Why do some kids settle easily into Primary 1, and others find it so difficult? It’s not uncommon for kids in Singapore to shed tears and refuse to go to the Primary 1 classes, or complain of stomachaches and other ailments to skip school.
Experts say such behaviour is hardly unusual for a child entering Primary 1, when they are encouraged to be more independent.
“It is a significant milestone in a child’s – and consequently, the parents’ – life. Along with reaching this milestone are several changes,” says clinical psychologist Matilda Chew from Think Psychological Services.
For instance, school hours are longer and learning methods are no longer playbased, Matilda explains.
As a result, they may have problems adapting to a new environment, which include having to cope with different academic demands and establishing new relationships, says Dr Ong Say How, head and senior consultant at the Child and Adolescent Mental Wellness Service, in the department of psychological medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
So, just how can parents help their child adjust to big-kid school?
We asked the experts to troubleshoot common problems for a tear-free transition.
I don’t want you to go
Remember the days when your preschooler clung to you for dear life whenever it was time for school? Well, those days of separation anxiety may not be truly over although your little one is no longer little.
Separation anxiety is common among toddlers and preschoolers, but it typically fades with age. Still, it is not uncommon for older kids to experience some degree of separation anxiety when they face a new environment or situation, says Dr Ong.
He might fret throughout the day or at home, or start showing regressive behaviour like bed-wetting, refusing to sleep in his own room, and a fear of being alone, says Matilda.
What you can do
One of the mistakes parents make is to scold – or even worse, yell – at a child who is experiencing separation anxiety, says preschool educator Eileen Lim.
“It doesn’t solve the problem, and may make your child feel even more insecure. In the long run, your child may feel like he can’t seek help from you,” warns Eileen, who is also the lead centre principal of PCF Sparkle Tots Preschool at Pasir Ris East (Block 216).
Remain calm, listen to his worries without reacting negatively and reassure him, Matilda advises.
Never underestimate the power of talking things through. By the age of six or seven, kids have a higher level of understanding and reasoning, says Eileen.
Another way is to consider giving him a familiar object to bring to school, suggests Dr Ong.
My tummy hurts and I feel like vomiting
Don’t you sometimes have “butterflies” in the stomach when you experience stress or anxiety? The same goes for your kid, who may complain about physical discomfort because he has trouble coping in school, Matilda says.
This is because children cannot express their distress in a manner that is easily understood by adults, Dr Ong explains.
“When a person is stress or anxious, many physiological changes can take place in the body. Children may interpret it as a stomach ache or breathing problems instead of recognising it as stress or anxiety.”
What you can do
Give Junior the benefit of doubt, and take him to the doctor in case he is really down with a bug. Next, take note of the timing and situations in which he complains about feeling sick, says Matilda.
Does he tend to complain before a specific class or spelling test? This can help you clue in on the possible triggers, allowing you to start a conversation on the difficulties he might be facing in school, advises Matilda.
Yulita Liyuwardi thinks her active involvement as a parentsupport group member helped her son, Tristan Yip, now eight, ease into primary school easily. She also holds open conversations with Tristan about his day in school.
“After school, we talk about everything under the sun, like the weather, his feelings at school, friends and teachers. This two-way communication helps me identify any potential problems early before they worsen,” says the 38-year-old stay-at-home mum.
I’m afraid of that big bully!
When Tan Si Yun’s daughter started having crying spells a few weeks after starting Primary 1 last year, her alarm bells went off.
“She was fine in the first few weeks, so I found it strange when she refused to go to school,” says the 36-year-old manager.
She found out that her daughter was terrified of a classmate, who would play rough and threaten to push her down the stairs.
Your child may not tell you that he is being bullied, says Matilda. Keep an eye out for unexplained injuries like cuts, abrasions and bruises, as well as lost or spoilt belongings.
He might also start having unexplained ailments, refuse to go to school, lose interest in making friends or schoolwork, appear withdrawn or become moody, she adds.
What you can do
Victims tend to have lower self-esteem and a higher risk of depression later in life, so be sure to nip this problem in the bud.
