For the average child, the start of the school year is as significant an event as life can offer. Lazy summer days suddenly yield to rigid schedules, life’s geographical center shifts from home to the classroom, and the awkward social drama that had slowed during summer’s long recess again becomes fast-paced and rich. It can be a lot of fun.
And it can be stressful.
“Kids are entering an unknown situation and they’re trying to figure out what the rules are. And every year, with every teacher, the rules are slightly different,” said Peg Dawson, president of the 14,000-member National Assn. of School Psychologists.
Virginia Rasch is one Ventura County teacher who knows the phenomenon well. For the last 26 years she has seen both hope and apprehension in the faces of her just-returned or brand-new students at Miramonte Elementary School in the Ojai Valley.
“At first, they’re just not sure what you can do to them,” she said.
Although both Dawson and Rasch insist that going back to school is generally a positive experience for children, they are quick to point out that parents can do a lot to smooth the transition. Here are some of their suggestions:
* Become a “reflective listener.” While most parents’ natural tendency is to reassure their children (“Oh, you don’t have to worry, Mrs. Smith is a wonderful teacher and I know you’ll like her”), it may be better to work on understanding childrens’ feelings and letting them know that it’s OK to have those feelings.
“You can tell them that it is kind of scary going to a new school for the very first time, and that they must be a little worried about being in a class full of kids they don’t know,” Dawson said. “That will help them realize they’re not the only ones having those feelings, if Mom or Dad can articulate them too.”
In addition, Dawson said, acknowledging and reflecting children’s feelings back to them tends to keep conversations going, so that if there are deeper fears, they’re more likely to come out. “When you simply reassure them, they tend to just shut down.”
* Tell children stories about your early school experiences. It can be comforting to learn that even Mom and Dad were scared when they went to school, and that they overcame their fears. “There have been times, I have to admit, when as a parent I’ve made up stories--not completely, but I’ve stretched it a little,” Dawson said. “First grade really wasn’t that scary for me, but I’ll make it feel like it was scary so that I can then go on to say, ‘And you know what? After I was in school for a week, I felt good and I really liked my teacher.’ ”
* Remind children of positive school experiences. Talk about special teachers and friends from the year before, and discuss things they know now that they didn’t know a year ago.
* Keep the child’s teacher advised if something significant is going on at home. “Something simple like, my son’s dog got run over and he’s very upset,” Rasch said. “I appreciate getting that kind of information from parents. Sometimes a kid will be looking for a fight when all he needs is a hug. Parents can help us know that.”
* When discussing a child’s school-related fears, talk about what he or she can do when a scary situation arises. Is he afraid to ask the teacher if he can go to the bathroom? Does she fear having to walk home alone? Anything you can do to make the child feel that he has some control is helpful, Rasch said.
* Read children stories that deal with starting school. Dawson recommends “The Berenstain Bears Go to School” by Stan and Jan Berenstain, and Rosemary Wells’ “Timothy Goes to School.” These books and others present the kinds of problems that kids commonly encounter in school, along with useful approaches to solving them. “It’s a wonderful way to help ease their fears,” she said.
* Make shopping for back-to-school clothes and supplies a positive experience. Yes, it can be stressful when time is limited and stores are crowded, but it’s also a good opportunity to establish a positive mood as the big day approaches.
* Eliminate fears of the unknown as much as possible by taking kids, especially little ones, to school the week before it starts (keep this in mind for next year). Show them around and help them get acquainted with their classroom, the playground and the lunch area. If possible, introduce your child to the principal. “Sometimes kids are more frightened of the principal than they are of their teachers,” Dawson said.
* Be clear with children about what is going to happen after school. If they come home to an empty house, where will you be? If they can’t find you, where should they go? What should they do if your normal plan falls through? Make sure they know the backup plan and feel comfortable with it.