Preparing your child for school in Spain

Bridget Nelson runs Planet English in Sitges, a pretty coastal town just south of Barcelona. Planet English has been successfully running a Morning Activity Club for children between 2 and 6 since 2007. Bridget has an honours degree in primary education from the UK and has been teaching young people between the ages of 2 and 18 for thirty years. Here she gives advice on how to prepare your child for starting school for the first time.

Starting school is an exciting yet stressful time for both children and their parents. For many children it is the first time that they have been away from mum or dad for any length of time, and even for children who have been going to nursery – it still involves a big change with new teachers, new routines etc. Starting school in a foreign country where the language used is not your first language adds another element to what is already a huge step in any child’s development. Some children settle in very quickly, but others take much longer – up to a term is not unknown. There is no way of knowing how quickly you child will settle in but as parents there are some things we can do to try and make the adaptation as quick and easy as possible.

1. POSITIVE ATTITUDE
It is really important, despite any doubts you might have, to keep a positive attitude at all times and to avoid transmitting any of your anxieties to your child. From day one talk about school as a fun place where your child will have the chance to play with lots of other children and learn lots of exciting things. Tell your child about what you enjoyed at school. Avoid talking about negative experiences in front of your child.

2. INFORMATION
Tell your child as much as you can about what the school is like and what he/she will be doing. In Spain families are not usually allowed to look round the schools except at their open day, but walk or drive past the school as often as you can – pointing out what you can see – the playground etc. Explain some of the daily routines – hanging up your coat on your peg, lining up to go to the playground, sitting down for a story. There are lots of stories about starting school (see below) which show children some of the activities they can expect to do. Some experts even advise you to play schools with your child or to make a little classroom from a cardboard box and add tables etc.

3. INDEPENDENCE
Try and help your child to be as independent as possible. They will have a huge advantage if they can go to the toilet by themselves, change their shoes, open and close their snack boxes etc. Tights, braces and belts are a nightmare in P3 both for the children themselves and the teachers, so try to choose clothes that are easy to put on. For children with no Spanish at all it might be useful to teach them a couple of important words like caca, pipi, agua and pupa.

4. PUNCTUALITY
Punctuality is really important in helping your child to settle in. Arriving ten minutes late might not bother you at all, but it means that your child has to enter the class when all the other children have already said goodbye to their parents and settled down to the first activity and can be be very unsettling even for the most confident of children. Similarly, make sure you are there on time to pick your child up especially during the first few days. Arriving a few minutes late can seem like an eternity to a child – and gives them the feeling that they have been abandoned.

5. BE WELL PREPARED
Make sure that you have all the equipment necessary for your child and that it is clearly labelled. Read any letters from the school carefully and if you don’t know what something is – ask. It is really unsettling for a child to see that all the other children have brought in two toilet rolls to make a puppet and he/she hasn’t.

6. REGULAR ATTENDANCE
Many parents worry about their child not settling in when they really haven’t given it a fair chance. Many children will need at least a term before they feel completely at ease. If possible, avoid taking your child out of school for holidays or family visits (especially during the first term) or you run the risk of taking a huge backward step in their adaptation. If your child is invited to a birthday party, make the effort to try and go. The time will probably seem very late to you (Spanish parties are normally 17.00h – 19.30h) it may be difficult to get to and you won’t know anyone, but social events like this are important in the adaptation of the children – it means they can try and socialise with the confidence of having you there to back them up and you might even make some new friends yourself.

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CHILD IS SETTLING IN OKAY?
Even though your child may not want to talk much about school, he/she is probably settling in fine – it just takes time. Try not to interrogate them too much – it’s a long school day in a different language and the thing they most want when they come out is to have their normal familiar routine and family around them, not repeat blow by blow what they did.

