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Engaging with New Pupils and Dealing with their Anxieties

Were you, as a teacher, nervous for the start of year? This feeling of anxiety can be worse for your new pupils. They may have never been to the school and not know anyone. Here, Sue Atkins, renowned ‘Parenting Expert’, gives some top tips to help them settle.

Well that’s it – the long hot Summer holidays are officially over and September has seen thousands of young children stepping through the school gates, many for the first time, in their pristine shiny new shoes, slightly oversized new school uniforms & clutching their brand-new pencil cases.

It is an exciting day for some children, looking forward to seeing their old friends after a long summer and starting the new academic year with all it’s exciting new possibilities and experiences.  

However, many children will be apprehensive about the new start, whether they are anxious about leaving their parents and the comfort of home, nervous about a new environment full of people they don’t really know, or worried about whether they will fit in and make friends.

The list of worries can be endless & can include anxiety about playtimes with older, bigger & more rumbustious children, what food they will be presented with at lunchtime, how much homework they may get, to anxiety about going to the loo, but whatever they are feeling, school is something that they are going to have to get used to one way or another, but it really doesn’t have to be stressful either for children, their parents or for you as teachers.

The key message is to prepare children for what to expect. If they already have some understanding of what “big school” is all about & what a special and exciting place it is, it will make all the difference when it comes to settling in.

Children who have older brothers and sisters at the same school often feel more confident starting school as they have probably been on the school run many times & enjoyed running around the playground regularly while they wait for their siblings to come out and have heard them chatting about school at home. The school environment may feel more normal to them, so they often settle more confidently.

As teachers you may know some of the children’s older brothers and sisters so it’s a good place to start by welcoming some of your children with a big smile & by chatting about their siblings. It breaks the ice & makes the first moments personal and relaxed.

For new children without siblings having tables laid out with simple fun activities that they can get involved in independently can help the child feel busy and it takes their mind off the separation.

At the start of the new school year you want to hit the ground running so here are some top tips.

  • Introduce a Buddy  

Sometimes one friendly face is all it takes to help a child transition from tears to smiles. Introduce a more outgoing, confident or older child to the nervous child as a buddy as they will go alongside them until they feel more at ease. The buddy will help them relax as they discover their new surroundings and routines.

Partnering up with a peer is a simple practical shortcut to helping a child feel more at home in a new classroom, playground or dinner hall. The buddies should stay connected during playtime and lunch for at least the first week of school. Having a buddy gives a child someone to ask without feeling foolish & as they are kind and supportive they give a nervous child the help they need, like a pair of stabilisers on a bike, until the other child is ready to cope on their own.

  • Give the Child Responsibility  

Help the anxious child feel useful and part of the group by giving them a simple responsibility to help you. It could be something as simple as cleaning the whiteboard or counting out coloured pencils into the pencil pots.

Children often crave acceptance and attention from their new teacher; so, by showing them that you rely on them for a certain task, you are instilling confidence and purpose during an important time. Staying busy will help the child focus on something else instead of their nervous or anxious feelings while they are getting used to their new environment.

Nervous children can make themselves feel even worse by imagining that they are the only ones who feel so worried about the first day of school. So, share your own first day of school story with the class or chat about when you started a new job, or did something new for the first time, to reassure everyone that they are not alone or unusual & that such feelings are common, natural, and will soon disappear as they get used to the routines.

Personal stories make teachers appear more human and approachable to children but also make sure that you talk about the specific strategies you used to overcome your feelings of anxiety, so the children can try some of them out for themselves too.   

  • Give a Classroom Tour  

Help the child feel more comfortable in their new surroundings by offering a short-guided tour of the classroom, playground, dinner hall and toilets.  Sometimes, just seeing the table that they will be sitting at can go a long way toward easing uncertainty. Focus on all the fun activities that will happen around the classroom that day and all year long.

  • Set Expectations with Parents  

Often, parents exacerbate nervous children by hovering, fretting, and refusing to leave the classroom. Children pick up on this anxiety and get worse. Most children are just fine even before their parents have got back into their car! So, be kind but firm and confident in telling those anxious parents to leave quickly.
Don’t indulge these “helicopter” parents and allow them to stay past the school bell. Politely, but firmly, tell the parents as a group, “OK, parents. We’re going to get our school day started now. See you at 3:15 for pickup! Thank you!” You are the leader of your classroom and it’s best to take the lead, setting healthy boundaries and productive routines that will last all year long. Start as you mean to go on.

  • Address the Whole Class  

Once the school day gets started, address the whole class about how we’re all feeling jittery today. Assure the children that these feelings are normal and will fade with time. Say something along the lines of, “I’m nervous, too, and I’m the teacher! I get nervous every year on the first day!”  & smile! By addressing the whole class as a group, the anxious child won’t feel singled out.

  • Read a Book About First Day Jitters

Find a children’s book that covers the topic of first-day anxiety. A popular one is called ‘First Day Jitters.’ by Julie Danneberg or ‘Mr. Ouchy’s First Day’ by B. G. Hennessy which is about a teacher with a bad case of back to school nerves. Stories are a great way to comfort children around a wide variety of situations, and first-day jitters are no exception. So, work it to your advantage by using the book as a springboard for discussing the issue and how to deal with it effectively.

  • Compliment & Encourage

At the end of the day, make sure that you notice what the child did well that day as it will build their confidence and self-esteem & tell them.  Be specific and sincere & tell their parent or caregiver when they pick them up also. Try something like, “I noticed how well you played with the other children at lunch play today. I’m so proud of you!  Well done! Tomorrow’s going to be another great day!”
Just be careful not to give this special attention for too long – stop after the first week as it’s important for the child to start feeling confident on their own & not become dependent upon your praise for their self-worth.

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The author

Sue Atkins is a television presenter, author, parenting and teaching specialist. Sue regularly appears on ITV’s This Morning programme where she presents on parenting issues. Atkins also regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. Sue is on a mission to make parenting easy and has teamed up with Nexus Education to help teacher through her extensive experience.

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