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How can I best support my son with changes to his class next year?

Hi Tooled Up! My son’s school has decided to mix up classes in September. There will also be girls joining for the first time and I am not sure what to say to him about that. I am very concerned about all the changes. Should I be? And how can I best support him?

Dear parent, 

Firstly, it is normal to worry about changes that lie ahead for our children and to worry about their ability to cope. You aren’t alone. The start of a new academic year is always full of changes to school life. New classrooms perhaps? Timetables? Teachers, pupils, curricula, canteen menus? You sound like you are holding a lot of anticipatory anxiety about the changes that are forthcoming. These changes have likely been explained to you by the school, and perhaps you still feel fearful?

So, for a second, please imagine if no change was to occur at all over the time that your child is in their prep school. Imagine if school life was entirely static, that your child sits beside the same child for the next five years, with the same teacher teaching, in the same style, in the same classroom that they are so familiar with. 

Now, imagine your child being allocated to sit beside someone entirely new, being introduced to a new teacher who looks and sounds different to last year’s teacher. Imagine your son walking into a classroom with fresh surroundings and playing in a different space at breaktime with some female pupils present. 

The child in the first scenario enjoys the comfort of predictability for sure, but where is the social stretch? They enjoy the comfort of making no extra effort once they have secured a solid friendship – there is no need to be flexible or adapt. Friendship difficulties? Sorted. Playdate? Secure. Unfortunately, however, life isn’t like this in the long run and preparatory or primary school is a short period of time that acts as a prelude to a more substantial and challenging educational stage. 

Ask yourself: which child is going to be better prepared for senior school, more resilient, better able to cope with change in the long run? Some initial fears associated with change are normal, but perhaps there is another way of reframing those wobbles which could help your child significantly in the longer-term. 

By modelling a positive confidence about change, we model a courage that will be required no matter the social circumstance in the years to come. By modelling an acceptance that we can’t control every single social interaction that our child has, we have confidence in their ability to cope and we commit to helping them develop the necessary skills they need to adapt as they grow and develop. This doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to children’s concerns about change, but firstly, we need to check we haven’t unwittingly passed any on.

If children overhear us worrying about the ‘mixing of classes’, or about the incoming new teacher, or about girls arriving, it might unnecessarily fuel anxieties that were not there in the first place. All children have at some point met with and played with other children different to them. It is very likely that your son likely has a sibling, cousin, neighbour or friend who is a girl, so the transition is likely to be less shocking than you might imagine. This is particularly the case when children are younger. 

Perhaps jot down what really worries you about these changes. Hand on heart, what is the worst possible scenario that could happen to your child at the start of the school year with these suggested changes incoming? And how could you help your child cope with this? Consider what lies on the other side of that scenario? A child who has developed a few new coping skills, some scripts to make friends with, and an idea of what they are capable of, when they were initially a little scared. The rewards might just be great. 

If your child has raised concerns, validate how they are feeling using phrases such as: “I can see that makes you a little bit worried, let’s talk about that” or, “Tell me a little bit more about why that might worry you”. Jumping wholescale into reassurance won’t necessarily reduce any worries or wobbles. If your son, for example, expresses concerns that he doesn’t want a girl in his class, gently explore his reasoning. Is it because he heard someone else express that view? Is it because he doesn’t know any girls and can’t think of any games to play with them? Don’t guess. Ask him. Let him take the lead and listen. Whatever he says, offer new, gentle ways of challenging his assertion, and enquire (as I have above) as to the potential merits of meeting new people and the advantages of mixing things up a little bit. Together, think of a time, perhaps on holiday, when he met a new friend, unexpectedly or temporarily, and they got on famously! What can he remember about that encounter? Could it possibly be fun to dive into a new scenario without the comfort of a known conclusion? 

Perhaps share that sometimes adults can also feel unsure about change and talk about what you say to yourself to navigate any nerves or cope with unpredictability. Talk about the riches that lay on the other side of new for you. Come up with some family stories where change was thrust upon us, but ultimately was the making of us! 

If your child is struggling to process changes at school alongside other changes in his life, tried and tested methods to support him include: drawing things he is worried about, adding worries to a family wobble jar, or imagining or visualising those first few days at school and working out together what he can control and influence. If your child does have specific worries about changes at school, our activity will nudge him to think about the things that might be different next year, all the things that are going to stay the same, and how he’s coped with changes in the past. Closer to the start of the new school year, role play can be effective; practising openers for conversations with people we have never spoken to before, or coming up with cool new games that we can invite others to participate in at breaktimes. Remind your son that he can sustain friendships, already firmly created, in other ways, even beyond school. 

If you are concerned about your child’s wellbeing, guess what? Wellbeing is enriched through social connection, belonging and access to play; factors all enhanced through the uniquely precious microcosm that is the school community. If you want continuity and predictability, turn up the dial at home. As change occurs at school, strive to keep your son feeling anchored in your love, your predictable parenting and your family and bedtime routines. With the latter in place, you can be assured he is being given the best possible chance of hitting the ground running in September.