If your kid is too frightened to talk, but you suspect he is being bullied, Matilda suggests getting help from an adult or an older child (an older sibling or cousin) whom he is familiar with.
Try other communication tactics like toys, drawing, painting or writing. Never force him to speak, but offer plenty of reassurances that he will not be punished for speaking up, she adds. Once he opens up, Matilda offers the following strategies.
Acknowledge his anxiety and commend him on his courage to speak up.
Help him feel less alone. Talk about a time when you had a bad experience with other people and how you overcame it.
Remain calm and reassuring at all times so that he feels safe about confiding in you.
Avoid having emotional reactions in front of him. Do not threaten the bully in any way.
Instead, inform the school about the bullying incidents and work out a plan. Involve the school counselor whenever possible.
Yawn, my school hours are so long
A six-hour school day can be tiring for a child who is used to shorter school hours in kindergarten, says Eileen. Junior might also find it harder to adapt to the earlier waking hours and longer school day if he does not get sufficient sleep, she adds.
More than a third of lower primary students aged six to nine years here show signs of not having enough sleep, according to a recent survey by Nanyang Technological University undergraduates.
The survey also found that most of the students sleep an average of only eight hours.
To function well in school, he should clock in nine to 10 hours of sleep. Studies show that children who do not have enough sleep do worse academically, have trouble focusing in class and have mood swings.
What you can do
Work on his sleep habits even before he starts primary school.
“Some children don’t have a good understanding of time. Mentally prepare him by explaining – using a clock – what primary school hours are like and why he will need enough sleep to learn well in school,” Eileen suggests.
She also advises parents not to let their children sleep late during the year-end school holidays. Gradually adjust your kid’s sleep hours a month before school starts so he does not start the new school term with bleary eyes.
For example, if he needs to wake up at 6am on a school day, he should be in bed by 9pm.
I don’t know how to buy food during recess
For a child who is used to being served standard meals in preschool, this seemingly simple task can be especially daunting.
“I’ve had some parents tell me their kids refuse to eat in school because they are too scared to buy food. The phobia is so great that they would rather go hungry,” says Eileen.
What you can do
Your kindergartener should understand basic money concepts by the time he heads off to Primary 1, says Eileen.
She suggests reinforcing money skills at home through play: Try role-paying at home so that he gets used to handling coins and dollar notes.
Stay-at-home mum Natalie Lim, 38, took this a step further: “I let my kid choose and pay for his meals when we dine out. We started doing this when he turned six years old. By the time he started primary school, he was a pro at ordering food!”
Homework is so tough, and I hate spelling!
Most kids experience some difficulty with learning-related tasks like reading, writing and spelling when their skills are still developing. This is normal, and most grow out of these learning difficulties once they hit their developmental milestones by seven or eight years old, says Matilda.
“For example, it is not unusual for a six-year-old to have letter and/or number reversals in his writing. However, the same issue might be a concern in an older child.”
What you can do
If your child is struggling with his schoolwork, adopt a wait-and see approach. Monitor his learning over one school term, Matilda advises. That would give him enough time to settle into the curriculum and routine.
But if his learning problems continue, consider seeking help from an expert and get additional support from the school.
“In this instance, you should alert your child’s school teachers so that the allied educator can be roped in to support him. If your kid has a lot of behavioural issues, he could also be referred to the school counsellor for support,” she says.
Are you sabotaging his transition?
Do you hover around your child, repeatedly giving instructions or checking on him?
Do you tell your not-so-little one to be brave in school again and again?
Do you tear up or sob openly in front of him when saying goodbye at the school gate?
If you said yes to any of the above, you might have unwittingly projected your anxiety onto him, says clinical psychologist Matilda Chew from Think Psychological Services.
“Children often look to their parents for cues on how to respond to new situations and environments,” she explains.
“When you behave in an anxious manner, your child will learn that he, too, needs to feel anxious or fearful. This can hinder him from exploring his new school and people with confidence.”
The bottom line: Remain calm, reassuring and non-judgmental. That will help Junior troubleshoot school problems in a positive manner.