Off to school

Making the transition from daycare, preschool, or the home environment to school doesn't need to be stressful, explains deputy principal Deborah Barclay.

The transition from preschool to primary school are some of the most significant steps your child will take in their young years. As your little one's fifth birthday draws near, it is natural to start feeling that a big change is coming. The school setting is a lot more structured and formal than kindergarten and preschool, and for this reason it can be a little daunting for newcomers. For some children, it can be an overwhelming experience and can take time to adjust to, as with any major change in life. Other children skip into school, so excited to be there at long last!
     It can be a good idea to start looking at schools at least six months prior to your child's start date. This gives you plenty of time to shop around for the school that will best suit your child. The zoning in your area or the number of schools close to where you live may impact your decision-making. There are also practical issues to consider, such as transport to and from school or safe walkways to school.
     If you do have a choice of schools, be sure to do your research. Choosing a school is an important decision and you want a school that will suit your child. Start by giving the school a phone call and ask if you can come in to pick up an enrolment pack. This will give you both general and specific information about the school, such as the roll number, the decile number, school uniform requirements, school donations, stationery requirements etc.
     If possible, ask for an appointment to be shown around by the head of the junior school. This person will give you more in-depth information about the school, such as the structure of the classrooms ie; numbers/year groups, available resources, and any special programmes they have running, sports groups etc. As an added bonus, you will get to have a good look at the school environment, meet some of the teachers, and see inside the new entrant classrooms. It also gives you an opportunity to ask any questions that may be specific to your child or the school itself. Some schools also have information mornings or evenings for new parents, and information about these would be found on the school website.
     Each term, as deputy principal I tour many parents around our school, and I always see it as a wonderful opportunity to promote the special character of our school, the programmes we offer, and the strengths of our school. Many parents tell me that they get a "feel" for a school when they enter it. Ultimately, you want to be greeted by friendly staff who enjoy their job, and you want to feel welcome. Like all workplaces, schools have a special culture, and often this is evident from the time you walk through the front gate.
     If you visit the Education Review Office website (, you can view any school's most recent ERO report. ERO review schools and early childhood education services, and publish national reports on current education practice.
     The ERO website also provides you with a section on "Key Questions to Ask A School", which is really helpful for parents new to starting children at school.
     Most schools appreciate a completed enrolment form at least two to three months prior to your child starting school. This information can be very helpful to the school, as it enables them to make well-informed decisions about class numbers and staffing.
     Typically, a preschooler will have three school visits prior to starting school. This is an opportunity for them to meet their teacher, to find out where the toilet is, to see where to hang their bag and jacket, and to familiarise themselves with the students in the class and, of course, the classroom environment itself.
     It can also be a good idea to visit the school in the weekends to familiarise your child with the school playground and to ensure that they are confident on the equipment. You can point out their classroom and remind them that they are going to have such a great time at school.
     From the moment they step into the classroom, your child begins their wonderful journey of formal learning. The new-entrant classroom is a rich earning environment. It is laden with new vocabulary, colourful visuals, interactive and fun activities, and usually a kind and patient teacher. It is the perfect place for a little person to learn, grow, and explore!
     The development of a child in their first year at school is very exciting from a teacher's perspective. They encounter so many new experiences and make such quick gains socially and academically. It has always been my favourite year group to teach for this very reason.
     To be confident that your child will cope with the demands of their new earning environment some skills that can be helpful for them to have on board before starting school are:

  • Knowledge of alphabet letter names
  • Ability to write their name
  • Ability to recognise their name in written form
  • Ability to correctly hold and use a writing tool such as a pencil
  • Ability to use a pair of scissors
  • Knowledge of basic colours and shapes.

     These are not essential, but will certainly get your child off to a great start. Remember that children all start school with different levels of skills and abilities, and they develop at their own pace. It is important not to compare them with any other children as they are on their own special pathway of learning.
     One of the key aspects that concerns parents when their child begins school is their ability to adjust socially. I recently did a survey at my own school with parents of new entrant students and it was clearly evident that according to parents, the success of school life was dependent on their child's ability to:

  • Engage with their peers positively
  • Take turns
  • Share
  • Be accepted as part of a social group.

