS UP TO AT SCHOOL
Come early September, hundreds of thousands of four-year-olds will head into primary school for the first time and by 3pm, hundreds of thousands of their parents will be desperate to know how it all went. Were they the life and soul of the playground or did they even just talk to someone? Did they eat their lunch or sit there daunted by the dinner ladies? Most of all, were they happy?
When it comes to getting feedback, school is starkly different to nursery. Whilst nursery staff typically dole out key info at picking up time - from food consumed to activities enjoyed - schools don't. The idea now is 'no news is good news' – they'd call you if there was a serious problem but other than that, you'll have to wait until parents' evening (the first one is usually around half term) for any notable comments.
So, keen to know what goes on during their days away from you, the obvious path is to ask your child. But, other than a few chatterbox kids who retell every moment in painstaking detail (a challenge in itself), most youngsters will answer questions such as "what did you do today" with a variation of "I don't know", "can't remember" or "nuffink". Or in the case of my own son during his first weeks in reception, "I walked around". For six hours?
But never fear, we have ways of making them talk! Or at least talk a little bit more...
Don't launch your own 'what did you do at school' version of Junior Mastermind.
Too many questions can make children clam up. If they're not forthcoming after one or two goes, give up and try again later, maybe with a different angle (see below). Immediately after school isn't usually the best time to get them to spill the beans anyway. They'll often be tired and over-stimulated.
Make a game of it. Ask each other for your three favourite things about the day – no more than three and they have to be able to ask you too. Or take turns to guess aspects of each others' day – so they have to guess what you had for lunch/ whether you spoke to Grandma/ went to the shops, and you give them clues, and then vice versa.
Discuss your own day. Talking about what you got up to might make them mention what they did. Be careful not to highlight anything too exciting so they don't think they missed out when at school though.
Mention aspects of school you liked as a kid. Along the lines of "I remember my first day at school. I met a girl called Clare and we ran around the playground, did you talk to any other children?" or "my favourite part of the day was break time as we used to get a snack and milk – did you eat anything?"
Get info from the other parents and use it as a peg. This worked a treat in my son's class. Once I got to know a couple of the other parents, sometimes we'd mention an aspect of the day we'd heard about and then use it as a conversation opener with our own kids. School newsletters are good for this too.
When your child does talk, take some things with a pinch of salt. Children of this age might tell you versions of events which didn't actually happen – either intentionally (perhaps because they're scared you'll be annoyed or disappointed by the truth) or unintentionally because they've got mixed up. Proceed with caution if it's a story to do with anything remotely controversial, eg, they say another child hurt them, and find out more before piling in to the teacher or the other parents. If you can't find out what happened, tread carefully and ask open-ended questions, rather than making accusations.
Speaking to the teacher ...
Be mindful that, with up to 30 kids in the class, teachers won't have time to chat to every parent every day about how all the children were, even if they'd like to in an ideal world.
Try and leave minor issues a few days to see if they resolve themselves - they often do. If they don't, catch the teacher after school for an informal chat. This is usually better than the start of the day when they'll be trying to settle the children down and get going with activities or assembly.
But don't hesitate to talk to the teacher if you have serious concerns – perhaps bullying, a child who's persistently upset about going in in the morning, or important problems at home such as a bereavement or divorce. They will want to know and should always find time for this sort of thing. If it's a particularly sensitive or serious issue, or needs to be discussed out of earshot of other parents, phone the school office to make an appointment.
When I first caught sight of my son's reception classroom a year ago, I was struck by how much it looked like nursery not school, as well as by the freedom pupils had to choose what they wanted to do and the amount of playing they did.
Frankly at times it all looked a bit chaotic.
Indeed reception classrooms nowadays bear little resemblance to those most of us experienced as children in infant school.
Gone are rows of desks and chairs, carpet time is key and mysterious sounding jargon such as 'free flow' and 'child-initiated learning' abounds.
So what's going on with modern reception teaching? And if all work and no play leaves Jack a dull boy, does all play and no work (or seemingly little) leave him an ill-educated one?
