By Nicola Killops

As each school year begins, you can be sure of one thing: Your social media feed will fill up with proud parent posts, showing excited, smiling children who don their uniforms for the first time and start their grade one year. There is also a fair share of grade eight parents sharing the start of their child’s high school journey. And, of course, there are those nearing the finish line and beginning their matric year. These years are considered important milestones that mark the educational road. They bring new challenges and exciting changes and are a rite of passage. But there is a critical year in a child’s school life that usually starts without as much fanfare—grade four – a rollercoaster ride if there ever was one.

I taught grade four for many years, and it has a rather strange reputation among parents (which ultimately trickles down to the kids.) For instance, one of the first things parents bring up is exams, usually written for the first time in grade four. And the little ones walking through the door on their first day are already terrified of them.

I always played them down and gave plenty of pep talks (mainly to the parents) on approaching the subject without fearmongering. I reminded them that no one is expected to run before they can walk, and as the year progressed, they would mature and be ready. But it’s also not THAT big of a deal.

This may sound strange coming from a teacher, but the truth is that many parents put so much emphasis on a few tests at the end of the year that they lose focus on the rest. As a result, they could miss out on something far more critical, such as how their child is coping day to day.

Grade four is possibly the most significant adjustment your child will need to make in their school career. The Foundation Phase focuses on Literacy, Numeracy, and Life Skills, but suddenly, kids are thrust into a more formal academic world, complete with a string of subjects, cycle tests, a wider variety of teachers, and the need to work quickly in order to keep within the school time table. Then, there is the added peer pressure and hectic extra mural commitments with minimal downtime.

Like most things, some will take to it like a duck to water. But some really struggle, especially those who have already found the academic world more challenging than expected. Some have already been referred for assessments by this stage due to their distractibility, inattention, poor work ethic, and poor performance. The assessments usually pursue a diagnosis of ADHD or a similar learning challenge.

However, very often, these assessments end up revealing something else. Intelligent and capable kids are stifled by a system that tries to squish them into an ill-fitting box, leaving them crippled with anxiety and low self-esteem. And when the anxiety is tackled, the children often thrive. 

This often sits just under the surface during the earlier years, and when grade four starts, the wheels come off.

So, How Can We Help?

The most important thing we can do for our kids is to be present enough to recognise the signs, communicate with them, and make them feel safe to communicate with us. Awareness of your children’s mental health is just as essential as physical health.

I am not a doctor or a psychologist. I am just a teacher and a mom who dealt with these issues on the ground and speaks from my observations and experience. The extremely high expectations and pressure on kids often stood out to me. And grade four is where it really rears its head for the first time.

Parents are well-meaning. They want their kids to do well at school to set them up for a bright future in a competitive world. We want them to participate in team sports or other sports and cultural activities to build character, create social bonds, and be ‘off their screens.’ But it can be overwhelming and counterproductive.

Sometimes, they just need to be kids. I can hardly count the times I’ve had a child in tears in my classroom because they are so disappointed in a test result. And when I tried to reassure them and comfort them, their response was along the lines of, ‘My parents are going to kill me!’

I’ve had children experience full-blown panic attacks. When we sit and chat, I discover that they struggle to keep up with schoolwork because their afternoons are full of karate classes, horse riding, gymnastics, and swimming practice – the list goes on. While these things are great outlets when done in moderation, many kids are doing more than one of these a day, getting home at supper time and then still trying to keep up with school.

What they need are opportunities to engage in hobbies that revitalise them and have no expectations, to spend quality time with their families, and to achieve the elusive work/life balance that we adults work so hard to achieve.

Finding balance

But we also want our children to grow up resilient so they can handle life’s hard knocks. Trying to avoid or eliminate the source of their anxiety can disempower them. The key is to help them manage it and to recognise it. When they feel safe enough to discuss their feelings, they will also be open to letting you know when the pressure is just too overwhelming, and you can help them choose the activities that give them an outlet and walk away from the ones that smother them.

We constantly push concepts like ‘Don’t give up,’ ‘Stay committed’, and ‘Don’t quit.’ While this serves a purpose and is a good attitude in many cases, it’s about balance, self-care, and knowing your limits. Keep your expectations realistic, too. Not every child is an academic – even the brightest –  and should be supported and encouraged to do their best rather than chase unattainable results. With less pressure and anxiety, you may find they do better anyway and come into their own once they are through the system.

It’s also okay to admit that your choice of school may no longer be the right fit. We make these choices with the information we have at the time and always aim for the best outcome. But sometimes, life shows us otherwise, and making a positive shift could be life-changing.

Jacqueline Aitchison, Executive Head of Education Incorporated Private School, says, ‘The significance of choosing the best school for your child cannot be understated. Wherever your child is on their educational journey, selecting a school for them should be a careful and considered choice… and open to change if the need arises. Many parents prioritise prestige above all else. They mistakenly think that enrolling their child in a prominent, big-name school is a ticket to smooth sailing. This isn’t always the case.’

Parenting is not for sissies. It’s a fine line between firm encouragement and gentle support, wanting them to conquer the world and helping them get through a day. We doubt ourselves constantly, regardless of which stance we take, but at the end of the day, we all want what is best for our kids, which is the source of our efforts. But we need to cut our children some slack so they can one day go out and conquer the world thanks to good self-esteem, valuing their own needs, and having compassion and empathy through our example.

In a Nutshell

Having a good relationship with your child’s teacher is crucial. Teachers rarely suggest significant changes like moving to a smaller school or repeating a year unless they genuinely believe it will benefit your child.

Here are some practical strategies:

Spend Calm Time Together: Regular, relaxed time with your children is vital. It strengthens your bond and supports their emotional well-being.

Listen and Encourage Sharing: Make sure your kids know they can talk about their feelings and worries, especially with all the new things they’re experiencing at school.

Use Positive Reinforcement: Encourage and reward your children, avoiding criticism about their school work or test results.

Show Interest in Their School Life: Be actively interested in your child’s education and support them with their homework and projects.

Avoid Over-scheduling: Ensure your child has enough free time to play, read, listen to music, or relax.

Children do best in a structured yet supportive environment. Here’s how to create that from the start of the year:

Set a Homework Routine: Decide a specific time and place for homework and studying. This area should be quiet, organised, and have all the necessary supplies.

Don’t Leave Things to the Last Minute: Teach your child to start on projects early, avoiding the stress of rushing just before deadlines.

Be Involved: Remember, most grade four students aren’t quite ready to study independently. Spend time with them, helping with their studies and finding the best methods.

Prepare the Night Before To reduce morning chaos, get your child into the habit of packing their school bag and any sports kit the night before.

Check In Regularly: Go through your child’s school books weekly. It’s an excellent way to see how they handle the workload and cope with academic demands.

Communicate Early and Often: Don’t wait for the first parent-teacher meeting to discover any issues. Stay on top of school communications and be punctual with all school-related paperwork.

Following these tips can help smooth the path through grade four, making it a positive and productive year for your child.