Calming First-Days-of-School Fears

August 13, 2009 10:13:49 AM PDT
The first day of school is a major milestone; it's an emotional moment for parents and a stressful one for some children. Facing a new environment and prolonged separation from their parents causes anxiety for some youngsters, and even very young children can feel pressure to perform academically. Dr. Margret Nickels, Director of Erikson Institute's Center for Children and Families http://www.erikson.edu/ccf.aspx has some suggestions for parents as they and their children prepare for the upcoming school year. Dr. Nickels is a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years' experience. She offers sound advice to help parents alleviate those first-day fears, as well as academic anxieties throughout the school year.

Getting the right mindset: The first day of school is a milestone for a child. For parents concerned about how their child will handle the transition, here are some things to consider:

? Research shows that parents' own feelings and attitudes toward school influence the child's perception of and adjustment to school. Try to be positive and reassuring without putting too much pressure on the child.

? How quickly a child adjusts to a new situation has to do with many things, including their temperament and what is happening at home. Keep in mind that additional changes, such as moving to a new home or having a new baby, can increase the time your child needs to feel comfortable at school.

Preparation

? Start talking to your child about school two to three weeks before the first day. You can invite older siblings to help describe what happens at school, or you can read or look at books about school. In these conversations, allow your child to express worries and concerns, so you can talk them out.

? Contact the principal to arrange a classroom visit, or take the child for a walk to see the new school from the outside. Explain to your child what you see, e.g. the playground, the front door where they will enter, etc.

? Work toward establishing a school-friendly schedule a few weeks prior. Begin to adjust bedtime and wake up time to match the child's school schedule. Be sure your child gets at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep so he or she is well rested and ready to learn.

? Make sure you don't start the first day rushed. It causes stress and increases anxiety. Prepare all necessary things, such as clothes, snacks, backpack, supplies, etc. the evening before.

? Help the child choose a familiar or cherished small item they can bring from home to increase their comfort in a new environment. They can leave it in their cubby for quick "recharging" during the day.

First Day

? Introduce yourself and your child to the teacher. Encourage your child to follow the teacher's instructions and let the teacher know about your child's favorite activities and if they have any close friends in class. They will be grateful for your input ? it makes their lives easier as well.

? If your child is afraid or doesn't want you to leave, take time to walk them around the classroom, show them all of the fun games and learning materials. Engage them in a game or activity with other children in class. When they seem comfortable, have the teacher come over and let your child know you are leaving and that the teacher will take care of them.

? Most importantly, do not sneak out while your child is distracted. This will undermine your child's sense of predictability and trust. Slipping away will not teach your child healthy routines. Make sure you say good bye and develop a good bye routine, such as kissing three times, slapping high five, using the same words to say good bye.

? After school, try to be on time for pick up, so your child does not develop anxiety about whether you will come to get them. Develop a reunion ritual as well, and take some quiet time to spend with your child after he or she gets home in the afternoon.

Throughout the year

? Don't be surprised if your child seems to take the first week of school in stride, but starts to fuss and cry during the second week or even a month later. This may mean that the novelty has worn off, and the child is realizing that this routine is here to stay. Be patient and help your child talk about what they do like about school.

? "What did you do today" will usually not get you much of an answer. To show interest in your child's experience, ask specific questions such as "Did you play "chase" on the playground" or "did you get to finger paint?"

? Listen closely to your child to pick up possible signs of stress. If for example, he or she talks about a child causing grief, explore the details of the interactions. Help the child problem solve, or, if need be, consult with the teacher about the issue.


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