A bit of background info
Since September 2008, all reception classes in England have had to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). This covers birth to age five in childcare settings such as nurseries and childminders too, so you might already be familiar with it. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar approaches – Scotland's is the early level of the Curriculum for Excellence, Wales and Northern Ireland have 'Foundation Phase' curriculums.
The main impact of all this is that your child's learning should be play-based and in England at least, that their progress will be tracked using the EYFS 'profile'.
How they'll learn
Your four-year-old won't be sat doing formal reading or writing all day or be at a desk facing a blackboard. Instead there will be opportunities to discover things through experimentation and activities such as sharing stories at carpet time, or through plain old-fashioned playing.
A good chunk of the day will be 'child-led' - they can choose to do what they're interested in, but some activities will be 'teacher-led' - sitting together as a class learning letter sounds or in small groups making something.
So it's all just like nursery then?
Well the style of learning shouldn't be dissimilar to nursery – this means reception is less of a shock to such young children and much research suggests active play-based learning is more effective for this age group. There might be a bit more group time on the carpet and small group 'work' than in nursery and the subject matter covered will differ.
What they'll learn
The learning through play lark doesn't however mean that your child won't be beginning to read and write, rather that it's all done in a relatively fun and relaxed way and children who aren't ready to get stuck in with the 3Rs aren't forced to do so.
Out goes the formal learning methods and in are songs about letter sounds, counting games and the like.
The EYFS curriculum has quite a broad focus and its six areas of learning very much encompasses non-academic characteristics such as "social development", "emotional development" and "creative development", as well as "writing", "reading" and "calculating".
In practice, most teachers place quite a lot of emphasis on the building blocks for reading, with 'phonics' playing a key part in this. This all starts with basic letter sounds and blending them together so a child can begin to read simple words and sentences. Basic numeracy is covered too – for example, counting up to 10 or 20 items and one more or less than - as is writing.
If your child can already read or count into the hundreds or thousands before they even start, bear in mind that the reception day is quite varied and reading and counting will form a relatively small part of this. Reception children have lots of fun with interest-grabbing projects, nature walks, painting and drawing – the list is endless and the scope for boredom should be tiny even for very bright children.
How will I know how they're doing?
Reception children are observed against 13 different learning areas. They certainly shouldn't be aware this is happening and there is no question of them being 'tested'.
For each of the 13 areas, there are nine levels of 'achievement'. Reception starters get what's called a baseline assessment early on using this scale of one to nine. (Do an internet search on 'EYFS and early learning goals' or see www.direct.gov.uk for more information.) They will then be assessed against these levels at the end of reception.
A score of three is said to be average at the start of reception and six is average at the end. The idea is that teachers and parents get a tangible way of seeing how a child has progressed and the details are passed to your child's year 1 teacher too after reception.
But surely all this play doesn't prepare them for moving into year 1?
It's a fair question to wonder whether this informal, child-led approach leaves kids able to cope with the later years at school. Will they suddenly be expected to sit down and get on with it in year 1 and will it all be a terrible shock?
Schools are largely very aware of this issue and most have a transition period where play-based learning continues for at least part of year 1. Increasing numbers of schools have actually made all of year 1 play-based too (and the Welsh curriculum uses this approach up to the age of seven).
If you're feeling cynical - and I confess that a year ago I was - remember that in most other European countries, a similar approach has been going on for years for four and five year-olds and indeed slightly older kids too with excellent results.
Now at the end of my son's reception year, I can say a lot of my misgivings have been overcome. Yes, such play-based learning has seemed a little intangible at times; if I ask my son "what did you do at school today" he quite often answers "I just played". But his first year has been a fun-packed, lovely introduction to school life. And he's learned more than I could ever have imagined, without a worksheet or spelling test in sight.
STARTING YOUR OWN SCHOOL FRIENDSHIPS
When children start school there are new friendships to be made, and not just between the kids.
According to one survey, mums typically acquire five new good friends through their children's school years.
