Q: My 9-year-old is beginning to worry about starting school. I can tell because he is quieter and seems to be thinking a lot. He doesn't talk about school much; he says it's a long way off. I'm surprised that he's worried because he seemed to have such a good time in fourth grade and he'll be going to fifth grade in the same school. What shall I do?
A: As children get older, they begin to keep track of the calendar just as adults do. It's impossible for them to ignore the approach of the school year.
For most children the school experience is complicated -- both good and bad. So they will have both negative and positive memories and will anticipate school with both concern and excitement. They remember what they have heard about the next grade. They worry about whether they'll measure up to new challenges. It is very much like starting a new job every year. Some parts are familiar, but some are scary.
Find ways to talk with your son about school. If he won't respond to direct questioning, create situations in which conversations might lead to his worries. Do some positive planning together. Ask what kind of backpack he thinks he'll need in fifth grade, whether he's heard anything about what the teacher likes pupils to have for supplies. What does he think he should wear the first day?
Questions like these are likely to lead him to talk about his concerns because they gently probe his expectations for the year. It is quite likely that his worries will come tumbling out. Listen gently and reassure him when you can. When he seems to have realistic concerns, help him to develop a plan for overcoming them. Let him know that it is natural to be apprehensive when facing something new, but that he can talk about those feelings with you and conquer them. Help him to recall other new experiences that have turned out well -- like the fourth grade! Let him know that you are on his side.
If your son still seems to be letting his thoughts about school weigh him down, plan activities to keep him busy and excited as school approaches. Something special to look forward to the first weekend after school starts will help, too.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.