I CAN: Taking the first big step – how to help your child transition from nursery to primary school

For parents, carers and children, starting primary school can be a big step and one that can cause anxiety and concern for all involved. I CAN speech and language advisor Louisa Reeves offers her tips and guidance on what parents and carers can do to help their child make that next step successfully and how they can be supported if they struggle.

Starting primary school, or moving up to the next class, can be a big step for young children. Sometimes it can also be a big step for parents and carers. This is even more the case for children who struggle with the most important skill needed for learning – language. More than 1.4 million children in the UK have some kind of speech, language and communication need (SLCN) meaning that they struggle to speak, understand language and/or understand the rules of communication.

Parents of children with SLCN often find that starting school or moving between classes can be tricky. It’s a time when they find themselves asking questions (‘what if he can’t understand what’s going on?’ ‘what happens if she’s on her own at playtime?’) and worrying how their child will cope. However, there is a range of things that you can do to help:

Make sure your child knows how to ask for help. Teach them some useful phrases like “I don’t understand”, “can you say that again”, “I’ve got a problem” or even “I need help” so that if they are stuck they know how to get some help.

What’s does that mean?
When children start school they are likely to come across some new words that they haven’t encountered before. Things like ‘register’, ‘assembly’, ‘bell’ or even ‘playground’ might be new. If you’re a parent, you could see if you can come up with a list of school-based words and talk to your child about what they mean. Pictures can really help understanding!

What’s your name?
Making friends is a big part of starting school – children will rely on their language skills to help them with this. You can support them by talking about good ways to start conversations and make friends. Why not help them practise some good phrases they might want to try such as ’what’s your name?’, ‘do you like Pet Patrol?’ or even ‘can I play with you?’. If they are confident using these phrases then they’ll find it much easier. Help them with taking turns too – another important social skill that they’ll need!

“I’ll be teacher”
Pretend play can be a great way to get children used to new routines. Why not set up a ‘school’ role play at home so you can talk about school through play? Using teddies, dolls or any of your child’s favourite toys you can take registers, run groups, have playtimes, set up a lunch table and just have fun playing ‘schools’!

What’s in a word?
The school curriculum relies on children knowing lots of words to support their learning. However, these words will need to be specifically taught to children who struggle with language. Teaching time-related words (things like before/after/today/tomorrow/early/late) and position words (up/down/in front/behind) will help prepare them for the words they will need for learning.

Rhyme time
Have fun practising some nursery rhymes and songs. Children with SLCN will find the early skills needed for learning to read tricky. Singing and rhymes, for example, will help them to learn some important pre-reading skills. If your child knows some popular songs they will be able to join in more easily at school.

Keep talking
Stay in close contact with the teacher and other adults in your child’s school. You might want to set up a contact book that lets you share news from home (particularly helpful if your child struggles with their expressive language) and school can share news with you. Sharing ideas and things that work will mean that your child benefits from everyone supporting them consistently. Regular meetings can also be helpful.

Starting a new school is an exciting time for everyone. Using a range of simple strategies will help this also be as stress-free a time as possible, setting your child up for a positive experience in their new school period.

If you’re worried about how your child is getting on in their new school or class, why not chat to one of I CAN’s friendly speech and language therapists? The I CAN Enquiry Line service offers free advice and information via email, so do get in touch if you have any concerns.

I CAN is a children’s communication charity which has a number of programmes and interventions to help children suffering with speech and language delay. They work in early years settings and schools across the UK with evidence-based programmes and run two special schools for children with the most severe and complex needs. Find them on stand C28 at the Nursery World Show.