But this can be easier said than done, certainly initially. Standing in the playground at dropping off and picking up time is similar to the early days of antenatal classes – there are probably lasting friendships to be made, but you won't know who with yet.
The daunting difference with school is that if things go wrong, you're stuck having to see each other every day for the next seven years.
Tips for the early days and weeks...
Smile, be friendly and make an effort, even if someone doesn't look like the type of person you'd normally hang out with.
If possible, attend school or class social events - coffee mornings or nights out for new parents. If there aren't any, maybe organise something, although you might want to consult with the PTA rep if there is one, so you don't tread on her toes.
Stick around at birthday parties your child is invited to (at the start of reception, it's usually still the done thing to stay rather than drop the kids off). In my son's class these were a real ice-breaker, especially for parents who didn't do the school run. We'd all hover at the back of whatever hall the party was in, cup of tea (or glass of wine if we were really lucky) in hand, having a natter (or trying to, above the din of 30 over-excited children running around).
Drop any stereotypes. You might be surprised that the mum from 'the other side of the tracks' is someone you really hit it off with, or the posh mum with the flash car and the mansion is actually really down to earth.
Take things slowly. Too much too soon can be disastrousif later on you find you don't get on quite as well as you initially thought. Hold off on making too many arrangements until you've got to know each other a bit better, or you could find extracting yourself from the friendship awkward. It's a bit like dating colleagues - proceed with caution, as you will still have to see them if the friendship doesn't work out.
What not to do...
Don't boast about your child. In an ideal world we'd be able to discuss our children's achievements without someone getting all judgemental and thinking we're showing off. But it's not an ideal world and all too often this can be perceived as gloating. If you're bursting with pride and need to tell someone that your clever little person has moved up a reading level or won a special award, hold off and share it with your partner/ the grandparents later on.
Avoid getting competitive – see above. Try and rise above any discussions of reading levels/ who is on the top ability tables or the like. If you need to gauge where your child stands and how they're doing, you'll get a far more accurate view from the teacher. Other parents might not even be telling the truth about where their child is at anyway! Don't, whatever you do, resort to snooping in the book bags of visiting children (yes really - it does happen!) If you get outed, because little Joshua or Chloe spots you and tells mummy, word will spread that you are uber-competitive – a one-way ticket to unpopularity.
Don't be too controversial. As with any new social situation, it's probably best to hold back with contentious opinions about politics, religion and the like, at least until you get to know people better. Be guarded too about any concerns you have about the school/ opinions on a particular child or family – if others don't share your views this sort of thing can be divisive.
Be careful of doing business at the classroom door...
School can be a good place for gentle networking but too much pushing your own business can make other parents uncomfortable, as Karen Harper (not her real name) found out: "There's one mum who constantly invites us all to her party plan events. It was nice enough the first time but it gets annoying being asked so often if we want to host a party or buy more Tupperware or jewellery or whatever she's flogging this time. I have to say most of us try and avoid her now if she heads over."
If you work full time...
Clearly lots of parents don't do the school run themselves, and if your child is picked up by a childminder, nanny or grandma, you can feel quite isolated from the rest of the parents who might chat most days at the school gate.
If this is the case, make an extra effort to attend kids' parties and any evening events in the first term or two to get to know people. It might take a bit longer but you'll get there and there are bound to be other working parents in the same situation.
If things get cliquey...
A certain amount of cliqueness in any large group is, let's face it, human nature. Try not to take it personally if two or three of the mums get close and you aren't invited when they get together. If you feel unfairly excluded, you have a choice: rise above it and focus on other friendships, or find a way to break into the clique if you think it's worth it. (It rarely is!)
What about the dads?
Stay-at-home dads are ever more commonplace, but some mums do still find it intimidating to make friends with them – especially amid worries that their partners or the other parents will think they're hitting on said dad! Spare a thought for the poor bloke in this situation and give it a go. If you feel awkward about it initially, why not stick with somewhere neutral the first time you meet up, such as a trip to the park with the kids or going out of your way to encourage him along to a night out a group of you are having.
And if you're a dad, why not organise a night out for the dads from the class down the pub?
