Little Miss George started in Reception just over a week ago. Already she has brought home two reading books without any words in them; a sponsor form to raise money for the school; 3 separate newsletters with dates for parent evenings, school photo sessions, coffee mornings and encouraging suggestions that I attend the annual general meeting of the "mums and dads" committee; and lots of tales of playing with lots of Lego. If she was my elder daughter I would be wondering what on earth the school was playing at and would be feeling completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.
If she was our first, I would have diligently attending the welcome meeting for new parents last week in order to be told exactly how important it was to read the reading books "the same night" and return the next day to ensure that the book was available for the next child.
I would be feeling under pressure to attend every meeting, and already panicking about the potential risk of forgetting to dress my daughter in appropriate "dress-up" gear on various fancy dress days to come.
I would be scanning every letter and marking in my diary every single event, without having a clue which pieces of information were more important than others.
As it is, I know better.
This year I am much more relaxed. Here's my list of top tips that will help you work out what information is important, what to prioritise and what to just ignore. I hope it helps.
Top Tips for relaxed parents of children just starting school
- Prioritise anything you have to pay for. So if your children have school dinners, you need to scan the first newsletter of each term to check what will be due in school dinner fees. At our school you can pay weekly. I opt to pay for the half term at the start. It's 1 number to check; 1 envelope to pop in their school bag and it's done for 6 weeks. Same for breakfast or after school clubs. Work out the easiest way to pay and stick to it.
- If you work, and its financial viable (and I argue that's likely) pay for school dinners rather than messing around with packed lunches. My reasoning for this is fairly simple. I pick the children up straight from work from either after school club or grandmas house, so I can't start cooking tea until we get home; at the earliest at 5pm. Even with the quickest hot dinner they wouldn't get fed until 5.30pm. Assuming we eat quickly the earliest we will be finished is close to 6pm. If I want to get them upstairs for a bath, dry their hair, read a story etc etc they won't be asleep until 7.30 at the earliest. This leaves NO time for any playing in the evening. Other than whilst I am cooking. It leaves no time for me to sit down and help them with any homework (less important in Reception, but an almost nightly requirement by the time you hit year 2.) We tried this system for while and I spent my time rushing around trying to get dinner on; panicking when we were missing an ingredient (no time to 'nip' to the shops), panicking that if they didn't like it there was no time to go to plan B, and having to cook again separately at 8pm when they were asleep and hubby was home. So what to do? Ensure they get their hot dinners at school of course. If the evening meal consists of just Jam on Toast, I don't need to worry because I know they've had a hot lunch. PLUS, there was absolutely no way I could work out how to make a hot dinner, with options (for fussy eaters) and pudding for less than £1.90 per day. So, the cost is absolutely worth it for me.
- The only meetings you need to really attend at school are the parents evenings. It is important to find out what your child is doing well with and what they need extra help with. Coffee mornings, AGMs, even meetings for new parents, are not really vital. We don't live in a world where mum is automatically at home anymore; so the schools have to ensure that the information you need is sent via letter or is available on the school website as they can't assume you can make the meetings. And if you want to attend the meetings, but can't, don't worry, just give the school secretary a ring at lunchtime to get the lowdown on what you have missed.
- Reading books without words do have purpose. Bear with them. Even if your child is doing great with reading and pointing out letters and even reading some words at home; the school usually have to send home each and every book in the reading scheme series to ensure they treat everyone equally and gauge your child's ability correctly. It took me a while to understand this, but the books without words are great for making the transition from reading to your child; to your child reading to you. It takes the pressure off words 'to read'. Little Miss George is loving being the 'reader' as she looks at the pictures and tells me the story. She starts with "Once upon a time" and is very serious about expression and pace. Even pausing to ask me "Can you see ...." And so on. It's a lovely way to build their confidence before there is a need to tell the story using the exact words that the author has chosen. If you, or your child, get impatient with this, have a quick word with the teacher. I agreed that we would have a reading book every day with Princess Peppa (who now reads pretty much anything at 7 1/2 year old). The teacher got to tick the box that she'd read every book and we got to work through the easy ones quickly and get to the good stuff.
- Don't take your child to school on a teacher training day. Term dates are confusing. Be extra vigilant about this. I once took my child to school a day early. The website and an earlier newsletter had given the term date as a Monday. However, the last newsletter of the preceding term, in the final sentence, had given the correct date as the next day, the Tuesday, since an Inset (teacher training) day had been inserted. Reassuringly I wasn't the only parent to turn up that day, but it didn't stop my daughter bursting into tears as she was looking forward to see her friends. Inset days are a challenge. Check and double check these. Sign up for text alerts from the school if they do this service.
- If its dress-up day you need to know, else tears and tantrums will ensue. Keep a careful eye out for notification of any special days at school that involve an outfit other than the usual uniform. We've had "Favourite book", "Super Heros", "Victorian times", "Knights and Princesses", Sports challenge", and the usual comic relief "Spotty" themes for outfits. In our particular school it is obvious that the parents make great use of the dressing up costumes that the local Sainsburys can provide, and there is little in the way of home-made outfits. Either way you need to diary in the prep time, so don't just stick the date of the dress up in your diary/phone, pop in an alert to mind you to shop for or make the outfit.
- Stock up on birthday cards and little gifts. You can get packs of children's birthday cards for as little as 30p per card. Get prepared in advance and you won't find yourself shelling out £2.99 on a card en route to one of the almost weekly birthday parties your child will now be invited to.
- Put EVERYTHING in your diary. If you are high tech enough, use the calendar function in most smart phones. You always have your phone with you, so you will always have your calendar. Added bonus, you can set alerts so your phone will remind you of events and tasks. If you go old school, use a small calendar that can travel happily everywhere with you.
- Use the tech and share your calendar. If you can work out how to do this on the iPhone please let me know, but there is supposedly technology that enables you to combine both your own, your partners, and your work calendars together, colour coded, and in a way that they will automatically sync. Highly useful if, like me, you have a busy work calendar too that leads to you checking more than one before knowing if you are free or not!
- Get your child to bed early this week. Two weeks into the school term, for children who haven't had to attend five days a week before, is exhausting. The adrenaline and excitement of week one has worn off, and they will be grumpy. Plan to provide them the opportunity to get more sleep. Since most young children don't know the meaning of the word "lie-in", the only solution is an earlier night.
And as for all the other 'fundraising' events, school fairs, discos and so forth. Don't feel pressured. Some parents go to every fair, raise lots for the school and go in to help with reading twice a week. Others just haven't the time. Don't feel bad.
We all do our best in our own circumstances. I make myself feel better about not being on the school committees by remembering that I work full time, pay high taxes and therefore contribute more to the funding of the school that way. Other parents contribute in different ways. There's no set answer and you shouldn't feel upset if you can't attend or get involved as much in school life.
Finally... It's all about organisation. Check their school bag EVERY NIGHT for messages from the teachers, diary what you need to, then relax, and you won't go far wrong.