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School readiness: trust your gut instincts, parents!

Is my child ready for school? A blog about school readiness.

While the kinder year has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not itself a reason to hold a child back from school. This post covers school readiness considerations for children in general and not just in the time of COVID disruption.

 

Four years ago parents Damien and Lauren Gardiner (LG) met with Debbie Isaac (paediatric occupational therapist) (DI) to talk about whether their son, D, was ready for school.

LG: Our middle child, D, is a February baby. I wish someone had told me the trouble  with that earlier!

DI: In my clinical practice the school readiness question comes up with children:

  • with a birthday between January and April
  • with delays with motor, language and play skills
  • with an identified difficulty such as ASD, or a genetic disorder that challenges social and motor skills

School readiness – some broad markers

LG: We started D in 3 year old kinder just before his fourth birthday. He was on track to start school two years later, aged 6. He was very interested in learning – wanting to read his brother’s readers, forming letters when drawing, confident socially, loved the school environment and was tall and robust. We began to worry about whether two years of kinder would dampen his interest in learning.

DI: Some broad markers of school readiness include:

  • Self-care – open a lunch box, get a drink, toilet independently (including clothes), take shoes, socks and jumper off
  • Gross motor skills – manage stairs, walk around a playground, manage a range of playground equipment, kick and throw a ball
  • At kinder – can sit on the mat and listen to a story, join in singing and actions, engage in cutting tasks, hold and control a pencil, manage messy play, engage with construction toys
  • With peers – share toys, play in parallel as well as interact with another child in shared play
  • Own play – play independently with toys of interest
  • Showing interest in starting school

School readiness – navigating conflicting views

LG: We spoke to the kinder about D’s readiness. The kinder recommended he complete his 3 and 4 year old kinder years.

DI: The decision can be particularly hard when parents and educators, even extended family and neighbours, have conflicting views.

I strongly believe that parents need to:

  • trust their gut instincts and recognise that they are the experts on their own child
  • consider the position of the child in the family – younger siblings are aided in their readiness for school with an older sibling at school, and are already familiar with the playground and school activities such as readers and assembly
  • consider the child’s social confidence and height. It can be hard to hold back a tall five year old – they stick out in the preschool group. However, they also need the social confidence to manage beginning school

LG: Damien and I also had different perspectives. I had read widely on the topic. Not being totally certain of his readiness, I felt that less harm could be done holding D back from school. Damien, who had started school at age 4 and is an April baby (so he was 4 well into his first year of school), felt that if D was ready, he should go to school.

DI: Readiness for school should be determined on the individual child, not rigid rules. If a child is ready, they should go to school, bearing in mind the State’s prescribed rules on school starting age.

In my clinical practice, I use a developmental assessment that looks at gross and fine motor skills, including pencil control and scissor skills, following instructions and accepting directions. More careful assessment is required for children with language delay, social immaturity, or a formal diagnosis.

Starting school – a change for children and parents

LG: As well as considering readiness, I also wondered whether I was ready to let him go.

DI: The transition from preschool to school is both a physical and emotional change for children and their parents and brings with it a mixture of joy and sadness.

Parenthood is a constant process of enabling our children’s independence, and with the move to school, comes exposure to a range of influences from other adults and children. There is some anxiety in the letting go process.

As a parent I was excited for my children to move on to the wider world, having clearly outgrown kindergarten. But I felt sad too – the reality of less time together to go on adventures and play in the garden. Starting school also makes obvious the passing of time, from the baby and early childhood years. Parents can feel a sense of loss.

Acknowledging mixed emotions and how parents’ own experience of starting school can play a role helps retain some objectivity about school choice as well as child readiness.

Is the school ready?

LG: Some people suggest we should be asking if the school is ready, rather than the child. Our school principal told us that whatever decision we made, the school would support it with extra help for D etc if required. He urged us to do the same. I think that was a really powerful message – that rather than having one chance to get it right, the decision was actually just one of many in D’s school career!

DI: Yes, absolutely!

It’s also helpful to be open to repeating Prep or another year in early primary school where the decision to send a child has been difficult. I’ve supported families in this situation. In practice I’ve seen it work well when children have repeated Prep, Grade 1 or Grade 2, sometimes at a different school.


