10 things I wish I'd known before my child started school (ignore #8 at your peril)

From whether to avoid the school mums to what's really worth buying, one mum spills the tea about starting school

A woman and a young boy standing close together outside school gates
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Got a little one starting school and wondering what to expect? Relax, we asked a mum to share all the things she wishes she'd known before her child started school. 

If you've bought the best school shoes and stuck name labels on absolutely every bit of kit but if you're still feeling a bit anxious about the kid going back to school, you're not alone.

While I’m still trying to get my head around the idea my baby girl is now big enough to dress herself, ride a bike, and perform word-perfect renditions of the entire Sing and Sing 2 back catalogue, I feel quite relaxed about the idea of her starting school. Of course, I’m prepping myself for the inevitable tears (mine, obviously) but this is not my first rodeo. 

My eldest is about to start Year 3 so, having navigated the ups and downs of that first year of school before, I feel more prepared to handle what’s coming next. If I could turn back the clock, here’s what I wish I’d known before my first child started school. 

1. Being ‘school ready’ isn’t what you might think

I remember spending lockdown desperately working on phonics and writing with my son, to make sure he would be ready to start big school come September. Turns out, this isn’t what teachers mean by ‘school ready’ at all. In most instances, making sure your child knows how to get dressed, go to the toilet independently, and can handle being away from you for the day is way more important. Everything else comes once they start school. 

2. Don’t worry about appearances

No matter how pristine your children are as you wave them off in the morning, things will look very different by pick up. My son’s Reception class regularly piled out of school looking like they’d just survived a heavy weekend at Glastonbury. Perfect pigtails, shiny shoes, and white polo shirts have a habit of not staying that way for long, so lower your expectations and just be happy if they come back with all their clothes.

3. Give them time

It’s natural to want to find out all about what your child has been up to at school but ask even the simplest of questions straight after pick up and be prepared for monosyllabic replies. “What did you do today?” or “What did you have at lunch?” usually get a “don’t know” or “can’t remember” response. Frustrating, yes, but understandable really when these little brains have had so much to contend with during the day. After a hug and kiss, I now give my son some time to decompress before I attempt to ask anything about his day. Oh, and spoiler alert – they’ll tend to want to tell you everything in microdetail just as they are being tucked up in bed… 

Woman talking with boy before falling asleep

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Don’t fear the ‘school mums’

The worry over school gate cliques and terrifying mum tribes had me in a grip the first time around. We’ve all read about grown-up playground politics, so it’s reasonable to be nervous about what might greet you (or blank you) at school drop-off. In reality, I just met a friendly, relaxed group of mums and dads who didn’t fit these stereotypes at all. In fact, some of the biggest support I’ve found to help navigate those early years has been through fellow school parents – the people who really get what you’re going through. Who better to laugh with when your son emerges at pickup with one shoe? A SINGLE SHOE. Ahh, kids. 

5. Good school shoes are worth every penny

Following on from shoe-gate (it was eventually found 3 months later), it’s as good a time as any to impart one of my greatest pearls of wisdom. If you’re going to invest in one thing for school, make it shoes. Nothing takes a battering as much as your child’s school shoes and, as a second timer, I’ve realised buying cheap means having to replace them way too often to count. Clarks for the win – whether that’s brand new or pre-loved

6. Friendship groups evolve naturally

If the thought of your child feeling left out or lonely at school is enough to have you scheduling all their classmates for playdates in the first term, take a deep breath and a step back. I get it, the urge to micro-manage your child’s friendships is strong – after all, you only want them to make friends and be happy – but I’ve learned over the years that, actually, young children’s school friendships develop organically and sometimes they can be slow-burners. As long as your son or daughter isn’t upset, just give them the space to make friends at their own pace. 

7. Don’t mute the class WhatsApp

The mental load goes into overdrive once your child starts school. There is so much to remember. Is it forest school today? Do they need a packed lunch for the school trip? What days are PE this week? You’ll find all the answers in your class WhatsApp group. It’s a hive of information and there will always be someone who knows the answer to a frantically messaged question at 7am. Mute at your peril.  

8. Always bring snacks

Beautiful child eating a doughnut while looking through a car window

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Never – and I can’t stress this enough – even think about turning up to school pick up without a snack. It’s the first thing they will ask for and if you can’t deliver the goods, well, err, good luck to you…  

9. There are lots of ‘days’

Having a child at school requires off-the-scale levels of organisation. It’s not just remembering when the school holidays are, but so many extras like World Book Day, Dress Down Day, Christmas Jumper Day, Dress Like a Courgette Day (OK, so maybe not the last one, but you get the idea). If you want to keep on top of all the ‘Days’ or don’t want to be the playground pariah who forgets to bring a PFA raffle donation, make sure everything gets written in the calendar or your diary as soon as the letter/email from school arrives.   

10. It always rains on the school run

Why, I don’t know, but there is something about the school run that seems to really annoy the weather gods. Kit the kids out in puddle suits and buy yourself a decent – and warm – waterproof coat; you’re going to need it. 

You'll find lots more back-to-school content in our Back to School Month hub - don't miss Teachers reveal the best ways to get your children back-to-school ready – and why you should never pack their bags for them and check out Confessions from parents about what they’re most looking forward to once the kids go back to school

Sarah Dawson

Sarah Dawson is a freelance writer and mum of two, based in Leicestershire. She has worked as a journalist for over 17 years, writing about parenting and family life.