The most stressful time of the year? The first day of school can be anxiety inducing, but it doesn’t have to be
What to expect as your child starts at a new private school — and how to prepare for it
They are three of the most powerful words in the English language. Words that, when spoken on a warm summer’s evening, still have the power to make your heart race and stomach flutter even years after you first heard them. Back. To. School. For nervous parents about to send their children to a new school, late August can be a time of particular anxiety. Especially if they are about to enter the private school system for the first time, which brings some additional concerns to fret over. Is your daughter’s new uniform skirt compliant with knee-length regulations? Is your son’s brand new laptop going to survive past lunchtime? Will they become completely obsessed with the house system like those strange kids in Harry Potter?
These concerns are all to be expected, but they’re nothing to become anxious over. Most private schools in Toronto have welldeveloped programs designed to help new students and parents settle in.
The main intake points for independent schools are the first grade they cater to and Grades 7 and 9, but students join in smaller numbers at every stage. Induction programs vary by age but can begin as early as the spring before entry and usually take the form of school tours, social events and facilitating contacts among kids who will be classmates.
Jennifer Gray, director of admissions at St. Clement’s School for girls, near Yonge and Eglinton, says new student induction starts there in May with a parents’ evening. On that night, parents can talk with school officials about the school program and make appointments for uniform fittings, then there are invitations to end-of-term class events and a buddy system to encourage new and existing students to begin socializing over the summer. Orientation sessions are then held a few days before the start of term, which are so thorough they even cover how to sign out library books and log on to the computer network.
Despite all that preparation, that fateful morning in early September can still be a nervous one.
Sandra Boyes, head of the lower school at the 100-year-old all-boys Crescent School on Bayview Avenue, says everyone feels increasingly nervous as the first day approaches, but she advises parents to focus on the exciting side of starting a new school, such as making new friends or the vast array of extracurricular activities on offer at most private schools.
“I feel it’s important for parents to maintain a positive and upbeat attitude,” she says. “Children are incredibly good at picking up feelings from their parents, so even if the parent is feeling anxious, it’s important that they do not allow that anxiety to translate.”
One of the biggest causes of anxiety for parents of new students is figuring out how involved they should be in their child’s schooling. Few kids would thank their mom or dad for becoming known as the school’s pushy parent, but benign neglect is not exactly something to aim for either.
Jonathan Harris, head of school at Fieldstone, a coed day school near Lawrence and Dufferin, says parents should try to be active in the life of the school. One of the advantages of the independent system is its small class sizes, and Harris suggests that makes it easier for parents to become part of a tight community. At Fieldstone, each class has a parent coordinator to answer questions from other parents and encourage them to get involved with the school.
“It is important that parents aren’t just passive recipients of the three or four report cards through the year,” Harris says. “Getting to know the teachers, when the opportunity presents itself, is the best thing parents can do. That familiarity can help in dealing with problems.”
Gray at St. Clement’s also suggests that extracurriculars are a great way for both parents and students to feel part of the school.
“Definitely, we find students who transition in easily are the ones who are keen to get involved,” she says, pointing out that the school has some 90 athletic and special interest clubs for girls to choose from. Some private schools also assign students a “house” (often named after a historical figure or someone of importance to the school), which provides them with an opportunity to mix with students from other grades.
There is no rule on how long it should take a child to find his or her feet as all new students face their own set of challenges — for some it’s making friends, for others it’s the academic intensity of independent schools — but Crescent School’s Boyes advises parents to raise concerns sooner rather than later.
“We would rather hear about a problem before it’s a problem. If, for instance, you notice your son is not having many play dates, then ask the teacher which boys he is closest with, and see if you can set something up.
“If you think there’s something worth mentioning, then it’s worth mentioning.”
Starting at a new private school doesn’t have to be daunting