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Even if your child has been in nursery for a while, or has spent time with carers other than you, it’s still a big step when it’s time to start pre-school or reception. The day may be longer, the structure more formal, there will be teachers to listen to, lessons to learn, a big group of other kids to get on with, and a whole host of other social and emotional hills to climb.

But you can help your little one get ready for their first day at ‘big school’. Start a few weeks before they’re due to go and make sure to keep it casual and fun. (Don’t have a ‘serious’ talk as that could create anxiety when none was there!) Here are 15 clever and practical ways to make sure the only tears at the gate are yours, not theirs:

1. Set up some playdates. Especially if your child hasn’t been to nursery, arrange for them to spend some time with friends their own age. Start off having them at your home, then work up to leaving your child at other houses. (This will be easier with people they know and trust, at least to begin with.) Keep the first few playdates short and gradually make them longer.

2. Have a special goodbye whenever you leave them so they learn it means you’ll be back soon – then you can say the same thing when you leave them at school. Don’t ever leave without saying this special goodbye – as tempting as it might be to sneak off if they are happily playing, they’ll get upset if they look around and suddenly you’re not there.

3. Play ‘schools’. Take it in turns to be the teacher and the pupil. Practise saying ‘bye bye’ to Mummy and Daddy at the gate. Keep these games short and fun. Find some books in your local library that talk about starting pre-school or school and ask your child questions about what they’d do in the different situations featured on the page.

4. Practice your journey. Your morning routine is going to have to get a lot quicker so make a game out of it: have breakfast, get dressed, zip up your coat, put on your gloves and pretend you’re all heading out to find their classroom.

5. Start your new termtime bedtime routine a few weeks before you start so you won’t have a tired and grumpy child to deal with on day one!

6. Talk about their new school – but always in a light way. Don’t say, “It will be great fun” or “You’ll love it” because it will take a while for them to get used to it. Instead say encouraging, exciting things like, “There’s a lovely big blue slide in your school playground that you can play on.”

7. Learn the routines. School is all about little rituals so practise sitting at a table for a snack or lunch, sitting on a mat for story time, putting a coat on a peg, putting on indoor shoes, zipping up a coat and so on. The more your child gets used to these activities, the quicker they will feel comfortable.

8. Toilet training! Make sure you get in lots of practice at going to the toilet with people other than you.

9. Do some pretend lessons. Read aloud to your child, just like the teacher would, and encourage them to sit still and listen. Get the paints and crayons out – they’ll do a lot of drawing at school so get them into the swing of it now so they won’t feel overwhelmed. And find some games where they need to follow directions, such as ‘Simon Says’.

10. Visit the school before the start of term. Plan some short, fun visits such as open days or to collect friends so they know what the school looks like. It helps your child get used to the noise of a lot of children all in one place.

11. Listen to your child’s worries. Don’t try to sweep them under the rug. Reassure your little one that you (or your partner/friend/childminder) will be there after school, for example. Once it’s dealt with, don’t keep bringing up the problem if your child doesn’t mention it.

12. Involve them. Let your child help choose ‘school stuff’ like their backpack or pencil case. Label everything with their name – let them ‘help’ by suggesting where to write or handing you the pens.

13. Let the teachers know if your child has allergies/special medication needs. Store everything in a first aid kit, marked with their name and a photo of your child, along with clear instructions of what to do inside. Make sure the teachers know how to use the medication – this is up to you to check.

14. Find out in advance if your child is allowed to take a favourite toy with them and if you’re allowed to stay a while on the first few mornings. That way, you won’t be promising something you can’t deliver.

15. Expect a bit of acting out. If they have worries or anxieties that they can’t properly express yet, they might regress in other behaviours – such as having tantrums or going backwards in toilet training. This is very common but hopefully by doing some of these ideas, you’ll help put their mind at rest about this big step.

And on the big day…

  • Reassure your little one that their teacher and friends will be there all day and you’ll be back soon too. Usually the kids settle in as soon as the parents are gone – and the parents are way more upset then them!
  • Try not to run back to them if they start crying. Do what the teacher suggests and leave. They’re experienced and will know to call you later if they need to. Separation anxiety is really common at this age so try not to worry too much.
  • Put a special treat in their lunchbox – lots of kids love to have a little note from a parent as well. And don’t worry, the day will fly by – for both of you!

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