PS

Activities to do at home to help get your child ready for school

There are a range of activities to do at home to supplement the COVID-19 interrupted kinder year in our last post “Getting kids school ready in the time of COVID”. See the post below.

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Getting kids school ready in the time of COVID

By paediatric Occupational Therapist Debbie Isaac, a Melbourne-based practitioner with many years experience with young children in the preschool and school years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our 2020 plans for six.

Children starting primary school next year and their parents are no exception, with some parents concerned that their child may not be ready for school, with disruptions to preschool programs this year.

Yes, preschool plays an important part in the transition to school. But parents do too – as our children’s first (and in fact, forever, teachers). Teaching our kids to communicate, play, get dressed and eat independently as we ordinarily do puts children well on the way to being school ready.

In this post I identify three important areas that parents can focus on to get their child ready for school, supplementing whatever preschool experience they have had and typical home-based preparation. Some practical examples and ideas are also included.

But first a word on preschool…

Preschool

Preschool is exactly what it sounds like – preparation for school.

Accordingly, parents need not be concerned to have their child learning things in their preschool year that they will be learning at school. For example, learning how to write letters. Children do not need to learn how to write letters before school. While some children are keen to know the letters of their name (and I have no objection to this), engagement in drawing and being able to draw a variety of scenes and imaginings is more relevant preparation for school.

Drawing to promote school readiness

Drawing is a leading activity in school preparation, as the expressive tool that comes before writing, and an eye-hand task involving imagination. It does not always come naturally to children, but it is worth working on.

COVID school readiness blog - Rachel drawing

An important starting point is to find a drawing tool that suits the child’s hand. Short stubby or round crayons or pencils that fit neatly into a little hand work well. Comfortable grasp means that the child is more likely to produce a controlled mark on a piece of paper.

Some children might need help starting a drawing. In my clinical practice, I have found that an adult joining in can encourage engagement. Try starting them off by drawing something that interests them and then encouraging them to finish – add the wheels on a car or a tail, eyes, mane and legs on a horse.

Another tip is to mix up drawing tools and materials – rotate using coloured paper, paint sticks, pastels. New materials can inspire new ideas – blue paper may lead to an underwater scene, black to the night sky.

covid school readiness blog - Silas image

Fine motor and gross motor activities to promote school readiness

So many day-to-day activities count towards school readiness. If you are playing with playdough, making bikkies and building Lego at home, you’re well on the way to doing what is needed in this area.

Activities using two hands are important to encourage finger dexterity, strengthen arms and promote language and imagination. Try also sand play, planting blubs and seedlings, ripping paper for a collage and threading beads.

Cutting with scissors is an everyday two-handed activity that is important for school. Building scissor skills can take place in a practical way – in opening food packets and cutting out pictures in catalogues. The goal is for the child to develop consistency with a scissors hand and a helping hand. Look for scissors designed especially for children.

COVID school readines blog - Construction by Evie

A common concern of some parents of preschoolers is that their child does not have an established hand preference. This is a variance in maturation and often runs in families. From observation, the 6-9 months before school are a time of rapid physical and emotional growth and skill acquisition, with resolution of hand preference being one aspect.

Exposing children to a wide range of physical experiences encourages strength, confidence, balance and body awareness. Important skills include:

  • learning to catch or kick a bouncing ball (basketball size). It is easier to learn to kick a ball than to catch one, and round balls are easier than Aussie Rules footballs. Kick at a target or knock down some skittles. Try novel games like cricket with a tennis racquet and a beach ball.
  • climbing.
  • galloping and skipping (in that order). Try skipping together – hold your child’s hand and move together in slow motion – step, hop, step, hop.

Knowledge of right and left can be reinforced with these activities. Show the child they can make an “L” with the left thumb and forefinger as a guide.

Self-care tasks to promote school readiness

 Competence in everyday tasks develops the child’s confidence that they can look after themselves. School relevant tasks to practice at home include:

  • getting a drink of water from the tap, preparing a bowl of cereal and buttering toast.
  • carrying a backpack on outings with a drink and snack they can open themselves.
  • getting to the toilet in time.
  • dressing skills – at school the key tasks are getting a jumper on and off, managing clothes when toileting and taking shoes and socks on and off – socks without a heel are a big help.

