New School Blues

August 2018 CONSULT

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Encouraging talks, careful planning can help ease scholastic transition anxiety

Published on Friday, August 3, 2018

By: Annie Oeth,

Moving to a new school or to a higher grade can be exciting, but also terrifying for some students.

Will the teachers be demanding? Will there be stacks of homework assignments this year? What if I get lost? Who will sit with me at lunch?

Portrait of Dr. David Elkin

For the numerous thrills of growing up, the anxieties of change are just as many, if not more, said Dr. David Elkin, executive director of the Center for Advancement of Youth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

According to the Association for Middle Level Education, more than 88 percent of public school students move from an elementary school to a middle school. That transition – from being in one classroom with one or two teachers to changing classrooms and being expected to take on more personal responsibility – comes just as students are facing even more changes.

The middle school years are when students begin to mature physically, which can trigger a whole other set of anxieties, Elkin said.

Parents can help steer their children through these inevitable times of change by “assessing their competencies,” Elkin said. “This works on students whether they are 5 or 15. Tell them, ‘I know that new situations are scary, but you can do this.’”

Acknowledging the challenges but reminding them of their strengths and of times when they used their abilities successfully will show children they can adjust to their new school or grade as well, Elkin said.

“For example, you could say, ‘I know you are worried about making new friends in a new place, but remember when you joined Scouts and you didn’t know anyone at the first meeting? You wound up making some really good friends that day, and you’ll make friends at this school, too.’

“Assure them that they have succeeded in the past and will succeed again.”

Children may feel anxious about new schools, new teachers and academic demands, “but they have to face those situations,” Elkin said. “This is a life skill, and parents have to let their children face challenges and succeed.”

Dustin Sarver

A little advance planning can help, too, said Dr. Dustin Sarver, UMMC assistant professor of pediatrics.

“If your child is worried about getting lost on the first day at a new school, you could visit the school beforehand, walk around and see where everything is,” said Sarver, a psychologist. “Preparation for the first day of school should happen earlier than the night before, especially when there is a transition involved.

“Get into a routine before school starts, with consistent bedtimes and healthy meals. All of this will work together for students to be their optimal selves once classes begin.”

When dealing with back-to-school anxieties, Elkin and Sarver agreed that parents might want to check their own attitudes as well. Parents who cry in front of their children on the first day of kindergarten, for example, are more likely to have children who start school with tears and fears.

“Parents shouldn’t be panicky themselves,” Sarver said. “Children react to their caregivers’ anxiety and stress.”

Stress and worry can be contagious, said Elkin.

“If parents or caregivers can exude a confident air, since children take their cues from them, they will go into that new situation – kindergarten, a new school or moving to higher grades – with more confidence.”