FIVE-YEAR-OLD Owen Wilson is all smiles about starting school in a week but it was a different story just a year ago. Owen's parents, Wendy and Jamie, had intended sending him to prep last year but as they fronted up to enrolment and induction days, it became apparent to them that he was not ready.
The Wilsons made the difficult decision to delay sending Owen to prep for a year but in Wendy said in hindsight it was "the best thing".
"Last year, when we went to induction, he was hiding behind me and wasn't excited at all. This year, he couldn't wait to go," Wendy said.
"Last year, when we went to enrolment, he tried on the uniform but he cried the whole time. This year, he left the school with it on. He keeps pulling it out of the bag."
Wendy will not be surprised if Owen bounces off with friends as soon as he arrives at school on day one, and if he does, he and she will be the lucky ones. Dr Stephen Carbone, of Beyond Blue, said it was not unusual for children to feel worried or stressed about starting school.
"Some degree of nervousness or anxiety is pretty normal in that situation," Dr Carbone said.
"We all get a bit anxious when we are doing something new or for the first time. For kids and their parents, it's a big step moving into primary school."
But while a degree of anxiety or nervousness is normal, Dr Carbone said some children could suffer significant stress. He said excess anxiety could mean a child finds it hard to settle, cries, runs back to the car or will not let parents go, or refuses to go to school the next day.
Separation anxiety was a particularly common problem for youngsters heading off to school for the first time, he said. Parents could minimise their children's susceptibility to separation anxiety way before the school gates by getting them used to staying with grandparents, friends or at childcare.
"They get to realise that it's okay for a parent to leave, that they will come back, that they won't be left alone and that the parent will be all right," he said.
Dr Carbone said preparation was a key for parents sending children off to start school happy and he encouraged parents to make the most of opportunities to introduce their children to school before day one.
"This is why a lot of schools have induction programs. If you familiarise kids, it's a good thing. They like to know what they are getting into," he said.
"The induction days are short days, small doses, that let kids see what it's going to be like in a great way."
He said children should also be exposed to change and new experiences before they hit school age.
"Let them have a go and try new things so they can build up confidence," he said.
Wendy found the passage of time, home-based activities such a reading books about school, and increased attendance at kindergarten, made all the difference in getting Owen ready for school this year. He had already been going to kindy five days a fortnight but she enrolled him in a second kindergarten.
"I needed the space from him and he needed the space from me. We don't have any younger kids and our friends don't have any kids or kids his age who are at school, so we thought it would be good for him," she said.
"The second kindy also has long days and we thought it would be good for him to do the long days. School will be new to him but the days will be shorter."
She said choosing to delay prep for Owen had not been an easy decision but the extra year of kindergarten helped him grow up.
"That has probably made him more independent, more confident. He's mixing with two different sets of children at the two kindergartens, and when he starts school, he'll know more kids because he's been to two different kindys," Wendy said.
Psychologist Barry Kerr, former school teacher and school counsellor, said building up children's confidence and self-esteem through social interaction was a key to making school a positive place for them.
Mr Kerr said children were subject to more influences and consequently stress as a result of the use of soocial media, mobile phones and the internet these days and hence needed strong relationships that allowed then to feel comfortable about themselves. He said parents could foster strong relationships by encouraging their children to interact with others through sport and extra-curricular activities.
"Sport is so important. They need to get out and do things," he said.
Mr Kerr said parents could also help their children by talking, listening and building a rapport with their children rather than lecturing, providing a stable home life, and trying to be positive role models.
But he said it was also important to remember that children were different and not all were ready to learn at the same time.
"Children will actually learn when they are ready," he said.
Damian and Rachel Styring's first-born, Sienna, started prep last year at four. Damian said Sienna had been happy to go but as one of the youngest in her cohort, struggled with the curriculum, which has become more focused on structured learning than play. After much deliberation, the Styrings have decided to leave Sienna in prep for a second year.
"It was really difficult to make that decision. I felt we'd failed as parents and should have put more time into helping her but she was just very young," Damian said.
He said Sienna was still in holiday mode but would be excited as back-to-school day got closer.
"We've said to her that there's a few kids repeating, and you're going to be special helpers for the other kids starting prep. We're putting a positive slant on it," he said.
Damian expected beginning school a second time would be just as exhausting for the family as first time around.
"The teacher explained to us, that after the first three weeks, the kids are exhausted with anxiety and excitement and dealing with five days, and we're exhausted with dealing with grumpy kids," he said.
"They said if they are are still tired after four weeks, let the kids have a day off to recover."
Mr Kerr said it was important for parents to encourage their children but not pressure them with unrealistic expectations.
"If they are doing the best they can, that's all you can ask for," Mr Kerr said.
Beyond Blue has an interactive online program for young people experiencing anxiety and programs for parents, too.
Find The BRAVE Program at youthbeyondblue.com.
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