Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sue Scheff: Back to School - How to Ease Back to School Jitters

Another timely Blog from Parenting Expert, Michele Borba. Don't forget to order her new book - The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

By Dr. Michele Borba

How to Ease Back to School Jitters

REALITY CHECK: Heading back to school is exciting for a lot of kids but a bit traumatic for others. It’s only natural for children to feel a little anxious especially if you’ve just moved to town, are changing schools, repeating a grade, have never left mom’s side, are a shyer more sensitive child or didn’t have a successful experience last year. There are also big adjustments to make like: learning the school rules, finding your way around, getting on the right bus or getting along with other kids. And if you’re off to kindergarten for the first time there is an even bigger worry: “Will Mommy really come and pick me up?”

Though parents can’t be there to solve every problem and ease every worry there are things to help your child feel more secure and make those goodbye go smoother and less stressful. Here are solutions from my new book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.

•Peruse the new surroundings. A week or so before the big send off, take him for a visit to the school so he can view his new surroundings and find those key places like his classroom, playground, school office, cafeteria, water fountain, lockers, and restroom. Keep in mind that a large campus can be intimidating-especially if your child has multiple classes in different locations. If possible obtain a map of the school (go online) and print out his class schedule. Then help him walk that campus until he feels secure. Just don’t over hype the tour (“What a gorgeous campus! You’re going to be soooooo happy here!”) You don’t want to build up expectations too much so as to disappoint him if things fall short of your build-up

•Check out those school rules. The more your child is aware of the school rules and rituals the more comfortable he’ll be when he arrives. See if the school has a website or stop by the school or district office and ask for school handbook. Then review it with your child. Find out the dress code, bell schedule, names of the principal and teachers, mascot, motto, and even mission statement. Many schools have websites which give online tours.

•Make one acquaintance. Knowing just one classmate can minimize first day jitters so if possible help your kid meet at least one peer. These two don’t have to become soul mates –just acquaintances! Do a little sleuthing at playgrounds and parks near the school to see if you can find a child who will be the same classroom, grade, or school. Ask parents, coaches, or check in at the local Boys and Girls Clubs. If your child takes a bus, ask neighbors for the name and address of a kid on the same route. If you can find a car pool with even one kid it will help your child feel more secure to go to school with someone instead of alone. And make sure your child knows the name of at least one adult to go to (the nurse, secretary, principal, teacher) for help or assurance.
•Create “goodbye” rituals. Rehearsing a goodbye can help a younger child feel more secure when the big moment really comes. Practice a special private “goodbye” between the two of you like a secret handshake or special kiss to help him start to pull away. Or try putting a special pebble or keychain with your photo in his pocket and explain that whenever he touches it means you’re thinking of him wherever you are. If your child is a little worry-wart, teach her to “talk back to her worry.” The simple tip can reduce anxiety. The child then names the feeling (“I’m scared”) and learns how to talk back to the fear so she is in charge of the worry and not the other way around. The trick is to have your child practice telling herself she’ll be okay to build confidence: “Go away worry, leave me alone. Mommy will come back.”

•Rehearse social scenarios. Set up pretend scenarios and role-play specific social problems, like how to meet someone, start up a conversation, ask if you can play in a game, or ask for help from a teacher. Kids learn social skills best if you show and not tell them what to do so practice one new skill at a time until your child feels comfortable. Anticipate concerns (“What if I can’t find the bus?” “How do I tell the teacher I have to go to the bathroom?” “How do I ask if I can play with them?”), then develop answers that appease your child.

•Point him to the “first thing.” Not knowing what to do or where to go upon arriving at a new scene increases anxiety. So offer “first thing” suggestions. For a young child it may be pointing her towards an activity she enjoys—like a puzzle or blocks. An older kid can go to the basketball courts that he enjoys or meet up with that acquaintance he meet at the park.

•Be cool, consistent and leave. A kid’s anxiety increases if you make too big of a deal about leaving or draw it out. So stay calm and show confidence in your child. A matter-of-fact goodbye “See you soon” is better than long-drawn out ones. Wearing an inexpensive watch marked with the exact time with a watercolor pen you’ll return can help. The key is to establish a consistent pattern of goodbyes that build your child’s confidence so she realizes she can make it through the time apart. And be sure you or your designated caregiver picks your child up when you said and at the exact spot you prearranged. If he cries when you pick him take it as a compliment! It usually means he’s delighted to see you—not that he hates school.

Adjustment may take from a day to several weeks, so be patient. The key is to watch for a gradual increase in confidence and a diminishment of those worries. If separation anxiety still continues, check in with the teacher to see if she has suggestions. Excessive clinginess may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder or another condition, so when in doubt, trust your instinct and consult with a trained mental health professional.

Follow Michele Borba on Twitter at @MicheleBorba

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