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David Baxter PhD

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Parents can help kids prepare for school
August 6, 2004
By Merritt McKinney

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The first day of school can be a lot of fun for many children, giving them a chance to meet up with friends they have not seen all summer.

For some children who are starting school for the first time, however, the first day of school can be a challenge. Parents can take a few steps to help ease the transition for children, according to Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont.

Even children who have gone to daycare have some adjusting to do, he said, because the school day may be longer. He added that school tends to have more structure, rules and expectations than day care.

"It can all be somewhat overwhelming," Fassler said. "It's important to make sure that the early school experience goes well because it sets the tone for how the child will feel about school in the future."

Among his tips:
  • Talk to kids about school before classes begin. It may be helpful to describe what will happen during the school day.
  • Consider bringing children to their school before the school year starts. If possible, show them around the school, including their classroom, the playground, the lunch room and the rest room.
  • Getting children into a routine may help them get ready for school. Allow children to participate in decisions, such as what clothes to wear and what to have for breakfast or lunch.
  • For children who are especially anxious about starting school, taking a few reminders from home, such as photos, may help put them at ease.
  • Once school starts, make plans to spend time with classmates outside of school to encourage friendships.
  • After school, talk to children about their day and give them positive feedback about what they say.
  • Finally, parents should let children know that it is OK to be a little nervous about starting school, because everyone gets a little nervous when doing something for the first time.[/list:u]
    "For most kids, school is a very positive experience," Fassler said. But he added, "It's certainly true that some kids have more difficulty than others" when they start school. Usually, this anxiety passes within the first couple of days or weeks, he said.

    But if a child seems to be having difficulty adjusting -- makes lots of calls home during the day or has physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches -- then, Fassler said, it may make sense to speak to the child's teacher or talk to a pediatrician or family doctor, who may make a referral to a mental health professional.

    "Usually, these kinds of consultations tend to be relatively brief," Fassler said, and may involve some sort of play therapy to help understand a child's anxiety.

    While the first day of school can be overwhelming for some children, even children who love school can be overburdened by backpacks bulging with books, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

    Parents can protect their children from backpack injuries by purchasing an appropriate pack and teaching their children how to use it, according to the Illinois-based group.

    Because narrow straps can dig into shoulders, choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back, the AAP advises.

    Parents can minimize the risk of injury by making sure that children do not over-pack their backpacks. A child should never carry a pack that weighs more than 10 percent to 20 percent of his or her weight, according to the AAP.

    Children should be taught always to use both shoulder straps. Using only a single strap can strain muscles and may increase curvature of the spine, the AAP says.

    Another recommendation is to use all compartments of the backpack and place the heaviest materials nearest to the center of the pack.

    For students who have to carry lots of books, a rolling backpack may be a good option. The AAP notes, however, that children will still have to carry the backpack upstairs.

    Source: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, August 2004.
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