An expert’s guide to heading back to school

With the summer holiday season drawing to a close, Kiwi parents are starting to think about how to best prepare their children and young people for the new school year. Nicolas Pole, Chief Review Officer at the Education Review Office, shares his advice for supporting our tamariki as they head back to school.

A new school year brings exciting new opportunities with new environments, new people, new routines, rules and expectations. The transition from primary to secondary school can feel particularly big for your child as they navigate peer relationships, new subject teachers and a more structured timetable.

While a bit of nerves is normal when starting school, changing schools or moving on to intermediate or high school, for some the stress and anxiety of a new year can be heightened. To get off to a good start in 2021, start by asking your young person to describe what they are excited and concerned about and acknowledge any concerns that they have. Take it as an opportunity to reassure them that school is a safe and fun place and that they are likely to make new friends. Most importantly, let your child know that you are there to support them.

Prepare and plan things together

Doing things together is a great way for you and your child to feel less anxious. Having a conversation with your child may also help surface underlying concerns while agreeing on a plan will help them feel a level of control and familiarity.

Prepare for the first day:

  • Write a list of questions and go about finding the answers together.
  • Before school starts, ensure your child is familiar with how they will get to and from school and where to go if they’re going to after-school care.
  • Arrange for some fact-finding activities, such as going for an exploratory pre-visit, attending an open day or orientation programme, meeting with the school’s principal, senior leaders or your child’s classroom teacher.
  • For secondary students, help them work through subject selections and out-of-class activities that they could get involved with.

Connect with the school community early:

  • Other parents can be a useful source of support, information and advice. Get to know them. A group email is a good way of building a parent community with the parents from your child’s class.
  • Having classmates over to play will help build your child’s friendship network. Sports and cultural events are also a good opportunity to get to know other parents.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher and learn how to keep in contact. This will ensure you know what the class or school has planned. Often teachers will share emails or operate a class website or Facebook page. This can be a great basis for talking with your child about projects they are working on or what might be coming up during the term.

Support your child in their first few days at a new school:

  • Allow lots of rest and play after school. New entrants will often be very tired. Let them talk about the day and the interesting things they’re doing and experiencing.
  • For those going to intermediate or secondary school, understand your child’s timetable, and what they may be doing or need each day, like books, gym clothes, and other equipment.

Changing schools:

  • The date that your child is required to start school may differ from your last school so make sure you check.
  • Prepare your child for the likelihood that they may need to repeat things that they’ve done previously.
  • Discuss with the school principal what support they might be able to arrange for your child, such as having a school buddy to support them in their first few days and weeks.
  • Talk with your child’s teacher or year coordinator about their strengths, any learning challenges and the things that motivate them in their learning.
  • Agree a timeframe, say at the end of the first month, when you will meet with the school to check  how your child is settling in.

A few things to consider before choosing a new school or kura

New Zealand has a number of school options to choose from. Before you decide, here are a few things to consider.

  • Find out which schools are zoned close to your home. Visit the Education Counts website for the school enrolment zones.
  • Will the kids walk home from school or are there other transport options? The New Zealand Transport Agency’s traveling by public transport webpage provides useful links to regional timetables.
  • The type of school. Is the school a full primary (up to Year 8) or does it only go to Year 6, meaning the next school will be an intermediate before college. Visit the Ministry of Education’s webpage on types of schools and year levels.
  • At what age do you enrol and is it from or after their fifth birthday? Some schools have ‘cohort entry’ with new entrants starting school at the beginning or mid-point in the term.
  • Does the school’s values and focus align with your family views?
  • What are the programmes and activities on offer, such as kapa haka, sports, or cultural activities. These often start early in the new year.
  • Is there an afterschool programme and is there space available?
  • Does the school teach te reo and tikanga Māori?
  • Does the school offer specialist support for children with additional learning needs?

To find out how a school is doing, take a look at the school’s ERO report at ero.govt.nz. Also read the school’s charter to learn what the school’s aspirations and desired outcomes are for its students. This document is usually available on the school’s website.

What to do if things aren’t going well

In the first month or so of starting a new school, not everything will go perfectly. Be prepared for this. Regularly check-in with your child and look out for warning signs. These include if your child:

  • Regularly tells you they’re feeling sick
  • Has trouble sleeping and getting out of bed on school mornings
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Seems particularly anxious prior to or after school
  • Appears withdrawn, isolated or unhappy
  • Expresses self-doubt about their schoolwork or not fitting in
  • ‘Wags’ classes
  • Doesn’t seem interested in school, friends or school-based activities.

If things don’t appear to be settling, talk to the class teacher or home room teacher on how to best support your child through and after the school day.

A successful education and learning journey needs both the parents and the school to work together to ensure we keep a child’s wellbeing and learning at the centre.

Nicolas Pole is ERO’s Chief Executive and Chief Review Officer. He originally trained as a teacher and has had an extensive career working in a range of Government research, policy and operational roles in education and welfare both in New Zealand and across the Tasman. During 2011, Nick led the Ministry of Education’s response to the Christchurch earthquake and more recently set up Home Learning TV|Papa Kāinga TV in response to the Covid-19 lockdown. Parenting Place thanks the ERO for sharing this article with us.


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