Starting School Part 1 – How to Pack the Backpack

unpack backpackStarting school, whether it’s for the first time, entering a new school, or even returning to a familiar school after a break, can be a challenge for both our children and ourselves. And we mean “school” whether it’s on campus or at home.

While we carefully pack their school bag or plan their timetables with the things that will help them through their day – a nutritious lunch, a spare pair of pants and pencils – it’s easy to forget our children carry an emotional backpack as well.

Our special role, as parents and carers, is to help them pack and unpack that bag.

It’s at least as important as a healthy lunch or a good night’s sleep.

In this article, I discuss the good things we can add to their backpack, filling it with the “connection vitamins” our children will need to get through their transition to school, or back to school and learning.

In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about how we can “unpack the backpack” when they get home.

The Special Role of Parents

Some schools are better than others. In the end, however, as you send your child off each day, you will need to trust that the support you offer your child is at least as important as any loving, gentle and nurturing school environment, or any dynamic educational curriculum. Our children will face many upsets in their school careers: separation anxiety,  trouble making friends, being bullied, a teacher that seems mean, struggles with school work, or boredom.

Teachers of all kinds—including parents—are more stressed than ever, and we pass on those feelings in our words and actions.

But it turns out that these traumas and struggles, hard as they are for children, are not in themselves what causes damage.

Resilient children can roll with the punches, and pick themselves up after a setback.

What Builds Resilience?

There are three key ingredients to resilience.  Firstly, when children feel connected—seen, heard, understood, appreciated, and delighted in—their minds work well. They can solve problems and make friends.

We can learn ways to connect with them before the school day starts and reconnect, either between their learning, if they are staying home, or when they get home. In this way we are topping up their backpack with “connection vitamins”.

This builds the safety net which will help them bounce back from any hard things that may have happened to them.

Second, when children are able to clear the emotional tensions which have accumulated over the day (or week, or years), things that would have been difficult suddenly become easier. We parents and primary carers are in the best position to help children do this. (This is covered in the second article in this series.)

There is a third ingredient in helping our children at school: we need to be in good shape.

It turns out that ensuring our own emotional balance requires connection—the same thing our children need.

We need to feel connected, supported, and appreciated.

And we need a place to release the emotional tensions that we have accumulated.

Building the safety net—connect, connect, connect

At Hand in Hand, we talk about balancing “correction” with “connection”. When there are difficulties in our relationships with our children, or when they are behaving in ways that are not workable, it’s because they have lost their sense of connection.

Sometimes it is enough to offer a child a little bit of extra connection in order to set things right. A warm snuggle or a “dad joke” is enough to reset things. (In the movie “Inside Out”, I think this would be like visiting “Goofy Island”.)

If you are lucky, you might get some giggles going. Laughter, amongst other things, is a great connector! Even when a child responds with some eye-rolling, it might just change the tone of things for the better.

When that is not enough and their behaviour has gone off track, and you may need to offer a firmer limit or extra warmth: do be prepared for the “blow up” that may follow. When our children are full of tension, settling in to listen to their upsets about a limit can be an act of genius in parenting. When you listen well, without giving in, you relieve your child of feelings that may have been bristling for days or weeks.

Connect before you correct, and then listen until your offer of connection sinks in. More about this in Part 2!

Schools, in general, are not big on connection.  Teachers try their best, and by and large, do a marvellous job.  The teachers that my child has loved and learned most from have been the ones who understood how to use humour to release tension, were playful, and had a generous and loving attitude, even when being firm.  One favourite teacher used to take her shoe off and put it on her head in mock exasperation when things were not going well in class. It always seemed to get everyone’s attention.

Even though everyone is doing their best, I’ve found it helpful to understand that the average school environment is mostly focused on the “correction” side of things.  There are lots of rules, a big emphasis on compliance, co-operation, and doing “the right thing”.  On the home front, my job is to re-balance the scales by adding extra connection. These times of change and transition are times we need to have our focus on connection.

Make time

When our children start school for the first time it will mark a change for most parents.  For some, it may be a welcome change.  For others, it may bring new challenges.

In these first months while your child is getting used to school, it will make a difference if you are not under pressure.  If you can, carve out some extra time to help them, and yourself, through the transition. Financially this might be much easier said than done, but it’s worth it.

You may find it more challenging than you expected.

And whether your child physically goes to school or not, you may find yourself challenged in ways you did not expect.  Your own experiences starting school (or other unfamiliar or difficult experiences as a young person), or of learning new things, will be “playing in the background”.

