You could almost hear the jittery excitement and groans of disappointment from children and young people over the past week as they prepared to head back to school, or perhaps attend for the first time.

Many of Mission Australia’s services work with children and families to support them through this period, which can be a particularly stressful time for families who are facing additional challenges.

Communities for Children (CfC) Taree, NSW, Program Manager Bree Katsamangos experienced this tricky transition firsthand when her little boy started school last year. This gave her a different insight into the work she does with families.

"It certainly did give me a new understanding, emphasising for me the challenges of 'letting your child go', the thrill of seeing them become independent, being surprised by their capacity for learning and recognising how important our role is as parents in supporting that. All parents should be able to approach this transition with confidence and I'm proud CfC supports families to do that," Bree said.

Below, Bree gives an insight into her team's approach to helping families make a successful transition to school.

What are some of the challenges faced by families in the transition to school?

The transition to school is an exciting time, but it can also be a period of challenge and stress for children and families. Both have to negotiate new environments, new learning expectations, rules and routines, issues around social status and identity, new relationships and more. This can be particularly challenging for parents whose own school experience was less than positive.

What are some of the ways CfC Taree supports families as they make this transition?

We work with a range of community partner organisations to design and deliver a suite of programs that support vulnerable children and families. A key focus area for CfC is supporting children and families to make a successful transition to school. Research tells us that parenting practices and the quality of the parent-child relationship have implications for children's academic and social competence, behaviour in their early years at school, as well as for longer term success and achievement. Providing information and support to parents and carers and helping them to build positive relationships with schools is a key focus for CfC, building on the idea that enhanced parent confidence leads to increased confidence in children.

We coordinate a range of activities to support this school transition and engagement on the NSW Mid-Coast. For example, CfC supports the Ear Health Screening Network, engaging Aboriginal children and other vulnerable children in ear health screening prior to school commencing – recognising that good ear health is important to learning. The service also works with the local Aboriginal community to create cultural story books for children and families that connect them with past and present and support early learning.

CfC also delivers FAST, which is a collaborative prevention and parent involvement program designed to reduce risk factors for school failure including child abuse and neglect and mental health issues. The FAST program does this by holding an eight-week multi-family meeting program designed to build social connections and reduce social isolation.

Can you share the story of someone you've helped through this transition?

One family we worked with in the FAST program decided to join in with our activities as they were facing difficulty with their son Todd's* behaviour at school. Only in his first year of school, Todd had already been suspended for aggression and his parents were very concerned about this.

Through FAST, this family was connected with an occupational therapist who organised for Todd's class to be involved in a weekly 'movement group' with a focus on sensory motor activity, which was not only beneficial for Todd, but the rest of the children as well. With this support in place, Todd's family became more confident in helping him with his development and growth.

Having seen the difference in her son's behaviour, Todd's mum Kathy* decided she wanted to support other families in the school community facing similar issues. She enrolled in a TAFE course – a Certificate in Community Services – and the practical component of the course was supported by Mission Australia Child Care Services Taree. A quick learner, Kathy applied herself and received her qualification.

Last year, Kathy was able to join the FAST team at Taree Public School as a 'parent partner', and was employed by the service to facilitate the position. She received very positive feedback from parents in this role. From being unsure of how to support her own son to supporting other parents, this was an incredible journey for Kathy.

In September 2017, she was invited to speak at a regional Department of Education and Training conference, where she spoke confidently about her experiences and answered questions from the floor.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the people we work with

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