Originally created 08/06/99

Preparation can relieve pupil anxiety



Like many parents, Jody Huff realizes that preparing her daughter Katherine for the first day of kindergarten means more than buying pencils and new shoes -- it also means combating the anxieties inherent in a child's initial foray into the world.

Mrs. Huff understands that going to school for the first time can be stressful for a child and has tried to prepare Katherine.

"We've talked a little bit about what's going to happen, and we've gone to visit the school," Mrs. Huff said. "I think there might be some tense moments the week before or the day before, but I anticipate that. We'll just have to take that as it comes."

According to Isolde Smeak, an Augusta counselor who specializes in behavioral and educational crisis intervention, Mrs. Huff is on the right track.

The unknown is what causes stress in children, she said. Preparing them for what to expect goes a long way toward assuaging their fears.

"It should begin ahead of time," Dr. Smeak said. `If you know your child is going to start school in the fall, during the summer you should start laying the groundwork."

Most schools offer an open house before classes begin, and Dr. Smeak said that's an excellent way to introduce children to their new environment. She said that building up the idea of school in the child's mind is also important, a technique that Episcopal Day School headmaster Jim Price also encourages.

"Prepare the child ahead of time for fun -- like going to Grandma's house or the park," Mr. Price said. "Set up school as a fun place to go."

Dr. Smeak also recommended reading to the child about going to school, finding out in advance what games or activities can be expected during the first few weeks of classes and becoming familiar with the bus system. She said parents should strongly consider allowing a child to ride the bus.

"Most younger children love the bus," Dr. Smeak said. "So know what bus the child will ride and trace the route it will take with the child."

Dr. Smeak also suggests informing teachers in advance of any special problems a child might have, such as excessive shyness or an unusually strong attachment to a parent; this will allow them to help calm a nervous student.

"Let me tell you, teachers are smart cookies," Dr. Smeak said. "They know how to act and how to combat fears."

First-day jitters are not just experienced by children. Many parents find themselves suffering from fears as they realize that their children will be leaving their protective domain.

"I worry about her riding the bus, dropping her lunch tray -- all the things I worried about at that age," Mrs. Huff said. "I want her to make friends and have a good time, and I know that will happen. But there's still a little anxiety about some of that."

Dr. Smeak said that becoming acquainted and comfortable with your child's teacher will help alleviate parental anxiety, a belief that Mr. Price also subscribes to.

"As adults and as parents, the first day of school is traumatic," Mr. Price said. "It helps if the parents trust the teacher."

Mr. Price recommended that parents seek support and advice from other parents who have gone through similar situations.

Dr. Smeak said parents also need to realize that there will come a time when they need to cut the apron strings.

"You have to learn, as a parent, to let go sooner or later," she said. She said that first-day fears are a natural byproduct of a very stressful step in a child's life.

"Going to school for the first time is on par with going away to college or moving to a new city," she said. "It's a big stress for kids."

Mrs. Huff said she plans to remain philosophical.

"In the end, this is just a part of your life," she said. "This is what we have to adjust to."

Tips for new kids

The Augusta Chronicle asked seasoned pupils (recent first-, second- and third-graders) to give rising kindergarten pupils advice for their first day of school. Here are their tips:

If you are afraid on your first day of school, you should remember that you might see someone you know. And don't be afraid to ask your teacher a question. You shouldn't be afraid of getting on the wrong bus because the teacher won't let you. And you shouldn't be afraid of getting laughed at because they've made mistakes, too.

Isaac Guffey, 8, of Martinez, a third-grader at Bel Air Elementary

Rising kindergarteners should not bring toys to class unless their teacher has approved.

Olivia Cheeseman, 8, of Aiken, a rising fourth-grader at Millbrook Elementary

It's fun! You have naps. You might switch classes. You have PE. You have recess. You shouldn't punch someone in the stomach. You have a computer. Obey the rules. Kindergarten teachers like hugs.

William Ealick, 6, of Augusta, a rising first-grader at Augusta Preparatory School

They are going to teach you stuff you don't already know. Do good. Try to do your best. Get used to it.

Michael Hudlow, 7, of Martinez, a rising second-grader at Waynesboro, Ga., Primary School

1. Over the summer, practice reading and spelling.

2. Be prepared when school starts.

3. Be quiet when your teacher is talking.

4. Pay attention.

5. Study hard.

6. Behave and obey the teachers and the schools rules.

7. DO NOT PANIC!!!

If you follow all of these rules and work really hard, you will have an awesome kindergarten year!

Jordan Welch, 7, of Grovetown, a rising second-grader at Brookwood Elementary