M. Bhuvaneswari, PhD
Regional Thematic Manager – Education
Save the Children Sweden Regional Office for South Central Asia
Many of us share memories of family members embarrassing us when they remind us of our behavior on the first day at school. We have thrown tantrums or witnessed the same from our children. “Crying children at the gates” is a common sight in a good number of pre-primary schools in my home state, Tamil Nadu, India. Rolling on the ground and kicking the adult who tries to pick them are some coping mechanisms demonstrated by some children. The faces of parents and children on “Day One” reflect the gravity of mutual pain. I tried to imagine and feel how a child might feel on Day One and this was what I thought: “This is an unfamiliar environment, I understand nothing and I am unused to everything. This sends fear waves in me. I am completely lost.”
My elder sister asked me, “Who cried? You or your daughter?” on the day my 3 ½ year old daughter started school. On her first day at school, I spent the whole day with her inside the classroom. This article is an outcome of an insider’s insights.
There was crying from every corner. In one large classroom, there were 150 children in the 3-3 ½ age group belonging to four different sections. Some of them had been in school for a year starting with Pre-Kindergarten when they were 2 ½ years old. There were children like my daughter starting afresh with Lower Kindergarten. The silent spectators of the crying children were obviously the “Old students” in the same school.
The four classes were kept together for logistic reasons on “Day One”. All four plus two extra teachers were trying to manage the children. The parents, van drivers, people who were caregivers were coming in and going out. Van drivers were trying to identify the names and faces of children whom they would take back. Teachers were distributing uniforms and other materials. They were trying to juggle between the crying children and their first day tasks which were obviously endless.
Here were my observations from the first day of school:
My daughter was not crying. We had taken some wax crayons and notebooks to school and my daughter started coloring every now and then, asking me to make some outlines for her to color. Around 5-7 children came around to watch with excitement. There was no crying in that corner any longer. The glee I saw on the faces of children inspired me a lot and made me think that engaging activities distracts children from crying. The “separation anxiety” for children or parents may disappear with more happy activities.
In my daughter’s school, teachers did not encourage parents to stay inside the class. I was trying to keep myself in a corner. At one point, I told my daughter, “I am keeping your bag here and I’ll be away for a while”. She immediately asked me, “Who will take care of me? Will that bag take care of me?” Her question made me wonder if all the crying is because of this uncertainty about who the “caregiver” is after the mother leaves from school.
One teacher tried to make a difference. One teacher came forward to sing and dance to a song. She ran around the class and balanced a bottle on her head. Some children watched her with glee while others continued to cry.
It is understandable that the separation between parents and their child has to start someday and the sooner it happens, the better, however, I believe that having the parents around at schools would make the transition smoother. There has to be enough positive engagements at school for the child to wean away from the parents’ presence.
By having the parents around on the first day, children may tend to feel less separation anxiety. While there has been debate about the appropriate age for admission into pre-primary schools, inadequate child care support for mothers at the workplace often leads to babies ending up in school earlier. How prepared is a two year old child to face school and how prepared are schools to care for a 24 months old child? These are questions worth considering.
Most often the first day of school is the day when the child is away from the family for the very first time. It becomes stressful for the child in many ways. If the teachers and the school can think of how they can make the child smile, despite all this, it will surely make the experience better.
Outlined below are some strategies to assist in a successful home to school transition on day one. These are strategies based on expert opinions and experiences of other parents and caregivers:
A warm and welcoming environment: A warm environment should be created so that the children can begin to enjoy the school from the minute they enter. The place should be very clean, colorful and not over-crowded. There should be a variety of toys, game options and play equipments that automatically attracts the children. There is a warm and natural environment and nobody tries to control the children (or their parents).
A welcome ceremony is usually organized in many schools. During this time, children should be welcomed with garlands and sandalwood paste or anything auspicious and special to help them feel as the honored guests.
Colorful outfits: Encourage the children to come to school with color outfits rather than uniforms.
Addressing the teacher differently: There is a school where pre-primary school children call their teachers, “Aunty.” In countries like India, where extended family members frequently serve as familial caregivers, this practice can be beneficial. Though simple, this can have a great impact.
Child-friendly adults: Ideally, it is important to assign one teacher/caregiver for every five children. Though this is important, number is not entirely sufficient to ensure child-friendliness. Every adult member in the school starting from the person at the gate and the person who cleans has to be genuinely loving and caring. They have to be aware of the fact that children need and deserve all respect as much as the head of the institution.
Frequent interactions with diverse adults: Interactions with children, parents and caregivers is vital. Often children develop some kind of attraction and respect to the head of the institution. Whenever possible, the head of the institution should spend some unstructured time with the children. This can prove to be very reassuring for the children, teachers and parents.
Involving parents – a suggestion: Allowing parents to accompany the child and encouraging them to engage with a group of children is critical for smooth transitions. This may help prevent crying and may support many children at once. The school can invite mothers to volunteer for some activities. I think children can better accept a mother of another child on day one than a new teacher. This also creates an “informal atmosphere” where a child feels free and safe. We often hear and learn that young children learn best in an informal environment (which may be true for elder children and adults as well). Apart from making the first day happy, this experience helps build mutual understanding between teachers and parents
It is definitely worth exploring ways and means to keep children smiling on their first day of school. For more information, read “The Must for Nursery Admission,” written by M. Bhuvaneswari and
The article has appeared in ARNEC E NEWS FLASH today
ARNEC: Asia-Pacific Regional Early Childhood Network