Make School Less Scary

The 7 most common fears children have -- and how to overcome them.

"I'll miss you, Mommy."

The biggest hurdle for preschoolers and kindergartners is being separated from everything that's familiar -- especially you. Smooth the transition by taking your child to visit the school several times before the year starts. Arrange a tour, attend school events, and use the playground. "Every time your child visits his new school and leaves with a smile on his face and sees you smiling, he's getting the message that he can be happy there," says Naomi Steiner, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Tufts New England Medical Center. If your child still sticks to you like Velcro once school is in session, keep morning routines predictable and goodbyes short, says Patricia DiBartolo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. After you say goodbye, the teacher can distract your child by involving him in his favorite activity. Put a note in his lunch box (even a big heart is fun for nonreaders), or give him a "magic" acorn or seashell to keep in his pocket. Tell him that whenever he touches it, he'll know you're thinking of him.

"I'll have an accident."

If your child expresses anxiety about the bathrooms, find out why. Does he worry there's not enough time to get there? Is he scared of the toilets because they flush too fast? Did he have a bad experience with a classmate crawling under the stall door? Talk about his fears, and discuss strategies for coping. Ask the teacher when the rest rooms are the most quiet, and have her remind your child to go then.If none of this quells his fears, talk to other parents. If their kids are having similar issues, there might be a bullying problem, Dr. Steiner points out. Or perhaps the teacher can take the whole class to the bathroom for one more tour and offer tips on what the children should do if they need to use it.

    "I'll get lost in that big building."

    When you visit, suggest visual clues that can help your child navigate the school on her own ("When you get off the bus, just go right up these stairs and walk three doors past the office to your classroom"). Show her where the bathrooms are, and point out the school's floors; many buildings have different carpeting or tiles on each level or corridor. Work with the teacher to learn which rooms your child has to find during the school day. Then draw a map or construct a shoe-box model to help her see that the library is directly upstairs from the gym, for instance, and that the cafeteria is the big room at the bottom of the red stairwell.

      "I can't suck my thumb or bring Teddy."

      Taking comfort toys and blankies to preschool is common and usually well-accepted, but this trend usually changes at or after kindergarten. "A child who walks into first grade with his stuffed animal might get teased," Dr. Steiner says. The same is true of thumb-sucking, so try working on it in preschool. For instance, encourage your child to put her blankie in her cubby when she arrives at preschool, and make sure she gets it when she leaves. Soon she can graduate to leaving it in the car or at home.Thumb-sucking is obviously a tougher habit to break -- your child can't leave her thumb in her cubby. Luckily, most children start to suck their thumb less frequently as they become busier and more comfortable in school. To encourage your child to break the habit, try using sticker charts and rewards, or visit the dentist for a retainer she can wear at home.

        "I'm afraid the teacher will be mean."

        As the first day approaches, young students may imagine a child-crunching monster sitting behind the teacher's desk -- especially if older siblings have teased them with exaggerated stories. Introduce your child to his teacher before the beginning of school, and remind him of any family friends or relatives who are teachers. Once school starts, your child may also think his teacher is mean if she does things differently from you or his day-care provider. This is a good opportunity to talk about classroom rules and how people do things in their own way. You might say, "Maybe your teacher has to be strict about everyone being quiet during storytime because otherwise kids wouldn't hear the story. I bet it's a lot harder to read to 20 children than to just one. What would you do if you were the teacher and the kids weren't listening?"If school is in full swing and your child suddenly reports that his teacher is mean, though, don't be too surprised. It may be based on a single incident when the teacher corrected him or scolded the class. "Most young children have trouble understanding that adults can get frustrated too," says Katie Basson, a former first-grade teacher in Newburyport, Massachusetts. "Explaining this will help reassure your child that he isn't being singled out."

          "I'm scared of the bus."

          The big yellow bus can seem so daunting that most towns offer practice rides for children and parents before school starts. "Even so, some kids can have the wrong idea about what happens on the bus," says Ellen Flannery-Schroeder, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston. For instance, they may have seen a TV show where the bigger kids pulled the younger children's hair on the bus. "Usually, all you have to do is explain that this rarely happens, and they'll be fine," Dr. Flannery-Schroeder says. At the same time, remind your child that she should always tell you or another adult if other kids on the bus bother her.Once school starts, introduce your child to the bus driver, and make sure she knows the driver's name and the bus number. If she's anxious about making a mistake and taking the wrong bus, reassure her that teachers supervise dismissal time. Remind her that drivers have radios and teachers have phones in case there's a problem on the road. Finally, it might help to find a nice older student who would be willing to sit with her.

            "I won't make friends."

            If your child is afraid that no one will like him, play a memory game: Ask him to remember how he met each of the friends he has now. Say, "I know it's scary to meet new people, but remember that the other kids are scared too. They'd probably be happy if someone as nice as you asks them to play, because you know how to share toys and take turns on the slide." Request a class list and contact one or two kids who live nearby for playdates before or soon after school starts. "Be sure to let the teacher know if your child is especially shy," Dr. DiBartolo says. She'll make an effort to help your child navigate relationships. If several weeks pass and your child still feels left out, speak with the teacher to find out whether there are other issues. Some kids are afraid to join in group play without being asked.

              Copyright © 2004 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the September 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

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