Abstract aerial photo of female primary school child in uniform. Photo: Unsplash.

Back to school: 6 tips from our experts

23 January 2020
What can parents and educators do to support students starting school? With the new school year around the corner, University of Sydney experts in education, child psychology and children's health provide evidence-based tips.

1. Talk to children about bushfires

The return to school this year will be different than the norm, with the catastrophic bushfire season still ongoing across the country.

According to climate change and environmental education expert Dr Blanche Verlie, research shows that children hold many misconceptions about bushfire safety, which often comes from a lack of knowledge about bushfire behaviour.

“Children and young people have been deeply impacted by the current bushfire crisis. It is essential for all children and young people, regardless of their geographic location in Australia, to have appropriate education about bushfire prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response,” writes Dr Verlie, a postdoctoral researcher in the Sydney Environment Institute, in The Conversation.

2. Avoid screams over screen time by connecting IRL

Children and teens often play games online – sometimes more than parents would like – and setting boundaries around appropriate games and how long to play can often result in arguments.

Research shows games can be a healthy way for children to connect with their peers and develop their skills in problem-solving and creativity.

However, some games are riskier than others and offer gambling-style content and features, in-game payments, adult content and can be used for aggression and bullying.

Young boy playing video game. Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Psychologist Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury, Co-Director of the Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic, recommends parents monitor gaming and involve children in setting limits on when games are played and for how long.

“Ensure that these do not interfere with homework, physical activity and screen-free time with friends and family,” she says.

Dr Mark R Johnson, expert in game studies from the Department of Media and Communications, says many children and teens are keen for their parents to engage with their gaming.

“Trying to build these sorts of links can be hugely valuable both for spending quality time together, and for learning more about a digital pursuit that is increasingly central to the lives of so many young people,” he says.

 “Recognising that your kids are the experts in this domain, and learning from them, can be a powerful way of engaging with an area that can, understandably, seem very alien to many parents.”

3. Give your child space

All parents want their children to succeed and get the best start to their school year – however, this can make it tempting for parents to get involved when they think their kids are capable of more than they are showing their teacher.

It is important that children are given the space to do things at their own pace.
Dr Caroline Moul, School of Psychology

“We all want our children to succeed and get the best start to their school careers. However, this can sometimes make it tempting to get involved when we think our kids are underperforming or getting something wrong,” says Dr Caroline Moul, an expert in child psychology and personality traits from the School of Psychology.

“It is important that children are given the space to do things at their own pace. Trust that once they settle into the new routine and get to know the new people in their life, they will find their feet.”

4. Reward curious kids with engaging conversation

Children love to experiment and ask questions. As they seek answers through talking, reading or writing, they learn to be even more curious about the world. So, they need collaborative learning partners to scaffold their hunger for knowledge, as well as help them develop other skills.

“Parents, teachers, siblings, carers and grandparents can play a role in this through talking with children in ways that enhance their learning,” says Professor Alyson Simpson, an expert in children’s literacy from the School of Education and Social Work.

“Known as ‘dialogic talk’, this talk is two-way, where speakers are equal conversation partners, listening to and building on each others’ thoughts. Dialogic talk is a tool for creative, critical and caring thinking.

“Dialogic talk can also allow children to understand others’ views. Further, research shows that when children discuss ideas in this way, it aids their language (verbal) and literacy (reading and writing) development.”

5. Bridge the social inequity gap in community sport

There are many reasons for a child to be part of a community sports team – this includes health, social and mental benefits – but costs to participate in organised sport and recreation remain a common barrier, and many children from disadvantaged communities miss out because of this reason.

Image of girls playing soccer. Photo: Alyssa Ledesma / Unsplash.

“Seventy-one percent of Australian children participated in one or more out-of-school sport activities in the last 12 months, which varies by state,” says Dr Lindsey Reece, an expert in physical activity and public health from the School of Public Healthand Charles Perkins Centre.

Research from Dr Reece’s SPRINTER Group (Sport and Active Recreation Intervention and Epidemiology Research Group) found on average there is a $311 difference in the amount spent on sports between advantaged and most disadvantaged families.

Despite this difference, current support programs only address part of the problem of social inequity.

“In terms of national action, we need a whole system, collaborative and co-ordinated national plan for physical activity,” Dr Reece says.

6. Support health teachers 

Research shows that substance use and mental disorders are the leading global causes of burden of disease in young people. In order to address these significant health problems, the gaps between research, government and the community need to be bridged, says Professor Maree Teesson AC, Director of The Matilda Centre.

Professor Teesson says it is important for parents and the wider community to recognise the increasing pressure being placed on health teachers to be the main source of information for mental health and drug education, and to essentially shape students’ attitudes and behaviour to prevent substance use.

“Teachers can feel overwhelmed and under-resourced when it comes to finding easy-to-implement, evidence-based drug and mental health education resources to use in the classroom,” she says.

“To ease the burden on teachers delivering drug and mental health education there is a need for evidence-based programs that require minimal teacher preparation for all class and homework activities.”

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