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Social Skills for Starting Primary School

One minute you’re sitting barefoot in a sandpit with your painting shirt on, building a fairy garden with a couple of rocks, some leaves and half a dozen paddle pop sticks, raising your head as someone calls out and asks if you’d like to join the other kids drumming under the shade tree…

…and the next, you’re in uniform with a few hundred other kids, being instructed to stand still and listen silently while some far distant adult welcomes you to Primary School.

What a change. What a massive upheaval in a small person’s life. Sure, it’s great for a four- or five-year-old to be able to recite the alphabet or count to ten, but there can be no doubt that what kids need most when they start primary school are personal strengths and social skills.

Kim Johnston is the co-director of a progressive pre-school in Sydney. She’s been an early childhood teacher for over eleven years, but she also has a Bachelor of Education. In fact, it was her early experiences of teaching in the school system that motivated her to go back and retrain for early childhood care. The fact is, she didn’t like it. She didn’t like how the teachers spoke to the kids. She didn’t much like how the kids spoke to each other. She didn’t like how the system didn’t make room for individuals. And so she made a very conscious decision to move into an area where teachers and kids had the time and the freedom to get to know each other well and to bring out the best in each other.

These days Kim is very conscious of what a challenge it can be for kids to move from the nurturing and flexible environment of family life and childcare into the school environment which seems so hostile in comparison. She’s also conscious of how better equipped kids are to handle that change if they have the fundamental competencies of self-esteem and social empathy.

Starting primary school is going to have its ups and downs for any child – and any family. But if you can help your kids to have faith in their own abilities and to feel confident about dealing with new people and new situations, then you can be sure that they’ll deal with whatever comes. In their own time. In their own way. On their own two feet.

4 Tips to Help Your Child Meet the Challenge of Starting Primary School


Building Confidence

The way we see our kids influences how they see themselves. If we work from the starting point that our kids are capable and competent, then when we’re on our way to raising kids who have faith in their own abilities.

“It’s about saying ‘they can’ rather than ‘let’s protect’,” says Kim. She uses the example of a two year old that wants to use scissors. You can have the protective response, telling the child that they’re too young to use scissors and that they should ask someone older to do it for them. Or you can have the supportive response, encouraging the child to try using scissors, showing them how to do it safely and working with them to help them develop the skills they need.

Help is Good

The experience of being encouraged and supported (rather than protected) not only gives kids confidence in themselves, it also presents the idea of ‘help’ in a very positive way. ‘Help’ isn’t embarrassing or humiliating. ‘Help’ makes you stronger. ‘Help’ is part of growing up and gaining independence.  

Kim suggests that the ability to ask for help is a big advantage to kids when they start school. Kids who feel confident about asking for help are less inclined to worry when they can’t tie their shoelaces or they don’t know where the toilets are or they can’t tell a ‘p’ from a ‘q’. Being able to ask for help takes away some of the fear factor of starting Big School.

Teaching Empathy

Before children start primary school, they tend to spend most of their time in small groups. Generally, they’re either with family and friends or with a carer or teacher and a small number of their peers in a child care centre or pre-school. Then primary school starts and suddenly they’re one of 20 or 25 in a classroom and – worse still – one of maybe 400 or 500 in a playground.

That shift in scale has got to be overwhelming for any child. And in that context, the kids who are comfortable about making social connections are probably going to have an easier time adjusting than those who find it difficult to relate to their peers.

Kim says that one of the goals for both carers and parents should be for the kids in their care to be able to initiate relationships with both adults and other children. They need to be able to say things like: ‘Hi! Would you like to come and play with me?’ and ‘Are you OK? You look sad.’.

Of course, kids can’t be ‘instructed’ on how to behave responsibly and considerately and sensitively. Kids can’t be ‘trained’ in kindness and generosity. In fact after eleven years as an early childhood teacher, Kim is convinced that you simply can’t ‘teach’ empathy. What you can do, though, is role-model empathy. You can be responsible, be considerate, be sensitive, kind and generous.

“By our actions children learn that there is a way of treating people, a way of being,” she says. “That’s usually all it takes.”

Meet the Teacher

In a perfect world, all children would get the same sort of attention in the classroom and have the same opportunities. In the real world, it’s not like that. Over-worked, under-resourced teachers often don’t have the time to reach out to individual kids let alone beyond the classroom to their families. It’s up to you, then, to make a connection with your child’s primary school teacher. Kim doesn’t like to support the idea that teachers might play ‘favourites’, but she does suggest that having a profile at your child’s school is a “survival technique for families”.

“Put your family on the map,” she suggests. “Go to the reading time if you can. Get yourself on the fund-raising committee. Get yourself known.”