Some children find it very difficult to go into school in the morning but most then soon settle down. Crying is also contagious and it usually only takes one upset child to set off several more. Felix Sanchez, lecturer at Salamanca University and author of many books on child psychology has outlined the adaptation process of many children as:
a) Protest – the child becomes aware that he/she is “on their own” and protests very strongly by: crying, trying to escape, showing anxiety, behaviour regression, rejection of the teacher and refusal to participate in any activities.
b) Ambivalence – the child is starting to enjoy some aspects of being at school but still protests – though less strongly – about being left there by crying, kicking or showing anxiety.
c) Adaptation – the child has overcome his/her anxiety about school and accepts the role of the teacher and has begun to interact with class members.

Sanchez suggests that most children have completed this process of adaptation by the end of the first month, but it has to be taken into consideration that his research was mostly with children entering school in their mother tongue. Children with no Spanish may take longer to settle, and I especially believe that interaction with other children may take much longer because they haven’t got the linguistic tools to play and make friends.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I THINK MY CHILD IS NOT SETTLING IN AT ALL?
Don’t give up straight away – it may take a full term before you see your child starting to settle. It will be a long, hard few months but try and remain positive. If you are really worried, ask for an appointment to see the teacher. Sometimes it can be something very small like not wanting to go to the toilet that is hindering your child’s adaptation, and only by talking to the teacher will you be able to find a solution to this type of problem. Trying to talk at length to her/him at the classroom door is not to be advised – there will be other parents trying to tell the teacher things not to mention 25 children to keep under control!

PREPARING FOR THE FIRST DAY
* Go shopping with your child and involve him/her in the buying of all the equipment for school and in putting the name on them.
* Practice getting changed by themselves, opening their snack, changing their shoes etc.
* A week before school starts, begin to restore a “normal” schedule with more reasonable bedtimes so that getting up early on the first day isn’t a huge shock and they aren’t over – tired.
* Get up early on the first morning and allow yourself plenty of time to get to school so that both you and your child arrive calmly.
* Reassure your child that you will be going way but that you will be there to pick him/her up and plan something to do together after school so that your child doesn’t think starting school is the end of fun with mum. A little treat like some stickers or a little toy is a nice way to meet them when they come out of school.
* When the moment finally arrives to say goodbye, remain calm and cheerful, say goodbye with a smile, remind them that you will be there to pick them up and walk quickly away. Staying only makes the situation worse, and seeing mummy also upset is just the final straw!
* If you are really worried about how your child is getting on – phone the school to ask. Don’t try hiding around the corner to watch them in the playground because if they see you it makes the situation even worse (I tried it !)

EQUIPMENT NORMALLY REQUIRED FOR CHILDREN STARTING P3 
* SMOCK (bata) – most children take a long sleeved cloth smock and many schools ask for the children in P3 to come in with the smock already on. Avoid the ones with buttons and go for the elasticated neck variety – easier for your child
* SNACK (almuerzo) – children normally have snack just before going out to the playground so don’t make the snack too big or he/she won’t get any time to play! A small sandwich or piece of fruit is fine. Spanish children typically bring their snack in a little drawstring bag which is easy to hang on their peg or put in their drawer.
* CUP (vaso) – your child will probably require a named plastic cup for drinking water.
* GYM SHOES OR NON SLIP SOCKS (sabatillas deportivas or calcetines anti-deslizantes) -children at this age don’t normally change completely for gym, but as their lessons are in a special room with a parquet floor, they need to change into gym shoes or non slip socks which are left at school.
* TISSUES AND WIPES (Kleenex y toallitas) – the teacher usually asks each family to send in a box of tissues and a pack of wipes which are shared by all the class.
* PHOTOS (fotos) – many teachers ask for several passport size photos which they use for labelling and also for some of the activities.
* CHANGE OF CLOTHES (muda) – all children at this age need a complete change of clothes, including shoes, which is left at school. Even children who are completely toilet trained may have the odd accident or spill water all over them. Remember to update this from time according to the season and growth of your child.

SOME GOOD BOOKS ABOUT STARTING SCHOOL
Going to school – Usborne First experiences
When an elephant comes to school by Jan Ormerod
Starting school – Picture Puffins
I am absolutely too small for school (Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child

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Find out more about the Spanish Education System.


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