Wrap up

Children recognise that starting school is a step up from being at home, with a sense of pride in this achievement. As parents, it is our achievement also.  Despite interruptions to the preschool year, what happens at home sets the foundations for learning and is not to be underestimated.

Yes: your child can do it!

Yes: you can too!

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Becoming Mrs Mum: Strategies for at-home learning with primary children

Mum and child drawing with chalk

Three years ago I was a parent to a newly minted prep boy.  I was a prep mum the year after too.

Afterschool learning activities during those first years of school – practicing readers, learning high-frequency words and some finishing off – were difficult, especially with my eldest boy.

My requests of him to do these things were met with refusal or a reluctance that saw him grudgingly do the task quickly and with little care. It was difficult keeping my own emotions in check as well, with increasing frustration and a track of “I can’t do this” playing in my head.

Three years on, with our boys now in Grades 2 and 3, the difficulties and frustrations are far less frequent.

In this post I share strategies that have worked for me for both afterschool learning and homeschooling (we had a stint of that just prior to the Term holidays).

In the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that most parents will need to facilitate some form of learning at-home in place of school for at least part of Term 2. In my home state, the government has just announced that children who can learn at home will be taught remotely for Term 2.

I hope the strategies in this post can help with that.

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At-home learning is different to school

One of the greatest challenges to creating an effective at-home learning environment is that home is a child’s safe zone and parents’ are a child’s safe people.

Home is where our kids get grumpy and throw tantrums. Our children say “no” to us in a way they never would to their teachers.

Some of the strategies in this post will help with this dynamic. To the extent they don’t, I think it’s important to accept that at-home learning is not going to be perfect and to be kind to yourself and your children as you work together and do your best.

Agree and display a written schedule

This was a very successful strategy for both our afterschool reading practice and our recent week of homeschool because it:

  • took the focus off me as the source of the program
  • created a structure and boundaries (most children respond well to these)
  • avoided confusion and arguments about what was meant to be happening at a particular time
  • allowed the kids to be part of the decision-making, bolstering their enthusiasm for the activities and making it harder for them to refuse to participate
  • provided something to look forward to (whether a special activity or just the end of the program for the day)!

But, while structure is good, it’s also important to be flexible, particularly if you’re like me and juggling school and younger children. Many a reading practice session at our house has been cancelled due to a toddler meltdown! Allowing room for spontaneity and variation may also allow you to develop your child’s learning about things that catch their attention (and cope with things that don’t!)

Be prepared for younger children

Younger children are another major challenge for afterschool learning activities or homeschool.

To help cater for everyone’s needs, I suggest:

  • having activities the younger child can do beside your school children, eg, blocks, dolls, playdough, drawing, books
  • preparing snacks and a water bottle in advance

Your younger child may feel put out with his or her older siblings home and less time alone with Mum and Dad. Try to dedicate some one-on-one time for your younger child. For that, I love bathtime and stories before bed!

Enlist others

This was a masterstroke in our quest to get our particularly reluctant reader to practice reading at home and gave me a rest from having to be the organiser (also chief nagger). Our reading practice schedule included a read to Dad session every Sunday night and, in the event of visitors, we enlisted them to listen to our children read too.

Applying this strategy in the COVID-19 pandemic comes with its challenges of course – but your children could read to their grandparents over Facetime or video conference. And, what about enlisting grandparents to read a chapter book to your child over the phone? Grandparents might not have all the modern titles on their bookshelves, but they might be able to dust off a classic or two. The Famous Five or some of Enid Blyton’s books, perhaps.

Read aloud

Reading went from being a chore to a captivating adventure for my particularly reluctant reader after a Summer holiday during which we read a number of chapter books pitched perfectly at young boys.

Even with my school boys’ now in Grades 2 and 3, we still read to them most days – at bedtime and at any time we need to change the pace a bit!

Audiobooks are another great option for helping kids get interested in books and reading. We have memberships to a couple of libraries and get access to audiobooks for free.

Learning opportunities are everywhere

So your learning activity (perhaps even the whole day!) doesn’t go to plan?

Yes, I’ve had a few of those!

Get your kids to help make dinner and make it a lesson in reading, maths and science. Or, show them how to peg clothes out or fold washing – they’re going to need those skills in the future too!

