Fear There's nothing unusual about back-to-school jitters - unless youngsters don't learn to overcome them.

August 23, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For Ferris Bueller, faking sickness was an art, something he did for fun. But for most children facing school anxiety, whether starting kindergarten, middle school or high school, the stomach-churning fear is all too real.

Young children, especially preschoolers, always have a hard time going back to school, says Dr. Robert Graw, an Anne Arundel County pediatrician. And the most important factor in dealing with their anxiety is the parents.

As school begins, parents should introduce the child to the teacher, Graw says, and even have picnics on the school grounds to forge a common denominator between parents and school.

For very distraught children, he advises parents to visit with the child in the classroom until they're calm. "If a kid is scared to death," he says, "the mom should say, 'I will come sit in the room and you can sit on my lap.' " The child may take a week to settle in, but eventually will say, "I don't want to sit on your lap, I want to sit in the circle."

Working parents typically need not worry about such a scenario, Graw says, because "by kindergarten [children have] already been adjusted" in day care.

What's tricky is to differentiate between a child's reasonable anxiety and a serious clinical disorder, such as school phobia or separation anxiety disorder.

"If it's a normal, healthy anxiety, they can talk through it," says Graw. "But if it's so diffuse and indescribable" that the child can't verbalize his or her fears, the problem is probably more serious.

If a child feigns sickness to avoid school, parents should watch for patterns of physical symptoms that indicate the anxiety is serious - "vomiting every Monday morning, headaches every Sunday night." In this case, parents should consult a doctor.

For older children moving into middle school or high school, physical manifestations may not be as obvious, but the need for parental involvement is just as crucial. Transitional anxiety "is almost a universal phenomenon, partly due to the structural changes" of the new school, says Doug MacIver, research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

For instance, in elementary school, children usually have about two teachers; in middle school, they might have a different teacher for every subject, so they may get the sense of "no-one knows me, no-one cares about me," says MacIver.

Trouble patterns to look for among older students are absenteeism and falling grades. Studies show that many students have perfect attendance in elementary school, but more absences in middle school. "Part of that is the anonymity they feel," says MacIver.

Studies also show that the typical middle school student achieves lower grades than the typical elementary school student, which "contributes to the whole turning-off to school you see as kids get older," he says.

If a child manifests these symptoms, it is the parents' cue to consider possible innovations in the school's organization and staffing. For example, some Maryland public schools have incorporated "looping," a system where teachers are assigned to a specified set of students "to counter weak, superficial, fleeting student/teacher relationships," says MacIver.

! Pub date: 8/23/98

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