A new school can mean new fears Back-to-school primer

September 03, 1991|By Lawrence Kutner | Lawrence Kutner,New York Times

MANY CHILDREN who will be attending a new school this week picture the building's unfamiliar corridors as a treacherous labyrinth speckled with the shadows of potential failure and embarrassment.

Others see going to the new school as an adventure and look forward to meeting the challenges they will face.

Psychologists who study how children adapt to new schools have found several clear patterns that help predict which children are likely to have the most problems and which are likely to have the fewest.

"If your children have been successful at their old school, you can honestly reassure them that they'll be successful at the new school as well," said Dr. Thomas J. Berndt, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "If they haven't been successful academically or have had behavior problems, the odds are those problems won't disappear by themselves. But the change of schools may make those children more receptive to making changes in their behaviors, so that they become more successful in the new school."

Helping children make those changes requires that parents and teachers understand their concerns, which are often unspoken. Children who are fearful of attending a new school may express fears symbolically.

For example, a child may say that she is worried that she won't be able to find her classes. But reassuring her that the classrooms are logically numbered seldom helps.

Beneath the words lies the fear of embarrassment in front of new peers, who will then label her as incompetent and an outcast.

"There are three things running through the child's mind," said Dr. Sidney B. Simon, a professor emeritus of psychological education

at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Is there any danger in this new school or neighborhood? Will I be accepted? And will I be enough -- smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough, have enough of the right clothes?"

Researchers have found that the children who have the easiest time adjusting to a new school are those who did well at their old school, have parents who are well-educated and are not burdened with significant changes at home.

Earlier successes in new academic and social situations seem to give children a reservoir of self-esteem they can tap during stressful times.

Children who haven't had such successes, who have recently moved to a new house (especially one in a less-safe neighborhood) and who are coping with family stresses are at much greater risk for behavior problems at the new school.

"If the move to another school was caused by the parents' divorce, the child is faced with a double whammy," said Dr. John Guidubaldi, a professor of school psychology and counseling at Kent State University in Ohio. "The structure of his life at home has changed as well, which makes the world even less predictable and more overwhelming."

Normal transitions -- like junior high school to senior high school -- are generally less stressful. But one is notorious for difficulties: going from elementary school to junior high school.

"The rate of behavior problems skyrockets," said Dr. Jane C. Conoley, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a former president of the division of school psychology of the American Psychological Association.

"There's a large change in the culture of the school and also in teacher attitude," she explained. "Junior high school teachers tend to be more oriented toward teaching a subject rather than teaching a student."

Most children who will be attending a new school this year have at least a few worries about how they'll fare, both academically and socially. Here are several things parents can do to make the transition as smooth as possible:

* Minimize stress at home. Even a child who is looking forward to attending a new school will feel extra stress. "Maintain as much stability in the other areas of the child's life as you can," said Guidubaldi. "Preserve the child's dining, television-watching and bedtime rituals."

* Provide opportunities for your child to socialize. Encourage your child to join extracurricular activities to meet a wider range of children.

"Organize a social event, like a slumber party or a trip to the zoo, so that other children can get to know your child away from school," said Conoley. If your child is an adolescent, let him know that his friends are welcome at your house.

* Don't unintentionally add to the pressure. Children want to please their parents. Pumping a child too hard for information may send the message that what he's doing isn't good enough.

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