Q: I am a mother of two children, an 8 year old daughter and a 6 year old son. We just moved to a different state. My children are very nervous (so am I!) about starting school. Any advice to make a smooth transition?
A: Children can be nervous about starting a new school for many different reasons, so a parent should first find out specifically what it is that he or she is concerned about. For example, is he worried that the work will be too hard, or that no one will like him, or that he will miss his old friends, or that he might not know where the bathroom is? A parent should then work to address the particular concern. So, if the child is concerned about the work, contact the school and find out whether he is academically at the right point, and if not then take appropriate steps (e.g. getting tutoring, talking to the teacher about how he can "catch up", and so on). If he is concerned about missing old friends, help him keep in touch with these friends by phone or e-mail. If the concern is that he won't make any friends, you can help with this: You can set play dates with kids in the neighborhood; he can join a sport or activity as a way of meeting classmates; and so forth. You can also ask the teacher to help out by giving you the names of some kids who may be good potential friends for him, as well as by seating him next to these kids and also having them work together on group projects. Some schools even have programs in which new students are matched up with students who are willing to show them the ropes and help them get acclimated. You can even ask the teacher if she is willing to have everyone in the class do something special to welcome the child, such as planning and throwing a little party.
Frequently, the hardest part of change is the unknown – we all can sometimes assume the worst, and our fear is greater than it needs to be. So to the extent possible, parents should give their children the knowledge that will help them. Letting a child tour the school and meet with his teacher in advance, and allowing him to ask any questions, can allay some of his fears. Monitor your child's progress regularly, and keep in contact with the teacher. Use any past experiences he has had (such as when he has switched from one class to another) to let him see how it ended up "ok," to help promote optimism for the current situation. Keep communication open with your child, so he can talk about what is bothering him, and help him come up with things he can tell himself to cope, such as "I've made lots of friends before; I know I can do it again." When possible, help him see this as an opportunity ("Wow, now I will have two sets of friends"). Make sure to have as much warmth, stability, routine and joy in his life, in order to help him during this difficult time. And keep in mind that the attitude and coping that the parent displays models for the child how he should view situations: If a parent is nervous, a child will likely feel there is something to be worried about, but if the parent projects a calm and optimistic attitude, the child can take his cue from this.
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