Counselors help kids, parents cope with start-of-school jitters

Nervous pupils can be soothed with planning, encouragement,

August 28, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some children show up for the first day of school all smiles. Others refuse to get out of the car or off the bus, or they chase their parents screaming, begging to be taken home.

County school system specialists are preparing to provide advice for parents to help make the first day a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for children.

In the past, kindergartners experienced the most difficulty at the start of the school year, school officials say. But today, first grade is the most challenging. Jennifer Watkinson, a counselor at Forest Hill Elementary School, said few pupils have problems during the first couple of days. By about the third day, however, it's a different story for some kids, she said.

"The kids go to school, and they find the full school day is too long, lunch isn't what they thought it would be, and they scream for their parents not to leave them," Watkinson said.

She suggests that parents make a plan for dealing with back-to-school difficulties. Her primary recommendation is to make sure the child is at school every day.

"A parent can call me, and we can arrange to have them drop the child off in my office," Watkinson said. "[Parents] can say goodbye, give them a hug and a kiss and leave. Usually once the parent is out of sight, they stop crying. The show is for them, not usually me."

Watkinson said she stays in contact with the parent to give them positive things about the child's day to discuss when the child returns home.

"I go and check on the child later in the day and give my parents a call and let them know they're doing fine," Watkinson said.

Watkinson said it's important that parents be positive, and to allow the child time to adjust.

"Parents have to be confident when they speak to the child," Watkinson said. "They can't say things like, `If you don't feel well, you can go to the nurse and I'll come and get you,' because they'll be in the nurses office every day. Instead, tell them they will be OK, that you know they can do it. No matter what, be positive. Ask them about lunch or what specials they had."

Watkinson offers parents several tips for the back-to-school transition:

Get the child on a daily routine and schedule. Help them know what to expect next in their day. Don't schedule doctor's appointments or anything until they adjust to school. Don't visit the school too often. Let them adjust without your presence. Wait at least a month.

Being well-rested is crucial. Even well-adjusted pupils can have problems if they are tired. Set a bedtime and stick to it.

Make sure your child has everything ready for the next day. Check backpacks for notes from teachers directing pupils to bring items for the next day. Lay out clothes, and make sure homework is complete.

"It can take a week, or as long as a couple months for a child to adjust," Watkinson said. "Just be sure you have a plan to deal with it and remain strong. And always make sure your child is at school on time. Don't ask them if they want to go to school. They will always say no. They don't have a choice, so tell them, `Let's go.'"

In extreme cases, when the child is throwing temper tantrums or screaming, Watkinson recommends that parents bring their child to school early.

"School starts at 8:30 a.m. So if a child comes in screaming at 8:30, and it takes me 15 minutes to calm them, they've missed the first part of their school day," Watkinson said.

"If the parent brings them to me at 8:10 a.m. I can have them situated in the classroom by the time schools starts."

The transition for older pupils can be challenging, too.

Cheryl Slesinger, a guidance counselor at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, said the anxiety that the kids feel going from elementary to middle, or middle to high school can be traumatic.

Slesinger suggests talking with the child about the differences between junior high and elementary school. However, the first and most important step is getting them to school.

Once the school year starts, guidance counselors meet with students individually and in the classroom to discuss traditional problematic issues such as bullying or teasing. The students are instructed in dealing with such situations.

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