This is the “emotional backpack” you carry when you accompany your child on their learning journey.

You may not even be aware of how it is influencing you but it will have an effect. *1

When my daughter started school it catapulted me into a crisis that made no sense to me, and which I had no idea was coming.  Luckily, I struck up a friendship with another mother that I met at the school, and we began a Listening Partnership.  We would meet after the drop-off and listen to each other, in turn, about what we were thinking and feeling.

I discovered that going back to school was bringing up painful memories of starting my own formal education in a foreign country where I did not speak the language.  Every time I walked into the school ground or had to face my child’s upset about being left, I was being flooded with old feelings of panic and loneliness.  Over time, I worked through the experience and was able to relax more in the school environment, but I am so glad that I had the time to do this.

Learn more about my experience with starting school and how Listening Partnerships helped.

It’s a long day…

Starting school can be really demanding—physically challenging and emotionally stressful—for children. Children themselves identify this as one of the things that worries them about starting school.*2

Some parents give their children the odd day off from school, or even hold them back a year, to give them extra time at home connecting and building their reserves. In my experience, a well-connected child can easily make up for the time at school she missed.

It helps if you can get involved.

If you can make time to get involved at school, it will make a difference.  I made some of my closest friends as we bonded over the steep learning curve that was “becoming a school mum” and got involved in school. There’s clear research showing that parental involvement helps children’s school experience. *4

Even if you are staying at home, try reaching out to other families in your child’s class. Have a Messenger or Whatsapp group to keep in contact, and think about someone in the group who you would like to support or be supported by on the harder days.

And do keep in touch with your child’s teachers if you have fears or concerns about your child’s learning and well-being.

Encourage play

It was not until I had my own child that I realised just how important free play is.  By free play, I mean play that is directed by the child at times and with materials and companions chosen by the child.  Adults can be supportive of this kind of play, but we need to be very careful not to take-over, not to make the play go towards something we want to do, or that we think our child “should” do.

When my daughter was a preschooler (and still even now, at 11), after a busy day out, without many opportunities to play, we would come home and she would say “I have to play, Mum.” Sometimes she needed my input, but often she did not.  It was clearly a burning need! When she was little, her need to play would often come at the expense of other critical bodily functions!

My daughter had also made friends easily at preschool (which was play-based).  At school, however, it seemed to be taking a long time for her to really connect with other children.  Eventually, I worked out that at least part of the problem was the lack of free play opportunities.

It is in play that children get to know one another.

Her preschool relationships could have been transplanted from suburban Sydney to the Simpson Desert, and they would have found some way to play happily together.  This was because they had had years of play together. They had sorted out the rules of the games, they had worked out how to take account of each other’s preferences and personalities, they knew what worked and didn’t work.

All sorts of important stuff happens in this kind of play.  You can stop worrying that your child should be getting down to some “serious learning”. Children’s play is serious business.  If you are at home, make plenty of place for play in your schedule. If they are at school, make time to play before and after, if you can.

There’s a ton of research to support the fact that free play is vital in children’s social and intellectual development.*5,6  In fact, it is so important that it is defined as a human right in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. *7

Children themselves know how important play is.  In research that has been done into children’s worries about starting school, high on their list is the question “Will I get to play?”*2

In school, opportunities for play are reduced.

Unfortunately, going to school means seriously reduced opportunities for play, especially free play, both at school and at home. At school, the staffing ratios mean that even when the children do get to play at recess and lunch, there isn’t a lot of adult support when things go wrong. In addition, teachers and professional carers must be very careful about the way they interact with children, and restrictions on physical contact and other things may limit how effectively they can help. Without enough thoughtful adult assistance during the day, your children may come home asking for help with the feelings left over from difficult social encounters at school.

Children love for us to join them in play.

I love how these Danish researchers put it (apparently, in Denmark, the benefits of free play are highly valued and implemented in the education system):

“We have to remember that what children want most of all is to feel calm and good with their parents. Where do you feel most calm, at ease, and free from the pressure of others? Where can you relax and create more ‘hygge’ (cosy time) with your family? Children need time to decompress from their days and take life in and reflect. They need to play to act out what they experience in the adult world and they need to feel loved even when they aren’t performing.”*6

As parents we are in a unique position to help.  We can actually join in and help play to happen. And our children really want us in there!  They are dying to show us who they are, what they have learned, and what they are troubled about, even if they can’t answer the question “How was school today?” in much detail.