A break for the subbed-in playmate

If your kids are learning at home in place of school and you have a particularly social boy or girl (as we do!), you may find yourself being asked to play more than usual.

Try to give yourself a break each day – otherwise the program of teaching/supervising, parenting and play can be all-consuming.

For me at the moment that comes in the form of putting on the TV.

Paid work from home with kids in tow

Doing all this and doing paid work from home at the same time is another level again.

I worked part-time for a number of years after having kids and had some days working from home with kids in tow. I’ve taken phone calls in closets and worked while my kids watched TV all day. These experiences were not fun for any of us.

While it depends on how old and independent your kids are (mine were little at the time and not very independent), my advice on adding paid work into the juggle is that to the extent you can, push your work to kid bedtimes and early mornings. With daytime work commitments, tag team with your partner and use TV when you can’t.

Good luck and may the force and these ideas be with you for Term 2!

 

 

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Go bush: for one and all!

Government and media campaigns are encouraging us all to visit fire-affected and other rural communities to help support local economies.

But getting out to rural areas across the state, indeed across Australia, is not just good for rural communities.

It’s good for us and our children too.

And not just because of the incredible festivals some of these places put on, the local markets with locally grown produce or the award-winning sausage rolls baked in the ovens of local bakeries.

Getting out into rural areas is good for us and our children because we can learn first-hand about the hardships our fellow Australians face, but also see how they adapt and cope with them. The resilience of these people and these communities is inspiring and sets a wonderful example for all of us.

IMG_4081 (002)

As the green of Melbourne fades in the rear view mirror and is replaced by crisp dry grass or bare rocks and soil, school is in. This is what our family learnt from approximately 6000kms on the road this summer:

  • Australia is a huge country and subject to a vast range of soil and climatic conditions. Our trip up the middle of New South Wales and into Queensland on the Newell Highway showed us a wide range of land – from prosperous farmland to dry, desert-like conditions. For some Aussies, it’s home.
  • The conditions are volatile too. Australia is indeed a place of “drought and pouring rains”. Much of our trip through the barren landscape up the Newell was in 40+ degree heat. In those conditions it’s hard to imagine that it ever rains there. In fact, marking the sides of much of the highway are flood markers, suggesting that it not only rains, it floods. And a mere four weeks on since our time there, many places have flooded.
  • Australians care about each other. In late December we met two inspiring women in Lightning Ridge – a mother and daughter duo. Over breakfast at a local cafe they heard us deliberating about our trip that day to Goondiwindi and piped in with their local knowledge to help plan our trip. As we shared our story and they told us their’s, we learned they were accepting handouts from local businesses to keep food on their family’s table. They didn’t know how long they would be able to stay on their farm, which had been in their family for generations. But not only did they go out of their way to help us navigate the next stage of our trip (including recommended food stops and landmarks), they talked with deep concern for the people affected by the bushfires.
  • We are resilient too. To me there is no better symbol of resilience in the face of brutal conditions than the silo and water tower art in many outback towns (for where you can find them, see www.australiansiloarttrail.com/). We visited the silos at Thallon (population 257) in Southern Queensland. At Thallon, the Grain Corp Silos have been painted to showcase icons of the area and the presentation is simply stunning (see top photo on this post). The signs providing background to the project state:

“The Silos mural project means a great deal to the Thallon Community as the town has suffered many setbacks over the years with population decline and business closure. We believe this project marks a turning point for the community.”

There are less obvious symbols like these too all over the countryside – the Christmas displays along roads (often featuring a piece of discarded farm machinery and some tinsel) and in rural townships. And, of course, the locals themselves, like the women in Lightning Ridge.

So definitely go bush – go fishing, hiking, camping or searching for the best sausage roll or potato cake. Take a look around you too – see what it’s like to live outside a capital city if that’s where you’re from. And talk to the locals – hear what it’s like to live a vastly different life to your own. Their story might give you a new perspective. It might inspire and uplift you too.

Yes, your trip will be good for local communities.

And it will be good for you too.

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The power of the “let kids be kids” idea: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy

Picture of a man in a santa claus costume

We all want our kids to have a joyful and magical childhood and “be kids” for as long as they can.

I realised the power of this idea last week when reflecting on how we as a family have adopted the Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy myths.

