“Back to school time” is just days away and parents are busy organising uniforms, books and lunchboxes. Soon, children will be getting used to getting up earlier as the start of the new school year beckons.
For some it will be their first day in a new environment going from being the big children in pre-school or primary to being the juniors again in national or secondary.
The transition can be smooth and effortless for some who are looking forward to the experience and greet challenges with enthusiasm. Others may find it more difficult leaving behind familiar places and faces and entering a new world, usually a bigger school with new teachers, students, subjects, an increased workload and a longer day.
The newly structured day is a challenge even if children have been to pre- school, says Eileen Kelly, a psychologist and the director of the Diocesan Pastoral Centre in Newtownsmith.
“Classrooms are generally more disciplined and busier than anything they will have encountered to date. Some children can take this in their stride but for many this can be daunting. In addition, there are new teachers, that is, new authority figures, to contend with. They have to learn the ‘geography’ of the school, getting to know their way around. Then there is the wider social circle; we as parents also have the challenge of getting to know their friends and friends’ parents. Their ‘work day’ is longer and more demanding also.”
On a different level starting secondary school holds many of the same challenges and additionally, the young adolescent has to deal with an array of new teachers and subjects.
“The school is usually further away from home so the day is longer, more subjects; especially ones with which we, as parents, are not familiar. This can be perceived as undermining our authority/our status as ‘all-knowing’. Perhaps for the first time we will not be able to contribute to helping with the homework. In addition, there are more teachers to contend with…getting to know their individual `modus operandi`..”
The children’s social circle is widening, also. Parents may no longer know their friends as they meet new people.
“Remember the transition from primary to secondary school is a mirror image of the changes which are happening in children’s personal lives. The moving further from the home base, the new social circle, new academic subjects, all these reflect the myriad life changes. “This is also a time of change socially, physiologically and physically. Sometimes we treat them as children and simultaneously we expect them to behave as adults. We give them more responsibilities but we need to be aware that we are still responsible for their wellbeing and have the final say. Acknowledging our own confusion and challenges can help.
Gradually let go
“For the next few years they will fluctuate from child to adult and back again. Our job as parents is to support them as they negotiate their way through the challenges of the adult world and be able to gradually let go.”
She advises parents to talk to their children about what to expect at their new school. “But do this in a way that they know that you trust them to master it, both the school work as well as the social world.
“Encourage them to be aware, to take notice of their surroundings by asking questions about their rooms, about points of interest and so on. Encourage friendships and make an effort to get to know their friends; make your home available for visits. This is especially important during the early teen years when they need friends and their own space but also supervision.”
Talking about some of your own experiences and how you coped may help. She recommends staying positive and focusing on the areas which are going well for them. It is important to listen for the anxieties, also.
“Don’t pass on your own fears. If you have concerns go and talk to someone who knows, someone who can help; not another parent. Encourage responsibility, appropriate for their age. Areas such as homework, getting up in the morning, care of books, lunches and so on all need to be negotiated bearing in mind that these are all ultimately the child’s tasks.”
Ms Kelly advises parents to keep children involved in family life, especially during the teen years. “At this time peers become increasingly important, however, their connection with family is vital. Engage them in the social life of the family by having family meals, even once a week where people have time to meet, share and be heard. Continue also to keep them involved in the household chores as this can be an opportunity to chat casually and maintain support and influence. Showing them how to do the chores not only teaches them new skills but also instills a sense of competency and responsibility which, in turn, enhances their self-esteem and will serve them well in the future.”
She describes the role of parents of schoolgoing children as one of listening, encouraging, helping them take responsibility and supporting them through difficulties so they eventually become well-adjusted, productive and happy adults.
“Parents are the first and most important teachers of children, regardless of other influences, such as television, the internet or peers. We teach mostly by our actions; we are role-models for our children and research tells us that the most powerful way to teach any skill is to model it. Therefore awareness of our own behaviour is central to how effectively we parent. Parents guide, teach and impart values thus teaching a sense of right and wrong as well as instilling a sense of self in our children.
“It is our privilege and responsibility to pass on our values to the next generation. When we have departed this world the values we held dear will survive. However, all privileges bring responsibilities and that’s where the challenge of parenting becomes a reality. The current reality is of the nuclear family where there is less support from the extended family and less community support, in other words, the natural supports of the past, extended family and the close-knit community no longer exist. What’s more, the availability of information and misinformation through internet and television means that our values and belief are being challenged earlier and earlier in the life of parents. Consequently, our job is all the more challenging.”
* The Diocesan Pastoral Centre runs parenting classes twice a year. To book a place telephone (091 ) 565066 or visit the website pastoralcentre.ie