School was out for summer
Relief, anxiety go hand in hand as kidsgo hand in hand to their new schools
By Marilyn Rodrigues
Back to school: Three little words that can inspire a sigh of relief from some parents but much anxiety for others, especially if their child is starting Kindergarten or Year 7 this year.
"One of the most stressful times for parents is when their child starts at a new school," says Sister of Mercy, Sr Jenny Ryan, the principal of St Joseph's primary school at Enfield.
Getting the uniform, school bag, books, lunchbox and pencil case organised is a challenge enough, but having a child enter 'big school' for the first time can be a bigger cause of anxiety.
Margaret Williams, principal of the Bethlehem College, Ashfield, (a Year 7-12 school) knows that parents can be just as anxious sending their children off to Year 7 as to kindy.
Every school does its best to make the transition as smooth as possible; Sr Jenny works to a simple Kindergarten orientation formula - a relaxed parent plus a sense of security for the children equals a better learning environment.
On the kindy's first day (a day after the rest of the school goes back) the school hall is open all day for their parents to socialise.
Refreshments are provided and Sr Jenny visits with brief reports on the children's progress until 2pm when they can go and collect them.
"I don't let the parents come into the classrooms before then," says Sr Jenny.
"My belief is that if the parents are stressed then the child will be stressed.
"So my priority is to make the parents comfortable as well as make sure the children feel secure from the beginning.
"The more secure they are the happier they are and the better they learn."
St Joseph's orientation process takes more than half a year.
Sr Jenny invites parents and grandparents to bring the children to visit their future school as much as possible from the time of their enrolment (around May) until the end of the year before they start.
"No matter who's in my office, I get them to come in and say 'hello' and get a sticker," she says.
"That way they become familiar with the school surroundings and the office staff and get to know at least one person well.
"When they come on the first day the kids know where the toilets are, the library, classroom and the office block because they've been all around with mum and dad."
The parent's orientation is in two parts; first there is an informal dinner together at the school.
Then there is a formal orientation over one or more mornings, at which each child's needs is taken into account.
A parent and teacher night is held in the first week of term as well.
The kindy kids are physically separate from the rest of the school for about six weeks.
They have their own small playground where they can mix happily together before being gradually introduced to the rough and tumble of the "big kids" playground.
Once they do integrate, the student representative council is given the task of keeping an eye out for them during playtime.
In the interests of making them comfortable, the littlies are encouraged to sit in class with any friends they already have from preschool or elsewhere - at first, anyway.
But it isn't all fun and games.
Homework is set from day one, usually in the form of a reading or writing activity or colouring-in with numbers.
Margaret Williams' advice to parents of new Year 7s is this: Be as involved with the school as you can and keep the lines of communication with your child and the school open.
Bethlehem College runs an orientation morning for Year 6s in November when its future students have fun activities and the parents an information session.
Each student is assigned a "big sister" from Year 12 and receives a Christmas card and introduction from them during the holidays.
On the Friday of the first week, the Year 7s enjoy a barbecue lunch with their "big sisters" and play games.
"The 'big sister' is someone they can go to if they want advice, someone to watch out for them on the playground, someone to say 'hello' to," says Margaret.
"Often when the Year 12s leave at the end of the year, their little sisters come in with a posy of flowers, or a farewell card to wish them well.
"In the second week of first term, Year 7s have a whole day away where they get to know each other and their teachers better and talk about their hopes and dreams for the future.
"We tell them a bit about what it means to be a student at Bethlehem College, our origins and traditions, and we end the day with a liturgy.
"It helps when the parents show a keen interest in their child's first day and, if at any time they have any concerns at all with how their child is settling in, to get in touch with us.
"We need to keep the lines of communication open all the time."
There are lots of areas for parents to be involved with schools, says Margaret.
"At Bethlehem College we ask parents to get involved with things like book covering, with helping supervise senior students' exams, for example."
Still, with all the help in the world, moving into a much bigger fishpond can be difficult.
"Many Year 7s come from a Year 6 class of 20-30 students into a place where their entire primary school is the same size as their new year group," says Margaret.
"It can be confusing for them; it can be nerve-racking. We are very conscious of that, so we try to make it as fun, warm and welcoming as we can."