August 2, 2004

Psychologist offers back-to-school tips for parents


By Alicia Sands Lurry

With the start of school just weeks away, many parents already are busy shopping for their children's school supplies, new clothes and other essential items.

But as important as getting them equipped for the new school year is acknowledging the conflicting feelings some children may have about school, according to Ann Hazzard, associate professor of pediatrics and clinical psychologist at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital.

Hazzard said parents of young children (6 and under) should recognize that separation anxiety can sometimes be a problem--especially on the first day of school. She said children this age use parents as a human security blanket and may feel anxious about being separated from a parent for a school day. Reassurances from parents that children will be OK and keeping goodbyes relatively brief are strategies Hazzard recommends.

"An extended goodbye and prolonged reassurances, if a child is upset at transition time, generally prolong rather than shorten the child's distress," Hazzard said. "Often parents hear from teachers that, after they left, the child stopped crying within five minutes."

If children's distress persists, giving them a transitional object to remind them of the parent may be helpful, Hazzard said. A locket with a picture of the parent or a key chain is often reassuring. And because a child's anxiety is most pronounced with the primary caregiver, Hazzard also suggested having the other parent or a trusted neighbor handle transportation for a period of time to lessen the child's difficulty with transition.

Parents also should recognize that some children are shy and concerned about whether a friend will be in their class this year.

"The challenge of making new friends and finding one's place in a new classroom can be intimidating," Hazzard said. "It is helpful for parents to acknowledge that making new friends can be challenging, rather than minimizing a child's realistic concerns. Having conferences with the teacher and volunteering in the classroom also can help parents gauge a child's social adjustment."

For parents of children with learning challenges, the return to school may be especially dreaded, Hazzard said. Parents can help meet their child's special needs by working with school personnel to obtain appropriate services and support.

"That alone can make the difference between a disastrous and successful school year," she said.

Some more tips:

  • Get children back on a healthy, school-year sleep cycle. Start putting them to bed at a reasonable time for at least a week before school starts. Remember, children need more sleep than adults. Most elementary-age children need 10-11 hours of sleep each day. Lack of sleep frequently causes problems with attention, irritability and learning.
  • Buy school supplies together. Let children have choices about notebook colors and other items. This is a fun way to help them get excited about school and be prepared.
  • Meet the child's teacher. Most schools offer open houses or meet-the-teacher opportunities before the first day of school. This can be reassuring to students and parents alike.
  • Maintain children's academic skills and interest over the summer. Everyone needs a vacation, but it is helpful for children to keep their minds actively engaged in learning at least part of the summer.
  • Go to the library and check out books to read for pleasure. Also, flashcards are a great way to practice math facts. Often an incentive, such as a trip to an amusement park, helps motivate children.