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Q. My 5-year-old son will be entering kindergarten in the fall. We took him in to see the principal and his classroom, and he seemed very excited. But since then he has been more clingy than usual, and yesterday he wet his pants for the first time in a year. I am sure this is separation anxiety. What can I do to help him feel more secure and excited about kindergarten?
A. Your child is about to enter a new environment at school. Even if he's attended preschool or childcare, he realizes that kindergarten, which is part of elementary school, is far different. He's facing his first major flight out of the parenting nest.
Your child is feeling stress. While he seemed excited at first, later in his mind he probably wondered in his own 5-year-old way if he can handle riding the school bus, finding his classroom, locating and making it to the bathroom on time.
He's not even thinking about the curriculum, the rules, and getting along with the other children. He can't imagine what's going to actually occur in kindergarten. It's the unknown challenges of this new environment that currently concern him.
Help him by making up a story about a little boy who goes to kindergarten. Start with, "Once upon a time there was a little boy who goes to kindergarten." Mention in the story riding the school bus, successfully finding his classroom and the bathroom. Weave into the story the child's concerns and then his successes as he learns the routines and makes his way around the building. Involve a friendly and helpful principal and teacher.
Don't finish the story in one telling. Allow the story to evolve over days and weeks. Make it fun, playful, and creative.
Mention in your story, what the fictionalized child was required to do at kindergarten: learn the alphabet, count, cut with scissors and paste with glue, play outside at recess, listen to stories, color, and play with new friends. Mention how this little person learned to follow directions and rules.
By telling your son this story he puts himself into it and relaxes as he realizes that he can manage this new environment. In the book Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 2003), authors Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell tell of the power of putting confusing experiences into story form for children. The authors have found that such stories lead to good mental health.
Teaching your child the ABCs or to count is part of preparing him for kindergarten. But probably more important is telling him a school-related story or imagining kindergarten through pretend play. Set up a place in your home where he can play school. Have his students be his teddy bears, stuffed animals, or dolls. You can play, too, pretending to be the teacher or student.
Validate his feelings of being scared or worried, but also exude confidence that you believe that he has all the qualities to be successful at kindergarten.
As children develop, year by year they enter into many environments for which they need preparation. Now your son successfully manages your home environment, your backyard, and possibly your neighborhood. Kindergarten is the next challenge. There will be many more.
As children enter new places and experience new events some feel more stress than others. If your child is one who is easily stressed, he might need more preparation as he enters each new environment in his life.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.