First day of school often elicits anxiety in kids - even if it doesn’t showA child’s first day of school -- whether preschool or kindergarten -- can be an emotional time for parents. We talk with a parent who has dealt with this transition when their “baby” separates from Mom and Dad and takes the first steps toward independence.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Years ago, on his first day of kindergarten at West Elementary School in Grand Forks, Oliver Wolfe wrote his name on a sign-in sheet, like all the other kids.
“He’d been writing his own name for quite a while,” said his mom Lori Robison. But this time, he didn’t print quite as well as usual.
“I think he was feeling a little bit of pressure, a little bit of nerves,” she said. “The stress was coming out a little bit.”
Starting kindergarten wasn’t an emotional time, though, she recalled. Like his older sister Juliet, Oliver had attended University Children’s Center, a preschool on the UND campus, for a couple of years.
“My kids have always liked school and always liked to socialize with other kids,” she said, so going into kindergarten “didn’t feel like a large transition for him.”
The prospect of starting school presents a new independent experience in unfamiliar surroundings. Whether it’s kindergarten, middle or high school, it can be daunting, even frightening — not to mention a hurdle for parents.
“A lot of it stems from anxiety and excitement,” said Dr. Meghan Salyers, assistant professor of teaching and learning at UND.
“It’s shown by (the child) being the first one at the breakfast table, saying ‘let’s go!’ or ‘I don’t want to get dressed,’” she said. Reactions range from “either side of that or a combination of the two.”
Children are worried about whether they’ll fit in, “even if they don’t have words for that yet,” she said.
Parents should use a calm voice to quell some of that excitement.
At school, the child may be very shy, “even if they were excited at home,” she said. “They’re in an environment where they don’t know most of the kids, they don’t know the teacher.”
The child is wondering, what are they in for? she said. “How terrible and how wonderful is it going to be?”
Parents too may have feelings of anxiety and should ask any questions they have. By their actions, eye contact with the teacher, and calm voice, they show confidence in the school and in the child, she said.
“The parent needs to show that confidence so (the child) learns ‘I can do this,’ and kids need to practice that,” she said.
Children recognize that “Mom and Dad wouldn’t leave me here if it wasn’t OK.”
Once parents are assured that their child is in a safe environment, they need “to walk out and let go,” Salyers said. “The teacher will take care of the children very well.”
“Even if you see children crying, you need to walk away. It’s emotional,” she said, and not unlike the first time you leave the child with a sitter or at day care.
“There can be dramatic screaming... It’s separation anxiety.”
But “children in kindergarten are more cognitively able to handle it; you need to let them do that… They’re able to take control of their emotions and, with the guidance of the teacher, they need to.
“It’s a very normal feeling for parents not to want to walk away. You’re the protector of the child — and have been since day one.”
“Don’t leave them without a big, reassuring hug and a kiss on the cheek,” she said, and tell the child when you’ll be back.
In contrast to the overtly expressive child, there are those who don’t exhibit any anxiety or excitement, Salyers said. “Some are very calm about it — those are few.”
“Those are the children I want to start a conversation with,” she said. She would ask open-ended questions like, how do you feel about this? Or, what do you think about that?
“Getting the child to open up is a good thing.”
Middle school angst
For kids heading into middle school, or sixth grade, the level of anxiety is higher and shows up in different ways, Salyers said. “They want to know exactly where their classes are and how to get to them.”
Like a pregnant woman going through a “nesting” stage, these students “want to get notebooks, their schedule, the clothes they need — they have a list they go through, like the world is going to end on the first day of school” if they’re not fully prepared.
Others just show up, less prepared and far less concerned.
Generally middle schoolers “are insecure about their image,” she said, and worried about acceptance as well as new expectations.
They may feel they should be able to handle such worries, and it’s embarrassing to tell Mom or Dad that they’re uneasy or fearful.
At this age, their bodies are undergoing a lot of changes, she said, their perspective on life is opening up, and they have to start to take some risks.
Robison’s daughter, when her family moved to another school district before her sixth grade, faced some challenges, her mom said.
“It was a tough thing for Juliet. She had friends who went to Valley (middle school) but she was going to Schroeder. It was a tougher transition for her.”
Robison and her husband, Eric Wolfe, “questioned if we should have let her finish at Valley but now, in high school, she has her friends from Valley and… from Schroeder. She’s knitted those groups of friends together.”
For Oliver, though, the transition was made easier because he spent five years at Phoenix Elementary.
“He had played baseball, basketball and soccer and had met kids from other schools — Lewis & Clark and Kelly — that feed into Schroeder."
On his first day at Schroeder’s lunchroom, “when he saw the table of Phoenix kids was full, he saw a table of other kids he knew and went and sat with them,” she said.
When Oliver begins ninth grade this month at Central High School, Robison said, the transition should again be easier because he’s participated in more activities that connect him with other kids throughout the community.
When kids enter high school, “there’s always a little bit of nerves,” she said. “But the nice thing (the school district does) is give the ninth-graders a whole day, before the other students come in, to get more comfortable finding their way around the school and get into their lockers without upperclassmen watching them.”
Advance warning from the teacher that “’come tomorrow, there’ll be sophomores in this class,’ alleviates the shock of walking in and seeing this six-foot football player in your Latin I class,” Salyers said.
Two years ago, when Juliet started at Central High School, “I didn’t see much anxiety,” Robison said. She “had a strong sense of who she is and what she cares about.”
Juliet has been very active in SPA (Summer Performing Arts) for years. The socializing that she engaged in with SPA students before her freshman year “eases the way into high school,” she said.
“Juliet is a kid who is so active with music and advanced placement and summer school classes,” Robison said. Those activities allowed her to “figure out the lay of the land” at Central, easing any pre-high-school anxiety.
Salyers said that if your child is entering high school, as other transition points, it’s important to stay calm and show confidence in the child and the school.
She’s seen parents pressure kids, as they approach high school, expecting straight A’s. Such pressure “is unneeded and ineffective,” she said.
While it may well-intended, it’s best to balance calm with the expectation that the child will do well.
“You could say, ‘You’ve done a great job so far; don’t worry about what you don’t know yet. Yes, you’re going to have challenges, and we’ll help if you need it.’”
Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or email@example.com.