Big school, small children: what a difference a year makes

Whether starting school or going to senior infants, this is a daunting time for you and your kids

When Holly O’Farrell started “big school” 10 months ago, her mother, Helen, readily admits she was more emotional than her daughter, who was 4½ at the time.

"She was my baby," says the mother of three, who is a lecturer at Limerick Institute of Technology. But there wasn't a bother on Holly, whose two older sisters were already at the school – Griffeen Valley Educate Together National School in Lucan, Co Dublin.

As it happens, The Irish Times was also there on Wednesday, August 27th, to capture the excitement of the 56 junior infants' "first day" – an experience shared by another nearly 70,000 children in 3,300 primary schools around the country. With more than 95 per cent of four- and five-year-olds now availing of the free preschool year, starting school is no longer such a daunting prospect, but it is still a significant milestone in any family's life.

Before the junior infants all skipped out on their holidays last week – with one school year down and 13 to go – we caught up with parents and teachers at Griffeen Valley and beyond to hear how it had gone and what advice they might have for those with children starting this September.


Although the O’Farrells, who live in Celbridge, Co Kildare, already had two children at Griffeen Valley, Holly’s experience in junior infants was going to be different. For what was the third year of an experimental project at the multidenominational, multicultural school, she was enrolled for the class in which everything was to be taught through Irish.

There were two classes, and parents could opt for the Irish or the English one, with a smattering of other languages for all. Although Helen says she is quite a fan of Irish, her husband, Peter, would prefer other European languages. However, they both decided it was a good chance for Holly to get a grounding in Irish.

“Obviously if we had wanted her to go to a Gaelscoil we would have put her name down for a Gaelscoil,” says Helen. “But when the opportunity arose to try it out for a couple of years – at that age they are little sponges – we figured it couldn’t do any harm.”

Now, with one year completed, they are glad they made that choice. “But I would say,” Helen says, “having had two girls ahead of her, it was the harder option. Her teacher was fantastic and she pushed them quite a lot and was quite ambitious for them. We found there was quite a lot of homework involved, for that age group.”

Keith O’Connor, whose daughter Daisy is in Holly’s class, is also full of praise for the bilingual experience the school offers.

“My wife is having basically fluent Irish conversations with her at this point and I am completely left out of the picture.”

He has heard the horror stories about children and homework, but it isn’t an issue with Daisy. She gets the homework for the week on Monday and has to hand it in on Thursday, he says.

“It is a good method because they are kind of getting used to project-managing their time. It works very well,” says Keith, who is chairman of the school’s board of management.

Sounding it out

He is delighted to see her reading and writing now. “Okay, her spelling isn’t 100 per cent correct yet but she is sounding it out. And she is writing everywhere, at every opportunity.”

Daisy has even been known to leave Post-it notes on her bed at their home in Clondalkin – “I’m gone to Lilli’s” – after taking advantage of her big sister’s empty bed in the middle of the night when Lilli was on a sleepover.

Daisy’s teacher has identified her particular interest in art. “We have always seen that with Daisy,” Keith says. “She has always been drawing or making a project and it will be interesting to see that get encouraged as she goes through.”

As Holly and Daisy move into senior infants for 2015/16, they will continue to be taught through Irish but, from first class onwards, only PE, art and “all informal conversation”, according to the school’s principal, will be through Irish.

The principal, Tomás Ó Dúlaing, says it has been “a lovely year” and he is already looking forward to having 50 per cent more junior infants when the school reopens, thanks to a “magnificent” extension provided by the Department of Education, which enabled them to provide a third class for the new intake. They are going to offer a language class, a technology class and a class dedicated to the Aistear curriculum.

While there will be a particular emphasis on the respective themes in each class, all the junior infants will rotate around the base rooms, he says. “It is almost like a glorified form of station teaching. We are just trying to keep it as interesting as possible.”

Having had an evening with the parents of the incoming junior infants, as well as an induction day with the children, Ó Dúlaing says parental concerns often depend on the position of the incoming child in the family.

“If it’s the first child, there can be a huge level of anxiety; if it’s the last child, there can be a lot of sadness.”

Donna McMorrow had an added complication when her eldest son, Seán, started junior infants at Scoil Carmel in Firhouse, Dublin, last September, because he has a nut allergy.

“I had to educate his teacher about his allergy and teach her how to implement an action plan and use his emergency EpiPen,” she says. A letter had to be sent out to all parents about not putting any nut products in their children’s lunchboxes and asking them to talk to their children about not sharing lunches. She also had to impress on Seán the importance of not sharing any of the other children’s food.

“Invites to birthdays were a challenge as I would always have to stay with him and supervise what he ate,” says McMorrow, who found having to explain this to others a bit challenging but she got used to it.

Seán already knew one girl in his class from Montessori and there were other preschool friends in the other junior infant classes who he would see in the yard at break time. However, his mother reckons it took him about two weeks to settle into school.

“He got upset a few times after I left him off the first week.” She has also found motivating him to do his homework and keeping him focused on it hasn’t been easy. “He says sometimes he doesn’t like doing hard work.” His favourite parts of school are “playing in the yard, PE and doing jobs for teacher”.

