Starting school: practical tips for surviving stress and growing your child’s resilience

As I sit down to prepare a talk on supporting children in primary school for parents of new kindy students at my niece’s school, I can’t help but think back to my school days.

I went to primary school during the late 80’s and early 90’s in a country town in South Australia. When I think about that time, I remember playing netball, a lot of laughter with friends, and the constant tit-for-tat that comes from growing up in a big family with 6 siblings and their friends. No electronics or social media, it all seemed so much simpler.

Today the demands on children seem so much greater, especially since my work is based currently in such a fast paced and competitive city as Sydney.

I’ve been struck by the fact that children here talk about pressure and fears that only started to concern me at a much older age. There is a huge achievement focus – children tell me that they feel pressure to be talented, achieve lots and have an impressive job in the future, and even at this young age, they will voice concerns around their future financial stability.

My sense is that supporting your child at the earliest stage possible, so that they develop healthy expectations of themselves and a resilient approach to life, has never been more important than it is now.

Here are my top tips for parents:

  1. Think twice before pulling your child out of uncomfortable situations. Primary school is filled with new experiences, some of which your child will like and some of which they will hate. I often meet parents who see their child uncomfortable, and react by jumping in, for example pulling the child out of activities or requesting the child be in a class with their best friend. However, in order for your child to become resilient, he or she needs to learn to face stress, and cope positively, with it. By jumping-in and removing stressors, you give your child fewer opportunities to grow their resilience ‘muscle’.
  2. Break big fears down into steps & practice. Whilst the aim is to build resilience, as a parent, you tread a fine line between encouraging your child to face stressful situations and knowing when a situation is too much for the child. it’s important not to push your child into situations they find too difficult to manage. Instead, help your child face their fear by breaking the problem down into small steps using the approach of building stepladders.
  3. Your child learns through you. A lot of parents underestimate how adept children are at picking up on their parent’s fears and anxieties. If your child senses you are really nervous and uncomfortable at school drop-off, or they hear you express doubts about how well they will go with new activities, it is highly probable they will start to feel uncertain and anxious too.
  4. Talk. Your child needs to feel that they can express their thoughts, feelings and opinions to you without judgement. Ask yourself the question: ‘What is the attitude in our home towards talking about feelings?’ Children won’t explain their feelings about school to you if they never hear you talk about feelings. Be mindful that shifting this pattern could take time. Developing rituals such as a daily gratitude practice at the dinner table can be a good way to get this process started.
  5. Check-in. When children get home from school, they are often just too tired or exhausted to talk about their day. Don’t pressure your child or force the issue, but try and introduce a regular daily check-in with your child. When they talk to you about things, try not to jump in, interrupt, or be dismissive (i.e., saying things like ‘don’t worry about it’). Use validating statements like ‘I understand’, ‘that sounds interesting’ and ‘that sounds tough’.
  6. Help your child to problem solve. When your child tells you about their problems (e.g., being teased by another peer), it is tempting to tell them how they should react, as the solution is often clear to you as an adult outsider. However, your child’s resilience ‘muscle’ will grow if you teach them to independently solve problems that happen at school. So, instead of saying ‘You really should have let the teacher know you couldn’t do the Maths problem’ you could say ‘What could you do differently next time’. To help with this, there is a great technique called emotion coaching which I often recommend to parents.
  7. Avoid relying on reassurance. Your child’s repetitive questions about things at school (‘Do you think it will be okay?’, ‘Did I do something wrong?’) may seem harmless on the surface, but can signify that your child is anxious and lacks confidence and independence. If your child relies heavily on reassurance from you, make a plan to break this pattern by teaching your child to problem solve independently instead.
  8. Encourage socialization & compassion for others. Importantly, starting school provides your child with the opportunity to make friends, learn empathy, and show compassion for others. Get your child involved in school activities and arrange playdates. Role play and practice important social skills your child is nervous about, for example, asking a child to play with them. When your child is trying to solve problems, always encourage them to think through how other children might think and feel in situations, and consider the feelings of others before making decisions. Think of ways as a family you can show compassion in your wider community.
  9. Encourage your child’s interests. Many parents only want to get their kids involved in things they are good at. My advice is to get your child involved in activities in which they are interested as this will foster a love of learning. Ideally, get children involved in a mixture of things they can and can’t do. One of the most powerful lessons in life is to learn to lose graciously and to keep going and growing even though you feel like you are at the ‘the bottom of the pack’.  Why? It teaches your child to persist even though others are more skilled, which is a recurring reality of life. It helps your child to learn to ‘lean in’ to failure and to dare to take up all the life opportunities that present themselves.
  10. Praise effort not achievement. I remember being shocked when I first read that praising children for achievements (‘You are a great drawer’) can be detrimental. It’s always been quite instinctive for me to tell children whom I love and care about how amazing and great they are. But the data here is conclusive. Praising your child for their efforts (‘You’re working really hard to create a beautiful drawing with lots of colours’) is more likely to improve their persistence, willingness to embrace challenges, and ability to deal with failure.
  11. Adjustment takes time. Don’t panic if your child is struggling, adjustment can take a number of months. In the meantime, regularly monitor issues and check in with your GP and paediatrician. Whilst it is important not to panic, it is also important not to assume your child will simply grow out of issues. My advice is not to leave important issues to develop over a number of years before addressing them.