Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: School of hard knocks?

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Dear Virginia, My son is four and due to go to 'big school'. He is absolutely terrified. Although I try to play it down, I feel very nervous on his behalf. Only two of his friends from nursery are starting at the same time. He stays up all night begging me not to make him go. My heart is breaking for him. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Valerie

Virginia writes:

Of course your little boy is dreading big school. He is very sensible to do so. It shows he is an imaginative, sensitive human being. Who doesn't stay awake, racked with panic, when faced with something new? I find it difficult enough to sleep properly when all I'm doing is going on holiday the next day. It's new, it's unknown, it's a change... any sane person would worry, whether it's about a new job, new school, new country or new house.

I have a feeling, Valerie, that you didn't have too great a time at school, and that however much you try to persuade your son that he'll have fun and enjoy himself, your voice carries the lack of conviction of someone who suffered, herself, in the classroom. And school can be pretty horrible. No one in their right minds wants to be cooped up with a lot of little monsters every day, doing tests. Frankly, I'd rather top myself than go back to school, even for a week.

So I think it's best that instead of trying to persuade him it's all going to be great, simply reassure him that it won't be as bad as he thinks, and that some people really love school.

If he has two friends going as well, then make the most of it. Have them both round to tea and discuss the prospect of school openly with them. Ask their parents if their children are dreading big school, too. If your son knows that other people are afraid, it will make him feel better. Perhaps you could walk him on his route to school a few times so he's familiar with where it is in relation to home. Get some books from the library about first days at school - there are quite a few around to reassure anxious children. Perhaps you could all make a plan to go together in a little gang on the first day. And remind your son there are lots of people going who don't have any friends to link up with.

It mightn't be a bad idea to insist that he helps anyone in the school who looks sad and lost, and introduces them to his friends. Once he can see himself as helper rather than victim, he will perhaps see his role as knight in shining armour rather than miserable worm.

When my son went to big school for the first time, I had to take him to see his grandfather on the way, who, at the age of nearly 70, assured him that when he himself was a little boy he was terrified - and yet school turned out to be absolutely fine. Allowing your son to choose a special lunch box might be comforting, as well as letting him carry something to school that belongs to you - a handkerchief or something he associates with you. Then, you can say, when and if he feels low, he can put his hand in his pocket and feel you there. I hope he has a vague idea of the time by the clock so he can be aware of how long it is before going home time, and, of course, you must be at the school gates when he comes out, even if it means you have to take a day off work to be there.

Readers say:

School is not compulsory

Time to let you into one of the secrets of the British education system: school is not compulsory. You don't have to subject your child to what is obviously a traumatic experience for him.

You will hear a lot of people tell you that school is necessary, and that traumatising a school phobic child is somehow beneficial for them "in the long run". I can only expect these people would advise you shut a claustrophobic child in a cupboard for seven hours a day for their own good.

Look at www.home-education.org.uk and www.ahed.org for some excellent advice on home education: We did after subjecting our son to 18 months of misery, despite the best intentions of the staff at the primary school. He is now eight, bright, well adjusted and socially gregarious, and enjoys learning.

Peter Darby

Ruthin, Denbighshire

Make it work for him

You have to stop being nervous right now. Your anxiety will be transmitted to him. You must be positive, but firm. He has to go to school by law, so you have to make it work for him.

Talk to him about all the new friends he will meet, and about how he could have a "special" friend home for tea. Talk about it in a grown-up manner, and say you will work through it with him.

Diane Crimes

Middlewich, Cheshire

Be positive about it

I would try to avoid the subject of school unless your son brings it up. I have a daughter who is starting school and we seemed to be surrounded by adults who keep making comments about school being a big deal, adult and scary.

Do you know anyone with a child who is already at school? If you do, I would invite them round and talk to them about school while your son is in the room. Chances are they will talk about their friends, having fun, or how great their teachers are. Do you have photos of yourself at school and stories of how much fun you had? My children had a good time laughing at my school pictures and perhaps your son would too.

I would try not to make a big deal out of starting school. Try to be positive and matter-of-fact about it. If your son senses your anxiety then it will make him more nervous. If he mentions school, then perhaps you can set aside 10 minutes to sit down and let him express his concerns, but don't let him spend the whole day worrying.

Cath Tyrell

Chessington, Surrey

Don't play it down

Of course he's terrified. Quite apart from the dreaded unknown, he's also being "sent away" after four wonderful years with you, and your response at such a significant emotional and physical moment has been to "play it down". He must be enraged as well as terrified. So, here are three things to try. How about acknowledging his feelings, "allowing" them to be felt, telling him that this is how you would expect him to feel?

Secondly, you could plan an event after the first day, something fun, not as a bribe for going, but as a demonstration that being with you and having fun together is something that will always go on, showing him he hasn't really been "sent away" at all. Thirdly, you could make contact with the parents/carers of the other two children? There's some joint planning to be done here and talking with the children about sticking together and looking out for each other. He needs you to be calm. Few things are more terrifying for a child than a distressed parent. You will feel awful, but it will pass.

Mark Wilson

West Grinstead, West Sussex

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

We live next door to two nice, high-flying business people. They have a two-year-old daughter. When they are around, they seem to love her very much. But during the week, an au pair looks after her. I hear the au pair screaming at her, saying she's horrible. The child is very withdrawn. Should I tell the parents or would I be interfering? Yours sincerely, Annie

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