Psychologically Speaking: Is your child ready for school?

Getting your child off to school in the morning with everyone feeling relatively calm requires incredible organization and infinite patience.

Cute school kid 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Cute school kid 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
September is just around the corner and your child's first day of school is an important one. Going to school may seem new, exciting and easy from a grownup's perspective, but for a child it can be filled with anticipation and dread. As you try and imagine what the new school year can be like, remember that kids just starting school for the first time are leaving the comfort of home and facing the challenges of unfamiliar surroundings, new routines, a new adult figure in their life and lots of children they don't know. Put yourself in their shoes by imagining yourself being asked by your new boss to go to a cocktail party in a strange city where you know no one. You're expected to be on your best behavior without knowing any of the rules of the game. How is that for being scary and intimidating? The best way to keep anxiety to a minimum is to prepare your child before school even starts. Walk to school, go in if you can and, when possible, have him meet some of the other children his age who live in the neighborhood. Let him know what to expect in terms of routines around arrival and departure, bathroom visits, talking in class, making friends and anything else you can think of. There will be lots that you won't know and you can have fun learning together as the school year advances. Telling you his concerns or "worst fear" may let you to help him work on his worries before he ever steps foot in the school. Most children are just beginning to adjust to school when everything gets interrupted for the holidays. Some children experience greater anxiety than others, and things like sleep difficulties, tummy troubles, crying, and general behavioral changes or regression do merit parental and, at times, professional attention. Check out your child's friendships and ensure all is well. Some children take longer than others to make friends, but if your child seems to be sitting alone, not involved in play dates or is being picked on by the other children, it is important for you to find out why and to work with the school to ensure that he doesn't become isolated by his peers or get bullied. Getting your child off to school in the morning with everyone feeling relatively calm requires incredible organization and infinite patience. Assuming he had plenty of sleep (about 11 hours a night for a five-year-old) and is well rested, the morning can actually be an enjoyable time before everyone goes off for the day. With breakfast and clothes sorted out in advance, you and your child can decide on a healthy, child friendly lunch and prepare it together the night before. Now all he has to do is organize his school supplies. Color-coded file folders, ice packs, baskets, water bottles and notebooks all keep life in order by identifying whose supplies belong to whom and help lay the groundwork for further organization of notebooks and homework materials as the school year advances. If you are consistent and help teach him a routine, you won't have to nag him to sit and do his work. A regular time to do homework, eat meals, bathe and go to bed will stand him in good stead for his later years. He will need a well-lit, quiet spot that he can call his own to do his work and perhaps a little help from you to get started. While it may be tempting for you to just "do" the work, your role is one of consultant. He needs to learn how to be manager. Once you have your child sorted out, don't forget to make sure that in the first months of school you introduce yourself to the teacher and get a sense as to how she feels he is adjusting. By asking her what you could be doing so that you can work together to make it a wonderful year, she will see that she has a caring partner at home. If your child is biking to school, make sure his helmet fits properly and he actually understands the importance of wearing it. If he is walking, he should know that it is dangerous to walk while listening to music or sending text messages. While he may be too young to personally carry these, an older sibling walking with him may be distracted. Your child needs to know the rules of the road as most drivers don't notice a young child crossing between two parked cars. Finally, try not to fall into the trap of over-scheduling your child with after-school activities. Let him pick one or two activities and save the others for a later time. After all, while you may want him to have time to socialize, be creative and get exercise, he needs "down time" in order to play, relax and destress. One of the greatest treats for a child at the end of the day is to bounce into the house, yell that he's home (not that you wouldn't notice) and slowly unwind. You may have to gently encourage this with some milk and cookies and a giant hug, but when you are there to listen, at that moment, or later, when you arrive home, if you work outside the house, you'll be amazed at all that he'll tell you. With proper preparation school can really be a ton of fun. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.