Our five kids are in four schools

Over the summer months we quietly slip away from school routines and habits – lazy days a world away from the school bell. But as it does every year, January melts away and term one arrives. Preparatory action must be taken! Stationery lists need to be filled in, uniforms bought or tried on for size, new teachers met, and unfamiliar classrooms navigated.

With our five children heading off to four different schools in 2016, there will be plenty to be organised before February rolls around in the Fleming household. Curiously, the part of my own nature that most engendered me to the raising of this fairly large brood is my propensity toward laziness. (I like to think of it as my laid-back nature.) If there is a corner to be cut or a deadline to be played dangerously close to, I will tend to find it.

It will come as no surprise then that the Flemings’ start to the school year invariably involves the odd stationery oversight, and even the occasional missed meet-the-teacher evening! My greatest back to school confession is that for many years I have avoided the sticky task of covering the younger boys’ exercise books. Over the years we have had teachers insist on the ’weather proofing’ of the spelling or homework book – books destined to a life pressed up against soggy sandwich remains and leaky drink bottles. For these, even I have capitulated and put in the extra effort required to prepare them for such rigours.

‘Coverseal’ comes in all different colours and patterns these days, so for those of you less ‘laid-back’ than myself, this can be a great way of getting kids excited about their workbooks for the coming year. For our middle son, Willis, 2016 not only heralds our normal busy back to school activity, it is also a year of new beginnings. He will start his college career, becoming that proverbial little Year 9 fish in the big high school pond. Probably much like him, I have a sense of nervous anticipation as the time approaches. I know he is up for this new challenge, and like his older siblings, he will have the resources within to make the adjustment.

From my experience with the older kids, I know there will be a settling-in phase which we will all need to weather together. Child psychologists suggest that one of the most important things we can do for our children as they enter a new season is to share our confidence in their ability to cope. Children tend to look to their parents to help gauge how dangerous a given situation may be.

They say that if you are calmly optimistic that your child will manage, then it will be easier for your child to be hopeful too. Children absorb parental anxiety, so if we can model optimism and confidence, our kids will benefit. We need to let them know that it’s okay to be nervous when starting something new, but that they will be just fine once they become familiar with their new classmates, teachers and routines.

There was one year when my calm confidence in my child’s ability to cope was truly put to the test. My daughter, Annabel, had just started intermediate and had spent many weeks struggling to adjust and make new friends. Each night I would empathise with her as she recounted the events of that day and her struggles within her new environment. She felt that everybody seemed to have established friendship groups, except her. Everyone else seemed to have people to hang out with at break times, except her.

On one occasion, I seriously considered riding to school on my white horse (or black people-mover to be precise), and going into maternal rescue mode. This impulse came after I received a text from her, complete with a picture of her ‘favourite toilet cubicle’ to hang out in at morning tea. My heart strings were pulled to breaking point.

Thankfully, it was not long after the toilet cubicle text that things slowly started to get better. She eventually established a few key friendships that lead to two fantastic years of intermediate. In hindsight, I am glad I stayed the course of listening well, empathising, and quietly believing in her! The people-mover rescue plan was thankfully never staged.

While the new academic year means moving on for Willis, for the others it means progressing on to the next year level within the same schools. At the primary school our younger boys attend, they give the kids lots of warning about which class they’ll be in the following year and who their teacher will be. They also get to spend a morning visiting with their future teacher and classmates.

What a contrast to my own school experience – holding my breath as the class lists were called out, hoping to be with my friends and to avoid that teacher no one wanted. At morning tea we would all rush to be together, celebrating with those who got the ‘favourite’ teacher and commiserating with those who had no friends in their class. The wonderful thing about today’s forewarning is that we can help prepare our children over the summer weeks. Little comments like, “I wonder if Ms Jones is going away for the holidays?” Or, “I bet Ms Jones will be so glad you’ve been reading books over the holidays” really help young kids transition well.

