Big S had his first day at school recently. We dropped him off, walking up to the door of his classroom to hand him over to his teacher and TA. Off in he went, confident and fine, but then, he turned and stood by the window, giving me the most solemn, sad wave goodbye he could. All I could do was wave back, smile and walk away before my resolve crumbled and I cried like the emotional mess I was that morning.
Come 3pm, back in the playground with all the other mums and dads, I waited for him to re-appear through that same door. I was hoping for tales of new friends, of artworks made, of stories read and games played. What I got was this;
“I was sad because I missed you so I played all on my own in the sandpit”.
That sound? That’s my heart breaking and smashing on the floor.
Of course, the truth is that he spent most of the day playing with his new friends and having a brilliant time. But to get that information out of him I had to work a little harder and a lot smarter. It’s not like nursery where I could rely on his key person to email me his daily summary, or tell me at the door what he’s been up to. No, if i’m lucky I might get a “he had a good day” from his TA, but that’s it.
So this is what I did.
The first thing, which I always tried to do at nursery too, was to be positive when I picked him up. No “I miss you”, instead a more positive “I’m happy to see you”. I don’t want him to feel like he has to be sad and miss me too, I want him to be happy and confident when he’s away from me at school.
Then, no matter how much I want to ask him about his day, I don’t. I offer him a snack. Because he’s always hungry. Always always always. So we stop, in the playground and we have a snack. He says hello to Little D, who has missed him like crazy and we just stand there all together while he eats.
Then I ask him if he had a good day. He says yes. Perhaps he’ll proffer up some morsel of information about what he did, though usually with Big S it’s something he didn’t do, or a friend he didn’t see. I try and just listen, not ask too many questions. Let him tell me whatever he’s ready to share. (Like on his first day, when he broke my heart into a thousand pieces).
Then we walk home. Well, he scoots and I try and keep up.
Back at home, it’s time to change out of his school uniform and have a little play. If he volunteers anything about his day, great, but I try to resist the urge to pry. As he changes his top and peels off some stickers on it, I ask him about what he got them for, but I try not to push any deeper than he wants to go.
He is overwhelmed by the time he gets home. Even on his first day, when I thought he would want to be with me and his sister, what he actually wanted was to go up to his room and have a little play, all by himself.
After a while, he ventured downstairs to join me and Little D. In his arms were books for me to read to him and we cuddled on the sofa and read for a while.
Then it was time to make dinner. I went off to the kitchen and the kids wanted to join me. Little D in her highchair, Big S on his chair at the table. On his first day he got a new Octonauts magazine, so he had the toys off the front to play with. But the general idea is to give him something fairly quiet and imagination based (pencils for drawing, or small world toys like cars, or people, Playmobil, that sort of thing). He asked to put water in his Aquabot tank for his new Gups to float in. I put down tea towels for the inevitable mess and gave his sister a little bowl of water and an Octonaut too, then let them get on with it.
And this is where it happened. As he relaxed and enjoyed playing a simple splashing game with his Gups, he started to think about his day. A question popped up, why do you have to be quiet near the big kids? Of course, I have no context so no idea what he meant, but with a gentle prod he explained that his TA took him on a tour around the school and they had to be quiet so the big kids could concentrate (thereby answering his own question, too). He asked another question that wasn’t really a question, as he knew the answer to that one too, about the lift they have between the reception classrooms and the main school corridor.
From there he was off. He told me about the song they sing at tidy up time that is like the one at his first nursery. About the other songs they sing at different times of the day. About the song that’s in Spanish. About what they talked about at circle time and how you have to be quiet then, just like at nursery.
I asked him what happens at lunchtime and he managed to tell me about getting his lunchbox from the table it’s kept on, going to the big hall and eating sitting opposite a boy with a spiderman lunchbox (but not talking, because he was eating). About how a grown up tells them when they’ve got five minutes left, then two, then one and then it’s time to stop eating!
He told me about playing on the ride on cars with some children he didn’t know the name of. About playing with a girl who was wearing a dress.
He told me about his name sticker on his t-shirt; about how they put his birth name, not his nickname on his first sticker, but he said he wanted to be known by his nickname please, so they made him a new sticker with that on instead.
He told me he had fun playing with all the other children. That he really liked the balance beam in the playground, but that it’s too small for you mummy. And on it went.
So no, he didn’t spend the day alone in the sandpit, missing his mummy. Despite that being the first thing he told me when I picked him up on his first ever day of school. My heart is no longer broken on the floor and my all new, improved, system for finding out about his day has scored a hit right from the first day.
So now I just have to keep it up!
- Be happy to see him, but don’t say I missed him (unless he says it first and is looking for the same back, obviously).
- Feed him!
- Give him space to tell me what he wants to about his day.
- Let him have some downtime where he doesn’t have to think, or talk and can just be quiet and play whatever he wants.
- Then, distract with a simple activity and wait for the information to flow.
- Don’t ask too many direct questions, try to follow his lead, or ask very simple, open questions like “tell me about lunchtime” to get the conversation re-started if it falters.
- Remember it’s not Mastermind and he doesn’t have to get 20 points on the subject of his day at school, no matter how much I want (need) to know about it.
We’re right at the beginning of our journey with school, but hopefully this will be a system that stands us in good stead in the coming months (and years) so that Big S can share with us his day without feeling like coming home and talking to us is just another task he has to “do” in his day.