With the start of school just weeks away, many parents are already busy shopping for school supplies, new clothes and other essential items. Just as important as getting children equipped for the new school year is acknowledging the conflicting feelings some children may have about school, says Ann Hazzard, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and clinical psychologist at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital of the Grady Health System.
Dr. Hazzard says parents of young children, ages six and below, should recognize that separation anxiety can sometimes be a problem -- especially on the first day of school. She says that children this age use parents as a human "security blanket" and may feel anxious about being separated from a parent for a school day. Reassuring the child that you are confident that they will be OK and keeping goodbyes relatively brief are strategies Dr. Hazzard recommends.
"An extended goodbye and prolonged reassurances if a child is upset at transition time generally prolongs rather than shortens the child's distress," Dr. Hazzard explains. "Often parents may hear from teachers that after they left, the child stopped crying within five minutes."
If a child's distress persists, giving them a transitional object to remind them of the parent may be helpful, Dr. Hazzard says. A locket with a picture of the parent or a key chain is often reassuring. And because a child's anxiety is most pronounced with the primary caregiver, Dr. Hazzard also suggests having the other parent or a trusted neighbor handle transportation for a period of time to lessen the child's difficulty with transition.
Parents should also recognize that some children are shy and concerned about whether a special friend will be in their class this year.
"The challenge of making new friends and finding one's place in a new classroom can be intimidating," Dr. Hazzard says. "It is helpful for parents to acknowledge that making new friends can be challenging rather than minimizing a child's realistic concerns. Having conferences with the teacher and volunteering in the classroom can also help parents gauge their child's social adjustment."
For parents of children with learning challenges, Dr. Hazzard notes that the return to school may be especially dreaded. Parents can help meet their child's special needs by working with school personnel to obtain appropriate services and support.
"That alone can make the difference between a disastrous and successful school year," she says.
Here are more tips from Dr. Hazzard:
- Get your child back on a healthy school year sleep cycle. Start putting your child to sleep at a reasonable bedtime for at least a week before school starts. Remember, children need more sleep than adults. Most elementary-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each day. Lack of sleep frequently causes problems with attention, irritability, and learning.
- Buy your child's school supplies together. Let your child have some choices about notebook colors and other items. This is a fun way to help your child get excited about school and be prepared.
- Meet your child's teacher. Most schools offer open houses or meet-the-teacher opportunities before the first day of school. This can be reassuring to students and parents alike.
- Maintain your child's academic skills and interest over the summer. We all need a break, but it is helpful for children to keep their minds actively engaged in learning at least part of the summer.
- Go to the library and check out books to read for pleasure. Get some flashcards, if your child needs to practice math facts. Often an incentive, such as a trip to an amusement park, helps motivate children.