When our baby (I use that term with some poetic license as he is six) started school last year, I was a sea of emotions. 16 years of preschoolers in our home was about to end! Determined not to let my own nostalgia hijack this new beginning, Jed and I would rehearse his arrival routine on our way in to school. “What will we do when we get up to the classroom? Hang your school bag up in the cloak bay, put your book bag in the container, take your shoes off etc.”

It seemed to be a way of preparing him for my eventual goodbye which neither of us were entirely sure about. For the first couple of weeks, if time allowed, we ended our little ritual with Jed choosing one story from the book corner for us to read together before I left him on the mat. For some children there can be separation tears and anxiety in those first weeks of school. There were a few in Room One that year – both Jed and I contributed to the puddle.

Establishing a familiar routine can be one way of helping kids navigate this time. Equally important is to not prolong your departure once your goodbye has been said. Over the years I have marvelled at the way new entrance teachers support unsettled children once parents have left.

As our kids have moved through the school years there have been plenty of opportunities for them to grow in independence and confidence. Travelling to and from school – mundane as it may seem – requires a new level of mastery. For us, once primary school ended, our kids were no longer within walking distance of school. They needed to negotiate the local 392 bus across town to intermediate – something our second youngest, Toby, sees as a great adventure. He is without a doubt one of Auckland’s biggest public transport advocates.

It was not long after Willis started this longer journey to school that he decided he needed to shave time off the commute. Not a natural morning person, he dreaded his alarm going off earlier to allow him to get to the bus on time! His solution – a skateboard. I can’t help but admire his commitment to a few extra minutes of shut-eye. On band practice mornings, you will see him balance his rather large saxophone case on the front of the skateboard, carving around pedestrians on his way to the bus stop (only once has this ended with the case strap getting wound round the wheel, and he still managed to avoid a catastrophe).

The University of Auckland has remarked that in the last five years they have seen a growing phenomenon – parents who are still helicoptering around their now young adult children. Perhaps we can use moving on to a new year level as an opportunity to release our children into new areas of responsibility. With my own laid-back tendencies, I am often scanning the horizon for that easier way forward.

Some time toward the end of primary school, I decided school lunches were a responsibility I could happily hand over. The older children maintain that I stopped making their lunches while they could still barely tie their shoelaces, while their younger siblings get it so easy (shades of ‘we used to live in a paper bag in the middle of the road’). While they might not be remembering things entirely accurately, I do think that a new school year might be a time to review what our children are taking responsibility for.

It was the challenge of making his own lunch that drove my eldest son, Harry, to learn to bake. He got tired of constructing boring lunches (his words, not mine) out of the ingredients on offer in the pantry, so he opted for some home baking to spice up his midday meal. We in the Fleming household know however, that those muffins – which he stores in the freezer so he only needs to bake fortnightly – are strictly counted and monitored daily. Beware any unauthorised removals!

It is hard to believe that for muffin-munching Harry, 2016 marks his final year of school. Harry commented that he remembers his first day of high school well, looking at all the Year 13s, barely able to imagine being that big and grown up. Now that he is there, he still does not feel all that big or grown up! I know I sound old and sentimental when I say that it feels like yesterday that we were both nervously walking across the school field, hand in hand, to the new entrance classroom. Etched in my mind is the picture of five-year-old Harry at my side, swamped by his regulation sun hat – the size of a Mexican sombrero on his small newby frame.

The school years have flown by! Predictably, this February will involve a few last minute dashes to the stationery shop for the Flemings. Our bank account will take months to recover from the ‘hit’ the extra back to school expenses bring. There will be a time of settling in. We will need to remind ourselves to extend grace to the ones for whom that settling in is proving hard. The stress of coping with a new school situation has often manifested in tired and grumpy behaviour back in the safety of Fleming home turf. Our hope though is that we start well, and that we grow well through all the new challenges and adventures the 2016 academic school year holds.