The Headmistress of Heathfield Sarah Wilson gives her advice for preparing your child for the big boarding school adventure

Choosing to educate your child in a boarding school is one of the most important decisions you can make – and often it is a step into the unknown for both you and your child. Boarding is an exciting time. Helping your child to build a realistic picture of what to expect, and encouraging them to develop their own strategies to deal with the practical, emotional and social aspects of living away from home are key to a happy and successful transition.

Boarding, at its best, is a holistic partnership between the child, family and school – so planning ahead to ease the transition is a team effort. ‘Boarding’ no longer means staying away from home for weeks on end as there are often several weekend exeats during term time, regular opportunities to phone home and family visits to school for events and matches.

Reading through the school’s boarding handbooks well in advance will give your child a good overview of practical information – such as term times, boarding houses, daytime routines and staff. It will also help them to build positive images ahead of their new boarding adventure.

Heathfield School on preparing for boarding
Easing the transition to boarding is a team effort, says Heathfield Head Sarah Wilson

Taster experiences

Taster overnight stays are an excellent way for your child to become more familiar with the school staff, routines and surroundings and will help them to form a firm idea of what to expect. At Heathfield the new cohort is welcomed to a school sleepover in June, where they join with current boarders and get a true taste of the structure of the school day, facilities, extra-curricular activities, support network and 24/7 pastoral care.

We also recommend that parents of girls about to start boarding contact each other to arrange sleepovers, play dates or lunches over the summer months. This will help establish bonds and boost their child’s confidence (and start friendships) prior to the start of term.

While preparation is key, for many boarders the start of term is the first prolonged time away from their families. Homesickness is natural. It is important to talk about this and help your child to develop strategies to manage these emotions independently, as well as knowing that they can talk with experienced staff who are on hand to help. Mindfulness activities such as reading, listening to music or simply enjoying their own space can also be helpful.

Any homesickness quickly fades with the excitement of gaining some independence, engaging in new co-curricular activities and realising they have a whole new ‘family’ group to support them. At Heathfield, we appoint ‘big sisters’ – pupils who organise activities with new boarders to encourage friendships in a relaxed way.

A ‘can do’ mindset

Being able to self-regulate and manage their own time and belongings are skills that pupils will need in a boarding environment. Help your child at home by gradually encouraging them to take on greater responsibilities and develop a ‘can do’ mindset. Skills to encourage include recognising when it’s time to get ready for bed (and understanding the importance of sleep). Creating their own checklists, packing their own bag for school/days out and understanding why it’s important to engage with those around them are also really useful areas to reinforce and develop. Promote resilience by resisting the temptation to ‘fix’ every problem for your child and, most important of all, remind them that great adventures lie ahead!

Heathfield School

Further reading: Gordon’s School on prep boarding success