The move from kindergarten, nursery or foundation to primary can be a tricky one. Along with the excitement and pride in finally becoming a ‘big-one’ there can also be worries and niggling anxieties, for both children and parents!
Making this transition tougher still, is that children of this age often find it difficult to articulate their thoughts and feelings.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to Dr Shola Faniran General Paediatrician and Developmental Paediatrician at The Children's Medical Centre, Dubai and Dr Fareeha Amber Sadiq (Dr Amber) Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Camali Clinic Dubai- to discover what we as parents should be looking out for in children of this age and how we can help those we see having a tough-time-transitioning.
What issues are parents likely to witness as their children move from Kindergarten to BIG school?
Dr Shola: Moving to BIG school is both an exciting time and a daunting process for both parents and children. For parents, it is a new phase in the life of your child, which should be celebrated. The children are now becoming more independent and ready ‘to take on the world’. However, it is hard for parents, in particular those whose children did not attend preschool and have been home with the parent. There is anxiety on allowing another person to make decisions on the well being of your child. "Will they know when he/she is hungry, cold, sad, scared, etc and give them the appropriate attention?" "Will he/she make friends?" "Will the other children like him/her?" Many parents would like to be a fly on the wall of the classroom to observe how their little one is settling in.
On the child’s part, it is a different set of issues they may have to deal with. Many children are excited about the prospect of going to BIG school. However, as the day draws near, some anxiety may begin to surface. It is a whole new process afterall that has never been experienced. Some children may become quiet and not want to talk about BIG school, while others will keep asking questions on how the day/class/children will be. Some children may become more sensitive and teary and some may have increasing nightmares.
All need reassurance.
Dr Amber: Anxiety or the wobbles can be very normal at this age. All children can worry and anxiety is a normal part of a child’s emotional and behavioural development. Even confident children can have some insecurities or anxieties about friendships, starting in new groups, school and family matters. Younger children can be observant to changes in family dynamics and circumstances. Children can also become be scared of the dark, monsters, clowns or going to the doctors and having injections.
Children moving into big school from kindergarten will be adjusting to a change in structure, expectations and perhaps even a different school environment. Most children manage this transition well and kindergarten can provide a positive foundation for ongoing success at big school.
Children at this tender age are learning to develop their social skills and are learning to manage self-control. This will come with time, and these youngsters need support from the adults around them to help them develop these skills. The increase in demands for example of speaking more in circle time, reading out loud and making friendships can lead to worry and children require scaffolding, and a “you can do it!” attitude with recognition that not all young people develop at the same pace. Some children are faster at developing in different areas including their social, emotional and physical skills, and others require patience and can take a little longer.
How can parents identify any issues in children this age?
Dr Amber: There can be different changes which a parent or carer might notice. These include:
Fear: This can include the dark, monsters in the closet, even butterflies or the doggy next door! These fears can arise from an incident or from a vivid imagination, and as children at this age can be suggestible they might even pick up a fear from their classmates, siblings or parents.
Aches and Pains – A child might complain of headaches or pains in their stomach. This might represent an underlying fear or anxiety. Children sometimes do not have the emotional vocabulary and words to say “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” and might be expressing that they are not coping well or are stressed.
Separation Anxiety - Separation anxiety commonly affects infants and toddlers but this can also resurface with children experiencing a transition like starting big school or a nanny leaving! It is essentially an intense fear of being separated from a loved one. As a child is developing independence this can elicit mixed feelings and emotions. Separation anxieties can be seen throughout the ages, and can also affect older children.
Behavioral changes - There may be changes in the child’s sleeping, eating or toileting habits. The child may become withdrawn or shy. Shyness can be common in this age group, and many children will become more confident over time. Some children may also resist going to school and this might be linked to difficulties settling in or separation anxiety or problems with relationships.
How do you recommend parents discuss/deal with the above issues with their child?
Dr Shola: The big key to successful transition into BIG school is preparation. This takes different forms and include (but is not limited) to the following:
Social stories: read books with the child that the main focus is a child their age going to big school. These stories will touch on some aspects of what some children may be worried about when they first go to big school, for example, where the toilet is, what the teacher will be like, missing your mummy and daddy. Some of the issues discussed may not necessarily apply to your child, but use this as an opportunity to discuss with your child what else they think other children may be worried about and discuss ways of dealing with issues they bring up. If you cannot find books, make up stories. Talk about when an older sibling, aunt, uncle, yourself, a neighbor dealt with issues when they first started school
Try and go to open day before school starts to meet other children and organise play date so your child will know someone on that first day.
Visit the school before hand and meet the teacher and visit the classroom. If this is not possible, drive with your child around the school and point out different areas.
Help your child to be as independent as possible and practice at home: using the toilet independently, dressing and undressing (practice with school uniform and sports uniform), opening and packing their lunch bag etc.
Discuss with your child acceptable behavior, child protection issues (appropriate touching, who they can or cannot go with) and try and build the experience as positively as you can.
And remember: Do not pass your own anxieties to your child!
Dr Amber: Talk to your child - Parents can start by being patient, calm and offering their child cuddles, support and positive reassurance. It can help to acknowledge that anxiety at this age can be a normal part of life. Alleviating any fears by preparing a child properly and explaining that parents will be there to support their child through any changes.
Be clear and specific. Explain why the dog barks so loudly and gets so close. If your child thinks there is a monster in the cupboard, tell them “there are clothes in the cupbard’ “we can look in there together!”
Problem solve and be creative - For children nervous about joining a new event. If you are dropping your child off at their first sports group or ballet class, you can tell them that you will be there to see them after they finish. By talking to your child, and getting them to express themselves through art and play, parents can learn more about what might be troubling their child. Be there to help problem solve with your child.
In my practice, I find that it can be extremely helpful to externalise fears with younger children. This can be a really creative way to get rid of worries and wobbles like being scared of monsters or the dark. I have used worry boxes, magic wands and traps with parents to help children feel safer, and allows worries to be put safely away! Acknowledge fears and reward children for being brave and managing their worries. Sometimes children learn that they might get repeated attention for having fears. It is best to acknowledge, support and provide rewards for the child managing their emotions!
Establish routines and consistency. Reward bravery! For bedtime worries, establish routines and stick to these. When it is dark, children can sometimes become scared of the monster lurking under the bed! A child’s imaginations can run wild! Reassure your child and be creative. Scare away any monsters and use nightlights to help your child orient themselves during the night. Help your child to go to sleep calm and promote independence.
Promote relaxation! Relaxation techniques can be very helpful with this age group. Mindfulness is practiced by many teenagers and adults. It can also be used with younger children. A lovely book I would recommend is Sitting Still Like A Frog which introduces the basics of simple mindfulness practices to help children 5-12 year olds deal with anxiety, improve their concentration and focus, and learn to handle different emotions. Help the child relax when they are not actively learning by listening to music and reading.
Promote activity! Get children moving with activities like playing soccer, swimming and trampolining. By giving children these different activities and opportunities, this helps promote interpersonal skills, self-confidence and positive coping strategies for when they are experiencing nerves or wobbles.