Chances are you’ve bought in too. Read on to find out more!

Stop here, Tooth Fairy!

Recently our 7 year old, Little Mate, lost his fifth tooth.

The Tooth Fairy was a bit slack and didn’t deposit the much-awaited funds for some time.

One night as we were sitting around the dinner table, he asked me “Are you and Dad the Tooth Fairy?”

I was ill-prepared for such a direct question, but calling on my usual approach of being open, upfront and honest with our children, I said “Yes.”

Neither Little Mate or Dames (our 5 year old who is yet to lose a tooth) showed shock or disappointment at my answer.  Instead Little Mate said, “Well, when are you going to give me money for my tooth?”

When I told Damien later, it was he who felt the disappointment. His reaction surprised me – he was, after all, the kid who had Santa Claus pegged from early on and spilled the beans to the other children in his home town (Mr Lawson with the golden tooth was easy to pick dressed as Santa Claus).

Days later, and miraculously, the Tooth Fairy did visit Little Mate – leaving a deposit under Little Mate’s bed while we were away on holidays – so it could not possibly have been Mum and Dad and the Tooth Fairy story lived to see another day!

We’re in (and it shocks me!)

On reflection, it shocks me that we as a family have bought into the myths of Santa Claus and co. And while we haven’t ever gone to elaborate lengths to foster these aspects of Christmas, Easter and losing a tooth (I can’t remember Santa’s ever receiving biscuits and milk for supper and the best and most exciting gifts for our kids always come from us), we have nonetheless played along with the kid’s conversations about how amazing it is that the Easter Bunny can find us even when we’re on holidays and that Santa can still deliver us presents, even without a fireplace! And I must admit that planting chocolate Easter eggs as Easter Bunny has been an incredibly joyful experience for both Damien and I.

There are three reasons why I feel shocked by this:

  • both Damien and I take an open, educative and honest approach when it comes to our kids. I always try to explain something if asked no matter how challenging the concept might be – six months ago when I was putting the final touches on my book and Little Mate was also into book creation and (re)creating a favourite book of his, we had a chat about copyright laws;
  • I never accept what people say, take advice or other things at face value. I think critically and usually research widely and canvas other’s views. I can hand on heart say that I never did any of these things when it came to Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy; and
  • sharing this realisation with Damien while writing this post, I learned that Damien was “not comfortable” with the stories. Normally we would discuss and come to a landing on anything either of us felt uncomfortable about in the parenting sphere – but this also never happened.

So why are we in?

Why did we buy in to these myths at the expense of the way we usually parent? Why did Damien feel disappointed that I’d spilled the beans on the Tooth Fairy, when he felt uncomfortable with the story in the first place?

I think it’s because it’s such a powerful idea – that we should let kids be kids – so powerful in fact that we would put our parenting practices and principles on hold to uphold it.

And how do we know what being a kid is like?

Well, we know this from our own experiences as children.  Believing in Santa and co is a significant childhood tradition, particularly in my family. Getting a gift from Santa is a tradition to which feelings of hope, surprise and thrill attach. And we feel sentimental about our childhoods and we want our children to feel the magic and the wonder that we felt when we were little and thinking about a big guy in a red suit and a big bag of presents for us and our family.

We also want our kids to be kids for as long as possible. Parents over the last few days have told me how they hope that the Santa and related myths continue in their families for as long as possible and they dread the day that their child finds out the truth. It’s a sign of growing up and a loss of innocence – and we don’t want our kids to do that too fast!

And just to be clear – in making these discoveries while writing this post – I haven’t felt guilt or regret about the approach we have taken. Perhaps more I’ve felt trepidation about having the chat when the need finally arises. And, also sadness that, at least for our two boys, the time for them to know the truth draws closer.

Lauren x

PS

The idea that kids should be kids deserves more than a single blog post as it plays a part in how we address many issues with our kids, such as:

  • sex, our bodies and sexuality
  • relationships and divorce
  • wellbeing, sickness and death
  • homework, testing and grades in school
  • violence and crime
  • stranger danger and sexual predators

Stay tuned for more posts on this in the new year!

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Navigating the noise: how I became a more confident mum

Once I was calm, in control and able to problem-shoot a million issues without breaking a sweat. I thought critically about everything and I got paid to “cut through” as a corporate lawyer.