Be yourself and relax. Seven years is a long time to keep up a pretence. If someone wants to judge you for who you are, or something like your school run outfits, do you really want to be best mates with them anyway?
Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting journalist and author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.
STARTING SECONDARY SCHOOL
by Glynis Kozma
10 tips for a successful move up to big school
You've just relaxed into No School Run mode, when you suddenly realise it's time to shop for uniforms, trainers and name tapes. Yes, it's off to Big School for thousands of children.
School holidays can be a heady mix of excitement and anxiety for children who are about to start secondary school. Most children will have visited their new school during year 6, but may still feel unsure about what to expect.
Professor Julian Elliott, an educational psychologist at Durham University says, "For many children, secondary school represents a step towards autonomy and the whole process of growing up and leaving childhood behind. This can be overwhelming for some children."
For some children, leaving behind the security and familiarity of a small village school, and having to cope with getting up earlier, catching a bus, remembering to pack which books, finding their way round the maze of corridors, and making new friends can be daunting.
I can still clearly remember my first day, trussed up in my room-for-growth uniform, including Brigit Jones style big green knickers.
Elliott agrees that parents should, "Ask their child if they have any concerns about their new school." But adds, "Try not to convey negativity by voicing your own sometimes unnecessary concerns."
1. The school run
Have a trial run if it's a new route and they are walking or cycling. If your child is travelling by bus talk about safety and what to do if the bus doesn't turn up. I have forgotten just how many times my children used to call me asking for a lift because the bus did not arrive. If you can't drop everything, think about alternatives or friends who can help out.
2. Get up earlier
Everyone loves lazy holidays and getting everyone up early on a school day is always a shock to the system. A few earlier nights and getting up earlier before the first day can make it easier.
3. Bag packing
Some school don't have lockers, so your child could be lugging books and kit to school every day. Get them into the habit of packing their bag the night before. Believe me, there is no worse way to start the day than hunting for that missing maths book two minutes before the bus leaves. Having their time table in the kitchen as well as their bedrooms is useful, so you can bark out " PE kit !" as they dash out the door.
4. Name everything
This might be your job or theirs - but label everything: clothes, equipment, books. Without a name it will rot in lost property and you'll spend a fortune replacing it.
5. Buy two of everything (if you can)
Nothing drives teachers insane quicker than pupils not having the right equipment. Constantly borrowing rulers, rubbers and pencils is a huge distraction. Whatever your child uses, be assured they will disappear in the Black Hole of Lost Equipment by half term; so buy double.
6. Mobile phones
Check the school rules: some schools allow, others don't. Many schools discourage them, as they don't want the hassle when they are lost or stolen. If your child cannot take their phone to school, talk to them about how they will contact you if they need to - such as when they miss the bus!
7. What's worrying you?
Ask if anything is worrying them about their new school. It could be something such as what to do if they get lost - find someone and ask; do not lurk in the toilets until the next lesson – or for girls, what will they do if their periods start. It's a good idea to pop some pads and a pair of knickers into a small make-up bag which they can keep in their bags.
Talk through possible scenarios, whether it's missing the bus, losing their lunch money, forgetting a book, feeling ill. Who should they tell and what should they do ?
You do this already but make it clear that your child's new friends are welcome at home, or on trips out, and positively encourage it. If they are finding it hard to make new friends, then inviting established friends and a new friend together can make it easier for them.
9. Establish a routine
What's that? If your child was used to doing their homework somewhere before tea and bedtime, they may need more structure now they have more homework – two hours a night is not uncommon. One mum I spoke to described how all of her three children did homework at a set time every day, when the television was switched off. That's one way, but if this isn't your way, you might want a "homework before dinner" routine, or whatever works in your house.
10. You're great!
Psychologists say that five positive comments for every one negative comment is the right balance. So you are allowed to nag about the lost books or the sloppy homework as long as you heap the praise on at the same time. Paying your child a compliment, even something as simple as they look great in their new uniform, on a regular basis does increase their self esteem. And kids with high self esteem are happy kids and happy kids tend to be successful.