Is My Child Mature Enough for a Summer School? 10 Questions to Ask
Oxford Royale Academy now offers summer school courses for students aged 8 to 12, in the beautiful surroundings of St Mary’s, Ascot. Whether your child is interested in improving their English, learning about business, coding, designing video games or expanding their academic horizons, there might well be a course that you think they would find both fun and educational for a week. But it’s also normal to worry about whether your child would be happy spending a week away from home with people they don’t know – even if they’re likely to make a lot of new friends. If you’re wondering if going to a summer school is right for your child, here are some questions you can ask yourself.
1. Are they able to get themselves ready in the morning and to bed at night?
Probably the most fundamental question if you’re unsure whether your child is mature enough for a summer school is whether they’ve mastered the basic skills to get by. That includes getting ready for bed, washing, brushing teeth, brushing hair, falling asleep without needing encouragement, getting dressed and undressed, and taking care of their own belongings. Counsellors at a summer school will prompt students to do each of these tasks, but they’ll be expected to perform them independently.
While children master different skills at different rates – some might be reading at an advanced level before they can reliably tie their own laces – most eight-year-olds will be capable of these things, at least to the level required for a week away. If they’re still struggling with some of these tasks and resistant to learn how to do them without adult help, then the promise of a trip to summer school can be enough to overcome that reluctance and encourage them to work on gaining these skills for greater independence.
2. Will they see it as an adventure?
Perhaps more important even than questions of life skills are questions of attitude. Even if your child struggles with buttons or doesn’t always remember to brush their hair and their teeth before bed, if their attitude to being away from home for a week is to be excited at the thought of a big grown-up adventure, chances are they’ll do fine.
Encouraging your child to see something as an adventure is more challenging than helping them to learn life skills. One thing that can help a great deal is if they have a friend going to the summer school with them. They should still be able to make other friends while they’re there – especially if their friend is taking a different course, but at the same location – but the additional security of knowing at least one other person there can make the prospect of going away fun rather than scary. Try raising the idea with the other parents at your child’s school, and see if any of them are interested in coordinating with you. You might even be able to cut down on travel costs.
3. Have they spent more than a night or two away from you before?
It’s logical that a child who’s regularly spent time away from home – whether that’s going on holiday with their friends’ families, or going to stay with other family members – will be able to handle being away for a week at a summer school better than those who’ve only been away from home with their parents for a night or two, or not at all.
If your child hasn’t had those experiences and would still like to go to a summer school, you can help prepare them for it by arranging for them to spend at least a weekend or two away from home without you there, for instance visiting nearby relatives. That will make it feel less strange when they go to the summer school. A summer school environment can also make this easier because they’ll be with lots of other students in the same situation, which encourages them not to feel worried or nervous but instead to go with the flow and be distracted by lessons, activities and time with new friends.
4. Can they deal with homesickness?
Even adults are sometimes surprised by the degree to which homesickness ends up affecting them. Children can similarly be affected in surprising ways; it’s not rare for the most confident and outgoing children to struggle with it, while children who seem like they would be more sensitive aren’t affected. That means that even if your child has never struggled with homesickness before, it’s best to consider some strategies for dealing with it just in case.
Packing a reassuring item from home can help, such as a favourite outfit, teddy or comfort blanket – even if it stays in the suitcase the whole time, your child will know it’s there. You can also encourage them to open up about their feelings of homesickness, whether that’s to you or to counsellors at the summer school, who are experienced in helping homesick children. Encouraging them to get fully involved with activities can also help to take their mind off missing home.
If your child is a more experienced traveller, it can be useful to have a conversation about what’s helped with homesickness in the past – for instance, for some children it’s helpful to have regular contact with home, while for others, this makes it harder to distract themselves.
5. Do they know how to set and maintain their own boundaries?
Have you faced the situation with your child where something is happening that makes them unhappy, but they haven’t known how to speak up about it? This can be something as minor as a friend repeatedly borrowing a favourite pen without asking, and your child feeling uncomfortable about kicking up a fuss. The skill that they’re lacking – setting a boundary and then maintaining it – is one that many of us don’t master into adulthood, even though in practice, it doesn’t seem so hard. After all, it can just be a matter of saying, “Grace, I don’t mind if you borrow any of my other pens, but this one is my favourite and I’d like to keep it for myself.”
