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Back to School

Ways to soothe the first-day jitters

By Katrina Ballard
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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Though some children can barely contain their excitement as they choose an outfit for the first day of school and gleefully shop for new supplies, many other students feel anxiety in the weeks before September, wondering what the new school year will bring.

During the summer, children do not feel the pressure and judgment that the school year brings, said Jon Mattleman, director of Needham Youth Services. Once classes start up again, some anxious students may complain of stomachaches, headaches, or trouble sleeping, he said.

“Our own competency is a central part of who we are,’’ said Mattleman. “We’re tested in school; even reading in front of the class can be hard. Going back has all sorts of expectations, like what others put upon us.’’

Mattleman said parents often make the mistake of assuming their children are excited about school, rather than asking them how they feel. Once parents know what their child is worried about, they can take the steps to put them at ease, he said.

Students shifting to a new school may feel better after taking a tour of the building, finding their locker, and practicing to open its lock, said Mattleman. For children who worry about grades, parents should talk about realistic expectations and help their kids get organized by buying them a planner or making sure they have all the right supplies.

“One of the challenges is the social part; parents need to understand it takes a lot of emotional, psychic energy to get ready for school,’’ said Mattleman. “Getting to bed even a half-hour earlier every night the week before is putting your child in position to succeed.’’

Some students moving up to middle school may already have friends from other elementary schools from sports, theater, or religion classes; others will be nervous about meeting new people on their first day, said Doug Levy, a sixth-grade math teacher at the High Rock School in Needham.

“I think parents have anxiety in a way, because a lot of them have been in one school for five or six years,’’ said Levy. “This is new territory. They wonder, will they pick the right friends? It’s like sending your child off to college.’’

Helping with social anxieties might be easier with younger children. Needham mother Roxanna Sarmiento said she arranges play dates for her kindergartner and preschooler so they will know a few other children when school starts.

Sarmiento, who maintains a blog at www.everydaytreats.com, said she took both of her sons along for a visit to the 3-year-old’s preschool, the same one that her 5-year-old had attended. The visit helped her older child feel less anxious about his own transition to kindergarten because he remembered getting over the nervousness, and he told his younger brother what it was like.

“The younger one always worships the older sibling; they don’t care what I have to say,’’ she joked.

Another Needham mother, Maria Lando, said she brings math into everyday life to keep her children’s minds working all summer.

Lando, who writes about the subject on her blog, www.themathmom.com, said simple problems, like calculating the length of a road trip, helps her kids get ready for the year.

“It’s nice to start doing a little in advance so they have the confidence that they can do it, and be more relaxed in the first week,’’ said Lando.

Jessica Peterson, the new principal at Newman Elementary School in Needham, said that despite nervousness, parents and children should know they have support in the classroom, and the staff is there to help everyone succeed.

“It’s absolutely normal that adults and children get anxious about the first day of school,’’ she said.

“It’s a real feeling most people have around this time of year.’’

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