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First-day jitters common for students, parents

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

The new clothes are bought. Bright, white sneakers are out of the box. A whole new stash of crayons, markers and folders are dutifully labeled. Everyone is ready for the first day of school. Or are they?

University of Georgia experts say the jitters can affect kids of all ages.

"Among 5- to 8-year-olds, parents may see regressive behaviors, meaning behaviors that your child probably outgrew a few years ago but tend to reappear when the child is feeling stress," said Don Bower, an Extension child development specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Your child may cling to you, carry around a favorite toy or get teary or slow to comply with requests.

"Among older school-agers, watch for more obvious resistance to going back to school, such as various excuses and upset tummies," Bower said.

Stress signs

For some kids, the first day of school is the thrill of finally getting on that big, yellow bus and heading off into the big world. For others, that big, scary world is a fright. But all feel a certain amount of stress.

"Children learn stress management skills from watching others and practicing various approaches," Bower said. "Whining and fussiness are early favorites and will likely continue unless parents ignore them. Lots of emotional support, encouragement and recognition from parents and teachers will help build stress resilience in children.

"Children are very attuned to the emotional environment in their families," he said. "If parents are apprehensive, children will pick up on this and feel more stressed themselves."

Big changes

Even a child who has been in child care, preschool or kindergarten will face big changes when entering school.

Here are some tips to make that first day go a little smoother:

Help your child learn social skills. Help him meet other children his own age at church, the park or playground. Or invite other children the same age over to "play school."

Talk about what happens at school. Go over what a day will be like. Get older siblings to share their school experiences. Some schools offer a visiting day for kindergarten and first- graders where they can see the classrooms, cafeteria and restrooms and sit on the bus. Meet his teacher. If your school offers these special days, take advantage of it.

Make sure your child feels safe. Teach him your address and phone number and to write his name.

Teacher knows best

Often the telltale moment will be when you leave him either at the bus or the classroom.

"Teachers understand that this can be a stressful moment for parent and child," Bower said. "Parents may accompany the child to the classroom the first day and introduce the teacher. Then offer a quick hug, reassurance that we'll talk again after school, and exit the room."

The teacher will know then, he said, to introduce your child to a classmate already there or show him an interesting aquarium or project -- strategies to interest and involve him in this new experience.

Anxious parents are ready with the drill when their children return from the first day. How did it go? What did you learn? Did you make new friends? Don't let your interest in school stop after the first day.

"Some parents assume that a child's education is just the school's responsibility," Bower said. "Plenty of research shows, however, that the most successful students have parents who keep track of the child's studies and supplement them with more learning experiences at home."

You can enrich your child's education, he said, with trips to the library or museums, vacations to interesting sites or just exploring the neighborhood. Keep plenty of reading materials in your home, and read with your child often.

"Parents and teachers can be a team to nourish a love of learning in children," Bower said.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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