But as a first-time mum, even a cry would send my nerves sky high, my brain into panic mode and trigger the “I can’t do this” self-talk. A first vomit (no one talks about that gruesome milestone!) saw us racing to the Royal Children’s Hospital. And I was drowning in information and advice that was often contradictory, irrelevant and usually unsolicited.

When you become a mother there’s so much noise from the sidelines: from the pages of books; from the internet; from family and friends; and, even, from complete strangers.

One time when Little Mate was around six months old, a friendly-faced woman approached me at the shops. She poked her head into the pram and said “ah, he looks ready for a sleep.”

Those words instantly triggered my anxiety. Settling the little guy at night was challenging for us and I’d been told that he should be self-settling to sleep in his bed during the day. Quickly I made tracks for home, stopping only to poke Little Mate out of his increasingly sleepy state and chastising myself for being out too long.

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Now after two more kids and eight years, it’s different.

Now I call advice that does not suit the unique characteristics, personalities and needs of our family at a particular day or time: “noise”. I’m not saying that advice about a daytime nap routine is “noise”, but rather that there are other factors that also need to be considered – like a mum’s need for extra time out of the house – and, in that case, maybe daytime nap advice is “noise”.

While I still waiver and deliberate at times in making decisions as a parent, I no longer feel so overwhelmed by all the information and advice. Three things stand out as significant in my journey to more confidence.

1. Getting professional help

We sought professional help for one of our kids early on. Certain everyday tasks and some social situations were challenging for him: mainly, getting out of PJs, leaving the house and sitting still. Kinder was also not a happy place for him.

When you have a child that is different, you might wonder what you have done wrong – I certainly did. And while I was never that interested in making comparisons, it’s hard not to as a parent when a lot of things are measured in relative terms (eg the way children’s height and weight is measured in percentiles against other children).

Meeting with a developmental paediatrician and later, an occupational therapist, was the start of the turning point for me. These professionals gave us advice tailored to our children and our family. They reassured us about all the things we were doing right (many things they suggested we’d in fact already done) and offered us new strategies to try.

We found books and the internet were not particularly helpful. Sometimes in fact they stoked the fire of my parenting guilt when they suggested things that I could do when my child was a baby that I had not done (he was already three and a half)!

What I know now is that parenting books provide general guidance for a broad audience. When I look back on some of them now, what I see is not all the things I could have done but all the reasons why the book doesn’t suit our family.

They also cannot just be taken as wisdom because they’ve got a shiny cover – a recent study in the UK concluded that some books go against government advice on important issues such as safe sleeping: see Professor Amy Brown and Victoria Harries, “Some baby care books are giving advice that goes against safe infant care guidelines”, The Conversation, 4 July 2019 (http://theconversation.com/some-baby-care-books-are-giving-advice-that-goes-against-safe-infant-care-guidelines-117606).

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2. Finding someone to talk to

Some people have friends, relatives or parents they can call on to discuss parenting advice and information and whether it works for their family. Maternal health nurses can also be good for this.

My number one “go-to” has been and remains, our nanny, Jess. For more than six years, we’ve had the benefit of her wise and supportive counsel. Jess came to us with about 10 years of nannying under her belt, childcare and teacher’s aid qualifications, a life lived around children and a desire to always learn more. And she knows our family intimately.

Our relationship has always been a two-way street and most “Jess days” start with lots of chatter. We both bring ideas and observations to the table and workshop them in the context of our family circumstances.

3. Getting some “wins” on the board

There were lots of little wins along the way, like weight gains, smiles and rolls, first words and first steps. But one thing that really stands out to me now as having really boosted my confidence as a mum was when our little guy, who’d detested kinder, bounded into the school gate on day one of Prep with not much more than a “see-you tonight Mum and Dad.” We really haven’t looked back since.

 

With children aged eight, six and two, I certainly don’t have all the answers (teenagers…argh!). But what I do now have are the tools to find the answers for our family. My number one tool in my toolbox is my gut instinct. Now I have enough confidence to trust it in all the noise.

Whatever stage you are in your parenting journey, I hope this post gives you comfort that you were or are not alone and, perhaps if you’re in the thick of it, some ideas for what might just help get you through it.