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Parents can ease kindergarten separation issues

Published on: September 01, 2004

You've read the books, chatted with the pediatrician and considered the
advice of everyone you know who has forged this path already.

Now it's September, and your child is about to embark upon what
promises to be the great adventure of his young life: his first day of
kindergarten.

It's show time.

Every parent hopes the transition into kindergarten will be a smooth
one. Kindergarten, after all, is a child's introduction to formal
schooling and all the opportunities, expectations and dreams that go
along with it.

That's why it's disappointing -- even upsetting -- when your child
enters the classroom that first day with the weight of the world upon
those small shoulders that also carry his Spiderman backpack.

"There are always students who cry those first few days or don't want
their parents to leave," says Kathy Gildea, a school counselor at
Island Park Elementary on Mercer Island. "It's important for parents to
understand that even with good things, we have anxiety."

Even children who have spent time in day cares and preschools can find
kindergarten a new -- and very scary -- experience, Gildea says. "Kids
encounter more responsibility in kindergarten, such as learning to
follow rules in the classroom and acclimating to a structured
schedule," she says. "There's often a cafeteria, recess, music class
and a whole new group of kids engaging in activities. There's a lot
that happens."

One way for parents to help their young student deal with these fears
and feelings is to start measuring their own, contends Elaine Goldberg,
a kindergarten teacher at Mercer Island's West Mercer Elementary.

"If the parents have made peace with what they're doing, if they are
comfortable with the school and they communicate that to the child, the
transition goes beautifully," she says. "Whether or not there are
separation problems has a lot to do with the tone parents set."

A parent's attitude and demeanor can make or break the
farewell-at-the-door scene, Goldberg says. "If we can get the parent to
say goodbye and leave quickly, the child will soon be distracted. But
if the parent hangs around and seems anxious, the child tends to have
more trouble."

To help students -- and their parents -- with the transition process,
the Jewish Day School in Bellevue offers "Step Up Day" in May for
incoming parents and their children. Children visit classes, parents
chat with staff and educators discuss ways to help prepare for
kindergarten.

Diane Zipperman, a counselor at the Jewish Day School, says visiting
the school is an effective way to help diffuse a child's kindergarten
angst.

What else can parents do? "Over the summer, look for opportunities to
make references to school in general," she says. "Point out the
back-to-school sales or shows on TV and say things like, 'When you go
to school, this is what you'll be doing.'"

When talking to your kids about school, pay attention to their
reactions, Zipperman advises. Do they have mistaken beliefs? Have they
heard frightening tales? "Now's the time for parents to have private
conversations with older siblings," Zipperman says. "Tell them to save
the horror stories about that time at the playground."

Introduce rituals such as clothes shopping and let children participate
in those outings, Zipperman says. "Do things that make going to school
more of a reality."

The week before kindergarten begins, establish routines such as waking
up at a specific time each morning and getting school clothes ready,
she advises. And when that first day arrives, stay calm and
matter-of-fact.

"This is an experience that is exciting -- but also bittersweet," she
adds. "For parents, it can evoke emotions such as sadness or
ambivalence. It's important that we recognize our own mixed feelings;
they are normal and natural to have -- for parents and for children."

If the child does have trouble separating, reassure him, tell him he'll
be all right -- and make a quick exit.

"Teachers are skilled at steering these kids toward an activity; most
of them calm down," Zipperman notes. "The majority of children make a
good transition."™

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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