At a summer school, surrounded by students from different countries and cultures, often with significantly divergent expectations around social norms and politeness, setting and maintaining boundaries without being rude or confrontational is an important skill. It might be a case of asking for a bit more personal space in conversation, or their preferences at dinner, and learning how to do so in a way that won’t offend others; for instance, “I prefer a bit more personal space” rather than “you’re standing too close”, or “I’d like the lasagna” rather than “fish and chips are disgusting.” Thankfully, these are also skills that summer schools can often help to teach.
6. Can they be polite and appropriate with children from different cultures and backgrounds?
If your child is from a country or region that is relatively monoracial and monocultural, they might not have had the opportunity before to learn how to engage with people from other backgrounds in an appropriate way. Often, this can be entirely innocent on their part; there are many acts that can be done with no malicious intent that could nonetheless be perceived as microaggressions by children of a different background, such as asking a fellow student from a minority ethnic background where they’re “really” from, or trying to touch the hair of a child of a different race. That these things might be offensive is something that may not occur to your child unless it’s pointed out.
A summer school is a forgiving environment, generally speaking, so it’s not as if you have to school your child in every single race and nationality and every single action that could possibly give offence. All the same, it’s worth spending time having a gentle conversation about how to be respectful of people’s differences, if that isn’t an issue your child has yet had to encounter much in their day-to-day life.
7. Are they excited about new experiences?
A summer school is not a great setting to only do things you’ve already tried before. There’ll be new food, new sports, new activities, new lessons and a whole lot of new friends. If your child is only inclined to eat the food they’ve already tried, take part in the sports they already play, do the activities they’ve already done, study the topics they already know and hang out with the students they’re already friends with, they definitely won’t be getting the most out of the experience – and in fact, might as well have stayed at home.
If your child is nervous about trying new things, the weeks and months leading up to the summer school can be a good time to introduce more variety into their routine, whether that’s cooking new recipes, visiting new places, or anything else that might help shift them from nervous to excited about the opportunities they’ll have.
8. Are they comfortable with strangers?
We spend a lot of time – rightly – encouraging our children not to be too trusting of strangers. But getting on well at a summer school involves switching to a context of being surrounded by strangers: from teachers and counsellors, to activity leaders and fellow students. Navigating the distinction between setting appropriate boundaries and being too wary of strangers, which can be difficult if your child hasn’t often had to settle into a new setting before (for instance, if they haven’t ever changed schools). Conditions such as autism can make this harder still.
Like many of the other issues on this list, practice can help. For instance, encourage your child to take the lead in interactions in shops and cafes, or to take some part in conversations with your adult friends.
9. Will they listen to instructions?
A summer school is a safe environment, but your child will still need to listen to some basic instructions to ensure that they can make the most of the experience and not put themselves in danger. They’ll need to obey instructions from crossing roads with suitable care, to treating animals at safari parks and wildlife experiences with appropriate respect, to sticking with the group when out and about and not wandering off.
Some naughtiness and misbehaviour is only to be expected with this age group (and among older students too!). That’s why summer schools maintain low ratios of students to supervising adults. All the same, it cannot be at the point that it puts not only themselves, but also other students, in danger. If your child is sometimes inclined to test the limits, they’ll need to know where to draw the line, especially remembering that what is safe in their own country might not be safe in the UK and vice versa – even something as basic as remembering that traffic might be coming from a different direction than they’re used to if your country drives on the right.
10. Are they eager to learn?
A summer school can be a great way to get a child who isn’t that academically inclined to find something to love about studying. Summer schools don’t have to worry about following strict curriculum requirements, and have more freedom and flexibility to try out innovative teaching methods than your child’s year-round teachers may have. That can help show your child just how exciting learning can be, something which they’ll take back with them when they return to their normal school.
But this doesn’t work if they aren’t at least a little eager to learn. At a summer school, what you get out can depend on what you put in, and though your child’s academic enthusiasms might come to surprise you, there does need to be some foundation to build on. If you think your child would benefit from attending a summer school but you’re not sure if they’re sufficiently interested in learning, then work with them to choose whatever they think is the most interesting course – while they might shy away from something primarily academic, it could be that something more unusual or hands-on is just right for them.
Image credit: brushing teeth; suitcase; buffet; instructions. All other images in this article were taken at ORA summer schools.