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Day 1 in Class 1

In many countries, a new academic year is beginning and millions of children are going to school for the first time.  Jane Tingle reflects on the challenges that they – and their parents and teachers – will face.

This week will see a frenzy of lunchbox-buying and label-writing as a new cohort of children get ready to start primary school. As a parent it’s a strange time; you feel pride at seeing your child toddle off in their oversize uniform, trailing their bag behind them. But they also suddenly seem very small and vulnerable and you can’t help but worry about how they’re coping when the classroom doors swing shut behind them. You also realise that, although you want them to learn to read and write, to add up and multiply, most of all you just want them to make friends and be happy.

Starting school can be a difficult time for some children. It’s easy to assume that only children from ‘difficult’ backgrounds or with Special Needs or language barriers will struggle but in truth such a momentous change can affect all children. Some are away from parents or carers for the first time, others struggle with new rules and routines and even those used to a nursery environment find it hard to cope with the longer hours and decrease in free play. Add to all that the expectation to actually sit still, listen and learn something and it can make for an overwhelming first term or two.

My own son had no qualms about starting school but he was also the youngest in his year and found it hard to settle down, concentrate and get along with his classmates. Many of his peers, especially boys, were the same; aged just four or barely five years old, they were still struggling with social and communication skills and they fought, teased and fell out endlessly during their attempts to play. For much of the Reception year the playground was a tense place. In the mornings there would be children clinging to their mum’s legs and crying and in the afternoon an exodus of tired and guilty little faces, told off yet again for not listening or for pushing their friends. I salute any teacher trying to teach a class of thirty tiny children, all with different needs and circumstances, all trying to work out how to behave and learn.    

I heard about Zippy’s Friends through my work and was struck by how helpful it would have been in my son’s classroom. I’d spent years at playgroups and parties, telling him how to share, how to listen and how to be kind but the new school environment seemed to engulf him – and many others too. Zippy’s Friends, with its structured weekly sessions focusing on coping, communication and social skills, would have given them all the time to think about and talk through how they felt about school and their new relationships – as well as any other issues in their lives. It would have given them the skills to discuss with each other what they did and didn’t like and so reduce the fighting and tears. It would have encouraged the shy, quieter children, still a bit scared of the whole school experience, to talk a little about how they were feeling – and the livelier children to stop for a moment and listen to others. And these would be skills they could carry with them throughout their time at school, when the pressures of exams or relationships or social media became intense.

Although my son’s primary school didn’t use Zippy’s Friends, he was fortunate to have supportive and resourceful teachers who took time to help him and his classmates to settle down and consider others. He’s happy and settled now, with lots of friends; I think he might even be learning something! But I know of other children who were not so lucky and who found the first few terms, or even years, of school stressful and upsetting and for them, a programme such as Zippy’s Friends could have proved invaluable. We can only hope that just as schools prioritise healthy eating and exercise for physical health, they will also take the time to consider mental health, through schemes such as Zippy’s Friends, to make the transition to school life just that little bit easier.

Jane Tingle
2 September 2014