Ask Dr. Ava: School-Year Start
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Ask Dr. Ava: School-Year Start

Expert help on preparing your child for a successful introduction -- or return -- to school.

First-Day Jitters

It's hard to believe that the summer is almost over. In just a few weeks, your kids will be trading the relaxed, carefree days of vacation for the more focused stimulation and stress of school. Are they eager to go back -- or moaning and groaning? What makes kids feel tense about entering or returning to school? Why do they get headaches and stomach aches and all kinds of other aches as the big day approaches?

To understand your child's anxieties, you've got to realize that school is serious for kids -- it's their job! In essence, when your child leaves your house she's going to work, and she feels all the worries that an adult would feel starting a new job with a new boss and new colleagues: Will I make any friends? Will my boss like me? What will be expected of me? Do I have what it takes to do this job?

What worries preschoolers

Even though it may seem as if your 2- to 4-year-old "just plays" at preschool, he's actually comparing his own skills to his peers' at each and every activity he's asked to do. Can he build a good block tower? Does he grip his pencil the right way? Does he know his colors? Can he recognize his name?

In addition to all the new learning challenges your child must master if she's entering preschool or kindergarten for the first time, she must also deal with separation from her parents and her home. This is no easy task, particularly for first children, who are usually used to a lot of adult attention and not used to sharing the spotlight with their peers.

But even when children have grown up with siblings, it's a big change to go from the comfort and protection of your own family to the larger, unpredictable world of school. Matching your skills and needs and rhythms to 15 to 20 other children can be overwhelming at first.

New challenges after kindergarten

Once your child moves beyond kindergarten, he must take on the challenges of reading, writing, and arithmetic, not to mention science, social studies, art, and music. This is the age (6 to 9 years old) when early strengths -- or alternatively, early weaknesses -- become known. This is also the time when learning disabilities of all kinds are revealed (difficulties reading, writing, attending, concentrating, processing, or producing work, etc.). Nothing can make a child feel worse than the realization that all the kids in his class know how to read and he just can't "get it."

Social issues for preteens

For older children, making new friends or keeping the ones they made last year, is a priority. Nine to 11-year-olds want to be liked by others, and fear of being left out or rejected can make your child feel tense and uneasy in the first weeks of school. At this age, basic athletic skills -- or the absence of them -- also play a large role in the development of self-esteem. It's hard to feel good about yourself if you don't feel good about your body; it's hard to have confidence if you feel inept, and it's hard to feel accepted if you're the last one chosen for the team.

Fears of the unknown, fears of separating from those who love and comfort you, fears about one's abilities, fears of being left out or left behind, and fears of failing are some of the powerful fears your kids can feel as they face entering or returning to school.

How Parents Can Help

But what can be done about those fears? And how can you help your child to go to school feeling confident and competent? To begin, you need to recognize and empathize with your child's emotional experience. That's why I described what school looks like through your child's eyes. But being empathic and aware is not enough, you also need to fulfill three important parental functions for your child: preparation, perspective, and reassurance.

The two biggest anxieties for preschoolers are going to be anxieties about the unknown ("What's going to happen?") and separation anxieties ("How will I manage without Mommy?"). Many preschools acknowledge that it's normal for your child to have difficulty separating from you -- in fact, it's a healthy sign of attachment! For that reason, they will often let you stay with your child for a while until he begins to feel more comfortable, and they set up an initial adjustment period to help your child get oriented to his new class.

You can help keep things running smoothly during this transitional period by preparing your 2- to 5-year-old before you take her to school so she knows just what to expect ("Mommy's going to sit in your class for a while. Then I'm going to get a cup of coffee, and then I'm coming back to pick you up."). Be sure to encourage her to participate in class activities while you're gone ("Why don't you build me a tall block building as a surprise when I come back?"). And finally, keep your "good-byes" short and sweet, rather than long and drawn-out. If you keep things matter-of-fact and play down the drama, you will help your young child let go of you more easily.

Books and videos that tell the story of a child's first day at school can also help your child anticipate what's going to happen, and letting a child bring a familiar toy or photo from home can help a young child feel more at ease in the new setting. Finally, be sure to lend your child your adult perspective on what the future will bring ("At first it will be hard, but before you know it, you'll be so busy with new things, you won't even think about me.")

A 6- to 9-year-old's anxieties are likely to focus on her fears about competence and competition. Some practice ahead of time with writing, reading, and numbers will help your child enter first grade feeling more confident of her basic skills (computer reading-readiness programs, workbooks, and flashcards can give your beginning scholar a little boost). It's also important to give your older child plenty of time to talk about her anxieties before school starts ("Going to a new school will be hard for a while until you get used to everything"). Don't deny or dismiss her concerns ("Don't be such a baby; there's nothing to be afraid of"). Talking about your worst fears helps! (That's why people pay therapists.)

Easing the Transition To a New School

As your child moves into the preteen years, fears about his growing sense of identity are going to cause him the most worry. In these years (9 to 12), friendship is all-important to your child's security and happiness. That's why this is one of the hardest times to face a change of schools. If you've just moved to a new district or town, your preteen is bound to be both sad and mad about leaving his old life behind. If possible, help him keep his connection to old friends via e-mail, visits (if feasible), and vacation plans. But at the same time, you also need to encourage your preteen to build connections to his new community. To do this, you may have to play a more active role than you have in the past. Kids this age often feel shy and awkward about initiating plans when they're not sure of their welcome as "the new kid." By planning fun group activities where your preteen can meet other kids (bowling, skating, etc.), hosting pizza parties on holidays, or offering to head up a scout troop or teach a Sunday School class, you may be able to help your preteen "break the ice."

Finally, while help with special skills, sports, clubs, and extra-curricular activities can speed your child's adjustment, the best medicine for the back-to-school blues is being able to talk to a compassionate parent who understands how tough it is to face new challenges or make important changes in your life. So spend as much time as you can with your child in these weeks before school starts. Your special efforts will help her have a great school year!

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World (Plume, 1994), and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager (Plume, 1998). She is married and the mother of two children.