     Teachers also place this high on their list of priorities for children, as it often determines a child's initial success at school. Children who are friendly and confident, cooperate with other children, and cope well with transitions usually fit into a classroom with ease and have an easier time making friends.
     The ability to socialise well at a young age is often dependent on a child's prior experience with peers their own age, whether they have brothers and/or sisters, whether they have attended preschool, and the role their extended family has played in their lives.
     Most teachers will tell you that all children adjust and settle in after a short period of time. Often (although this can be hard for parents to hear!) they settle a lot more quickly once their parent has left the classroom. Many tears have dried up even before Mum or Dad leave the school grounds.
     Once they are familiar with their teacher, the routines of the classroom, and know the rules and boundaries of the classroom, they quickly settle into school life. Teachers are experienced at supporting students in all situations, and if there are any issues, you can work together to put strategies in place to ensure your child is happy and settled.
     Junior classrooms are structured and have a set routine, and most children respond really well to both of these. They enjoy the security of knowing what is happening each day. For any special events, such as assemblies or excursions out of the school, teachers will give you and your child plenty of notice.
     Be sure to pack easy-to-open foods in their lunchboxes, and send along plenty of fluids. Young children often forget to drink and most teachers need to remind children to keep up their fluids throughout the day, especially in the summer months.
     Managing their new lunchbox could be a challenge! It is a good idea to have either separate areas in their lunchbox, or separate containers identifying food for morning tea and food for lunch. It is not unusual for new students to eat all of their food at morning tea and have nothing left for lunch! Label all of their property - drink bottle, hats, shoes, and jumpers - as this will ensure their safe return if they go missing.
     Check to see what the school's policy on sunhats is. Most schools have a "no hat, no play" policy in place to protect children from the sun.
     Until your child can tie their shoelaces, it is not a good idea to send them along in shoes that require laces being tied - often it causes an unnecessary stress.
     Be prepared in the first few weeks for a range of emotions to surface. Five-year-olds find the first term at school exhausting, and they can become really tired by the end of the day. They are dealing with separation from their parent(s), new adults, new friendships, possible conflict with their friends, and they are also expected to take on board a lot of new learning in literacy and numeracy. A school day is very busy and full-on.
     When I was a new-entrant teacher, I always suggested to parents that they pick their child up just after lunch or early in the afternoon, just for their first week or two. Easing children into school slowly can certainly help.
     Many schools now have a "before- and after-school care programme" on-site, which opens at 7am and serves breakfast, and is open after school until 6pm. Although this might not be a consideration now, in time, when they are a few years older and you want care outside-of-school hours, it can be a saviour - especially for working parents.
     It is quite common for schools to have six-weekly interviews for new-entrant students. This is an opportunity for you to sit down with the teacher, uninterrupted, and discuss how the first six weeks have gone. The teacher will give you a clear idea on how your child has settled and how they are coping socially. It is also a time to discuss their learning and what they are working toward achieving.
     Finally, and most importantly, enjoy this journey with your child! In 15 years of teaching, I have never met a child who does not enjoy school. School is a fun, caring, and rich learning environment. As with anything in life, it has its ups and downs, but with the support of  their teacher and yourself, your child will do well. You will be delighted and amazed at the incredible gains they make each day as you watch them become lifelong learners.



Deborah Barclay is a Deputy Principal at a North Shore school in Auckland. She has been teaching for 15 years. Deborah has a Master of Education and a Bachelor of Education, and facilitates workshops in the North Shore on "Transitioning Children to School".


Further reading
There is a fantastic series of eight books called the "Feelings Series". They are written and illustrated by Trace Moroney. We use these at school often, and they would be great books to have at home to read to children as they experience new situations and emotions at school. The books cover eight feelings: "When I'm feeling… Loved, Jealous, Kind, Lonely, Sad, Angry, Scared, and Happy." At the back of the book there is a page called "Background Notes for Parents". I highly recommend these books for young children.


Under 5

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