Back to school 2021

Optimal ways to support your child this September by Dr Kathy Weston

I have always loved September as ‘back in my day’, it meant I would be the grateful recipient of a sparkling new pencil case as well as a fancy new school bag. Exciting stuff! September marks the beginning of the new academic year and as such, it is important to reflect on what we can be doing as parents, carers and guardians to prepare children optimally for the term ahead.

First and foremost, I think it is important to consider why children go to school. Sorry to sound old-fashioned and unapologetically aspirational, but they go to school to learn. Happily, school learning encompasses the social, emotional and academic. However, children’s ability to thrive at school isn’t just about what happens there every-day; their ‘readiness’ for learning as well as their academic and emotional resilience is, to a large degree, determined by the quality of the home learning environment that they enjoy outside of school.

The term ‘home learning environment’ is less about how well-off a family is, and more about the attitude to learning, quality of attention and support children enjoy from their carers. The term refers to parents and carers setting gentle expectations with their offspring, about trying one’s best, the importance of reading, making learning part and parcel of everyday life and ensuring we are talking enthusiastically with our children about the world around us. In short, it is about developing their voice, curiosity, self-esteem and attuning to who they are as individuals.

I always say to parents/carers, who are you sending in to school each day? In addition to the emotional support, practical support for children plays a significant role in their school success. One of the biggest lessons from the world of neuroscience is the impact a great breakfast can have one children’s ability to thrive in the classroom. Additionally, the research evidence increasingly points to the need for parents/carers to pay attention to the quality of sleep children get. So right at the start of term, pay attention to those very important wellbeing and learning pillars and get them right.

It is not uncommon for children to receive a new phone for the first time in their lives at the start of a new school (senior school in particular), but try and remember that whatever technology is put in the hand of your child, it should be accompanied by a good family chat about rules of engagement. What are your family digital values? What are your expectations about their online behaviour? In that vein, it is a good idea to discuss and agree September screen time rules (which are potentially stricter than summertime rules).

If you or your child is feeling anxious about any aspect of school return, try hard to keep your anxieties away from children. Instead, work as a family to reframe their wobbles as excitement! Ensure that you open up opportunities for conversation about any worries and coach your child towards suggesting potential ideas that could alleviate their fears. Be a good and empathetic listener whilst demonstrating to them that you are there for them and have confidence in their ability to both enjoy and thrive at school.

In terms of getting organised for school, rather than expect them to be highly organised, help them practise being organised (can they work out what they need for each day and get it ready the night before?).

A big worry for all parents/carers is that their child will get along with and be liked by others. Asking children too many questions about making friends can inadvertently add pressure during an already challenging period. Give them time and have confidence in their abilities to work things out for themselves.

Lastly, during those first days, as tempting as it is, try not to bombard your children with too many questions. Nobody enjoys being quizzed about their day when they are tired and hungry. No doubt, they will tell you about their experiences at school when they are good and ready.

Good luck!

Dr Kathy Weston is one of Britain’s leading experts on parental engagement in children’s lives and learning. She is the founder of Tooled Up Education, an innovative, digital library of evidence-based tips on all aspects of parenting, family life and education available to schools across the UK. For more information, see:

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