Setting children up for back-to-school success

There are many ways parents can help students achieve back-to-school success - and we asked two education experts for their insights.

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

School’s already underway in Queensland, but for the rest of Australia, the majority of students will head back to the classroom next week, with those in NSW, Victoria, the ACT, and the NT returning on 29 January, and students in Western Australia starting the 2024 school year on 31 January. For Tasmanian school-aged children, Term one commences on Thursday, 8 February.

But no matter what date their school year starts – or whether they are experiencing their first day at school, making the transition from primary to high school or simply ticking off another year level in their educational journey – there are many ways parents can help set students up for back-to-school success.

EducationDaily reached out to two education sector specialists from Charles Darwin University (CDU) to learn more about how family support can help prepare children for a positive new school year ahead.

Special support for first-time school-starters

CDU Senior Lecturer in Education Dr Georgie Nutton says that, when it comes to children getting ready for their first day of school, parents can help alleviate fears by being “excited and joyful about the anticipated experiences and opportunities”.

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Parents and care-givers should also be open and curious with questions that will help prepare young children for the important relationship-building and feeling safe at school – “things like how to make friends, that there is a partnership between teachers and families to support learning and growth”.

“Asking children about the things they are most looking forward to and worrying about; jointly planning ways to plan for these and how to ask for help from the teacher,” Dr Nutton told EducationDaily. “Develop familiarity with routines and, if possible, the school environment – especially the particular rituals the school has for drop-offs. Label equipment and prepare for the morning and afternoon routines.”

Parents must manage their own stress too

To help create the calmest environment possible to help young school-starters look forward to this important stage of their social and emotional development, she says that parents can help by being aware of how they are managing their own worries and fears in front of their children.

“Many parents recall their own bad experiences or sensitivities when separating from children or there may be issues of whether children will be given the care, nurturing and education you expect from a stranger – so the positive relationship-building is important,” she says.

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“Teachers have a hard job and they want to do the best by every child, so they need you as the expert to be a partner. The process of preparing children for a good start can also help parents focus on the small but important steps on a long journey. Parent guilt is sometimes difficult, especially if children are crying or upset at the start of the school day. This is normal and the upset doesn’t usually last long – sometimes a week. Talk to the teacher if you feel the upset goes too long.”

Finding out the tools or ways you can get information about how your child is going can help parents feel less stressed, Dr Nutton says, adding that parents should create a routine that helps foster “happy, smooth drop-offs”.

“Be prepared for feeling ‘ditched’ when they have new friends, and welcoming and exciting teachers,” she told EducationDaily. “Share their celebrations and joy – after all this is a reflection of the way you have shaped your child to go into the world.”

Dealing with separation anxiety

“If you have a really anxious child or they are upset at separating – it is important to not join in,” she says. “Use whatever strategies work for you to stay regulated: breathing, three deep breaths, and not feeling self-conscious. This is, after all, quite normal. Reassure your child that they will be safe, and the teacher can always ring if things don’t get better – and you will be excited to pick them up and hear about the new friends and activities.”

By being excited about your child’s first steps into formal education, parents can help school-starters feel enthusiastic too.

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“Find ways to share information with the teacher and be open to receiving information from the teacher,” Dr Nutton told EducationDaily.

“It helps to think about a six-year partnership with the school and what you would like that to be like. Many schools have software for sharing individual information and other ways to share what is happening in the school community. Children will feel more confident and autonomous if they have good personal care skills and know how to ask for help when they need it at school.”

Orgnisation makes a difference

“Find out the routines and timetables from school about drop off and pick-up zones or expectations at the classroom door. Label equipment and talk about the self-care routine at school, such as drinking water, eating snacks and making the most of break times,” she told EducationDaily.

Preparing for the morning and afternoon routines, such as packing snacks and lunches, hats and special items like library bags can become a great after-dinner activity to free up time and leave mornings to focus on breakfast and personal care routines.

“Any routines that you can set up in the family that reduce the energy needed to remember important tasks will provide more wiggle room for unexpected events – or just being more free to talk about the fun things to look forward to or what amazing achievements form yesterday your child will build on next,” Dr Nutton says.

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Curiosity is key

CDU’s Dr Sue Smith is also a Senior Lecturer in Education and says that her top tip for students of any age – and to parents and educators – is to “always be curious”.

“Learning is a big adventure and play and having fun makes for productive learning,” she told EducationDaily.

For veteran teachers who may have seen it all before, having fun and maintaining that feeling of fresh curiosity is more important than ever.

“One of the joys in teaching is to receive a new group of students each year. They are all individuals, and no group is ever the same from year to year,” Dr Smith says. “The first of the Australian Professional Standards for teachers is: Know students and how they learn. Teachers must be curious. Who is this person? Their strengths, developing abilities, interests and trepidations? What do they need?”

Don’t expect children to master new skills instantly

Reminding children that it takes time to develop mastery in a learning sequence is important – and can help them handle the frustration that may come with their attempts to absorb new, and sometimes challenging knowledge.

“Skills and knowledge need to be tried, developed and reinforced,” Dr Smith says. “It is very rare to get it all in one go, and children need to feel emotionally safe to engage in the predominantly cognitive work required. If children are stressed or anxious, the amygdala at the base of the brain is working overtime, and the information that requires thought and conceptual processing – i.e. what is to be learned – doesn’t efficiently reach the various parts of the cerebrum, and especially the frontal lobe where much of the learning work occurs.”

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“Fun, play, and laughter facilitate an emotionally safe space where students can experiment, risk mistakes, offer tangential perspectives and be encouraged to persevere. Learning is also socially constructed. We learn better with help from supportive peers, teachers and family in particular.”

Feeling safe and secure helps children learn more effectively

Minimising any pressure around marks and mastery can help reduce stress children may be feeling at school.

“After decades of research from the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), the two most basic needs that children require is to be loved and safe,” Dr Smith told EducationDaily.

“Encouragement by parents for their child to do more, to do better requires this basis. Also remember that so much learning can occur through, say, making a cake, singing a song, planting radish. Any kind of fun stuff.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]