Special Time is a one-on-one adult-child Listening Tool which is a wonderful way to create that “cosy time”.  Decide how long you have got (five, ten, thirty minutes), and tell your child you will play with them for that long.  Ask them what they would like to do.  Set a timer and for that time, put aside all distractions—put away your phone, don’t answer the door, decide not to notice the dishes in the sink and the clothes that need folding.  Then warmly, enthusiastically, do whatever your child wants to do.  And resist all temptation to make suggestions for what or how to play.

In Special Time children work through their experiences

When my friend’s daughter started school, I would pick her up and take her to my place for a couple of hours after school.  We had been doing Special Time for a couple of years, so she knew exactly how to use my attention.  From the exact minute that she started school, she came home to play “school” in Special Time.  She lined me up along with the teddy bears and gave strict instructions about how to behave.

Over time, the game evolved.  Sometimes she would give us all tests, and mark our work with red pen, or tell us we were “old enough to be able to behave properly”.  I remember one time I had to jump through a series of hoola hoops “just so”.  When I got the order wrong, I had to go back and start again.

Wondering what this game was about, I remembered watching the sports classes in the playground at school, and it was clear to me that she was working through the experience of these organised games and activities.  Up til then, she had been in a preschool where she was able to play much more freely.  I can see why this organised activity might have seemed strange to her, and not have made much sense. In general, the changes in the game reflected changes in what was happening at school—discipline issues, tests and assessments, learning new skills.

Sometimes you will be able to tell that the play is about their school experiences. Other times, it is not so clear.  But I can guarantee, Special Time is always about something, and either way, your child is re-supplying his “connection vitamins”, soaking in your warm attention and enthusiasm, and storing it up.

When a child can be “in charge”, something very special happens.

It makes sense that allowing your child to be “in charge” can boost his self-esteem and sense of control over the world.  With schooling comes lots of being told what to do and what’s expected, and Special Time is a chance for children to “turn the tables”.

The relief they get from doing this is hugely helpful. 

And because Special Time is timed and has a clear beginning and end, no one gets confused about a parent’s responsibility to exercise overall judgment in the family.

What this kind of play does is give a child a break. Sometimes, for instance, just replaying the experience from the position of being the teacher, not the student allows a child to  decompress and recover from a long day of being a learner, of encountering hundreds of new experiences in the day, or of sitting still for longer than was comfortable.

As well as allowing you to reconnect after school, you can use ten minutes of Special Time to help make the whole morning routine go smoother, making sure your child feels connected at the start of the day.

The thread of his connection with you will get your child through his day.

So in preparing your child for this school year, know that the most important thing is your child’s sense of connection with you.

The thread of that connection is what kids will need to sustain them through the next few weeks or months as they start school, whether that’s at home or in a return to school.

In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about how you can help unpack your child’s emotional backpack using the Listening Tool of Staylistening, which will all go better if you have connected first.

Madeleine Winter, Hand in Hand Consultant and Certified Instructor

Would you like some extra help applying these tools in your family?

Book a free 20 Minute Consultation with Madeleine today.
Do you want more suggestions on how to use Special Time? Get a sample chapter on Special Time from our book Listen all about the values of this tool and how to use it to strengthen your connection with your child.


*1  Siegel, D., & Hartzell, M. (2004). How We Remember Experience Shapes Who We Are. In Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin. pp22-23   Scientists call these kinds of memories “implicit memories”, which are encoded “in circuits of the brain which are responsible for generating emotions, behavioural responses, perceptions and probably encoding of bodily sensations”.  A characteristic of these memories is that we are often unaware that the internal experience we are having is generated from something in the past.

*2 Centre For Equity & Innovation In Early Childhood (CEIEC), 2008 “Literature review – Transition: a positive start to school” p 6-7, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne, Vic 3010, Retrieved on 26 June 2015

*3 Whitebread, David (2013) “School Starting Age: The Evidence.” University of Cambridge. Retrieved on 16 July 2015 from <>

*4 Michigan Department of Education (2002) What Research Says About Parent Involvement In Children’s Education. Retrieved July 28, 2015

*5  David Whitebread, in the same article as above, says “Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

*6 Hintz-Zambrano, Katie (2015) “Play Based Parenting – The Danish Way.” Retrieved on 22 July 2015 from <>

*7 United, Nations (2013). “United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child General Comment 17 on Article 31.” Published by the International Play Association. Retrieved on 24 Mar. 2015

Madeleine is a parent of a teen and has been working with families using Hand in Hand Parenting for over 30 years.  You can find out more about her work here.

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