Helping children adjust to school
Last Updated August 30, 2007
When Lou-Ann Paton's daughters, nine-year-old Reilly and Jessica, 5, head off to school in their new north Toronto neighbourhood this fall, they'll be equipped with more than knapsacks and new shoes. Paton has been arming her girls with coping skills over the summer.
"We've walked over to the schoolyard so they're familiar with the school physically and know where it is relative to where we live," Patton said. "We're also trying to line up a tour of the school. We want to build a level of excitement versus a level of dread."
From kindergarten right up to university, helping young people adjust to school is something parents grapple with every fall. Brenda Chandler, a registered psychologist with the Halifax Regional School Board, says it's essential the family is positive about the experience.
"It makes a difference if parents are excited about the new school," Chandler said. "They can talk about examples of how the child has coped in the past, as well as about new friends they'll make and what they're going to learn."
Making sure a child has friends at the school is vital, Chandler said. "Have your kids spend time with children they'll be at school with so they don't feel they're alone when they go into the building."
Youngsters need to establish a physical connection as well, Chandler adds. Showing them the school, as Paton has done, or taking a tour before to point out where the telephones and washrooms are, can reduce anxiety.
For younger kids, putting a note or picture in a child's lunchbox and letting them know that you or a caregiver will be picking them up after school also lessens anxiety. Making sure they have a fun extracurricular activity can help kids, too, as long as they aren't overscheduled.
Kids also need to know it's normal to feel anxiety, and they can be told adults sometimes feel it, too.
"If it [the anxiety] lasts longer than a day or two or seems extreme, you might want to seek out resources in your school," Chandler said. "The duration of time it lasts is the concern."
When kids are upset about things like going to school or something at school, it's important parents stay calm, Chandler says.
"A lot has to do with parental ability to let go. You need to feel confident and that your child is safe. If you get that across to a child, they'll be more able to separate."
Other factors to consider
It's also important to take into consideration changes in a child's life.
Janice Neil, a newly separated mother of three, says when her youngest child enters school this fall, he will be travelling to and from school from two new homes.
"I'm trying to keep as many things the same — his guitar lessons and his hockey," she said. "I'm asking him for suggestions about how to make it less stressful. In fact, he's staying at the same school with his friends, so in fact school may be the one constant."
And it isn't just younger children who can feel anxiety over a new class or school. For older kids, going to university or college often means moving to another city and living on their own for the first time — often a major source of stress.
When Renata Smith's daughter headed off to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., several years ago, she was excited about her classes and the new friends she hoped to make. However, a week and a half later, she fled the school overwhelmed.
"She never gave it a chance," Smith recalled. "She never became involved with what was going on at the school. The university tried to help. There was lots for freshmen but she hid in her room."
Mike Condra, director of health, counselling and disability services at Queen's, says parents and kids have to talk about the changes before the child leaves for university. "It's a juggling act," Condra said. "There's a fine line between rescuing them when they run into difficulty and completely severing the tie."
Parents need to encourage kids to be good problem solvers, Condra says.
"No one wants their son or daughter to suffer, but sometimes they may need to find their way through a particular dilemma themselves," he said, adding parents can usually tell when it's more serious. At that point, he says, they should encourage or help the child seek out counselling on campus.
Those first-day jitters and anxiety are often just a necessary part of growing up. Chandler says sometimes parents simply have to wait things out — teaching kids to cope with new situations is vital to their development.
"If your child hasn't been taught how to cope with feelings of separation and sadness when they're little, they'll have a more difficult time when they are older," he said.
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