McMorrow’s advice for parents whose children are starting in junior infants this September is to get to know other parents as much as you can and exchange numbers. “We set up a WhatsApp group and it’s good for organising nights out and general talk about school and homework.”

Other parents

Deirdre, whose eldest child started school in Co Laois last September, also believes it is important to get to know other parents. “These are the parents of the children whom our own child will be socialising, sitting beside, eating with for the next eight years.”

As a secondary-school teacher, she can’t do the morning drop-off or collect her daughter, so she doesn’t see other parents casually at the school gate. Many of them had had children at the same Montessori but Deirdre’s daughter went to another one and knew only one other child in the class.

“I joined the parents’ council in order to meet other parents and I also try to attend all the events the school organises,” says Deirdre, who reckons it took until about Christmas for her daughter, who turned five in November and is shy by nature, to really settle in.

Getting her to go to school and do her homework was never an issue, but eating her lunch caused a few headaches. She seemed to be more interested in wanting to play than to eat.

“Some days she would have eaten very little of her lunch, something I’ll be keeping an eye on next year and trying to tackle.”

During the year, Deirdre made a point of not asking her what she “learned” in school.

“Children sometimes don’t believe they learn anything in schools,” she says with a laugh. “Instead, while doing homework or in the car or having dinner, I would ask her to sing me a rhyme or song her teacher sings, or quiz me on some Irish words from her copy. After a while, I wouldn’t have to ask and, in between songs, my daughter would tell me all the news from school.”

Finally, for parents making the momentous trip to the school door on the first day of junior infants in September, she says don’t “overlinger” but do “wear sunglasses to hide the tears”.

“We didn’t bring our youngest daughter with us that morning,” she says, “as we felt it was more important for our eldest daughter to know she had our full attention.”

School’s out but the learning can continue (and be a bit of fun)

Forget the workbooks and the worksheets: this is holiday time, so any continued learning should be informal and fun.

That's the advice of Kate Divilly, a teacher of junior infants at St Colmcille's Junior National School in Knocklyon, Dublin.

Don’t worry about your child forgetting things learned in junior infants because the first couple of weeks in senior infants are used to revise all the material from junior infants, such as all the letter names and sounds.

However, here are a few fun ways to keep the learning fresh in their minds and build on the huge progress they have made in their first year of school. Frequent your local library Not only is the library a rich resource of reading material, but there will generally be various special events on over the summer to foster the love of books.

Many libraries will also be participating in the Summer Reading Buzz 2015, so check what’s happening in your area through your local authority website.

Pick out letters

Whether you’re out walking with your child, shopping in the supermarket or reading bedtime stories, ask them to pick out letters in signs and books and to sound them out.

Play and play

It’s the ideal time to play, from dawn until dusk: outdoors, indoors, with friends, parents, siblings and alone. Every experience will enhance their learning, personal development and social skills.

Look at art

Quite a lot of class time in junior infants is spent looking at and discussing artists’ paintings, as it is great for developing oral language and stimulating visual imagination. So try to visit an art gallery or two and encourage your child to identify colours, patterns, numbers of objects etc in art work and conjure up a possible story behind the painting.

And if your children are starting school . . .

Incoming junior infants may have had an induction day at their new school but the summer will seem like an eternity to them until that much-anticipated “first day” arrives.

As the majority are seasoned veterans of playgroups and the free pre-school year, it’s not quite the leap in life it once was. However, it is still a step up in learning and independence, so what can parents do to prepare them?

Don’t obsess

Refrain from talking with the child all summer about what’s ahead, but do have informal chats from time to time to check if there are any concerns. Be really positive about school and censor any bad memories you might have.

Relax about the academics

Don’t worry about your child needing to know, for instance, all the letter sounds. In fact, too much hothousing during the summer “is going to take the element of fun and surprise out of the teaching for them”, says Kate Divilly, a junior infants teacher.

Foster a love of reading

Anything you can do to encourage a love of books and reading is invaluable. Go to the library and take time out to read stories with your child. Visiting art galleries is also a good idea.

Talk numbers

Children don’t need to be able to write numbers but practise counting out loud informally with them, such as the number of potatoes you are putting into a pot. Sorting – the cutlery into knives, forks and spoons; the washing into pairs of socks – is also suggested. “That’s classifying and is one of the skills needed in junior infants,” says Divilly.

Name recognition

It is helpful if children can recognise their own names going into junior infants, so they can pick out their own, labelled possessions. Have it written up on their bedroom door and point to the letters. Another tip comes from Deirdre, who found that other girls had the same schoolbag as her daughter who started school last September, so she added a teddy-bear keyring to help her pick it out quickly from the pile.

Build independence

Take every opportunity to allow children to do things for themselves over the summer, as this builds self-confidence. It is essential when they start junior infants that they can go to the toilet themselves and that they can put on and take off their coats and their shoes (get ones with Velcro straps) independently. They should also be able to open their schoolbag.

Take the lunchbox for a trial run

Picnics offer the perfect opportunity to check that your child can open and close the new school lunchbox. You can also teach them to know what to put back and what to throw in the bin – although be aware that school policies on recycling vary.

For more advice, the leaflet Making the Transition from Early Education to Primary Education can be downloaded from the National Parents’ Council website at