Tips for allaying students' first-day fears

You've bought him a new lunchbox, you've stocked up on crayons and now it's time for you to get in the carpool line and drop your child off for the first day of school. And suddenly, you both go from confident and excited to feeling a little sick.

He's wondering what the day will be like -- Will he make friends? Will he like his teacher? -- and you're nervous about similar things: Will he be happy? Will his teacher see how special he is? Who will make sure that he's OK if he falls on the playground?

Or maybe your child is older, a middle-schooler. She grew about 4 inches over the summer and she got braces. She's got first-day jitters, too. What will people think? What will they say? And did she choose a backpack that people will think is cool?

Anxiety about the first day of school can hit all age groups, including parents. So how do you avoid the clinging-to-your-leg wails of "I don't wanna go!" on that first morning? How do you turn down the stress that comes with this annual transition?

The first step, say parenting experts, may be recognizing that a little anxiety might be a good thing.

Sal Severe, a Belfair, Wash., school psychologist and author of books including How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too, says that parents need to try not to overreact during this transition period. Severe, who has been in the business for almost 40 years, says that this can be an opportunity for your kids to grow.

"We love our kids and we don't want them to have any distress in life," says Severe. But coping skills are essential to the process of maturing, and this is a great time to model them as parents. Help your child adopt the attitude that "it might be a little stressful but I can get through it," says Severe.

"Children get their 'read' from their folks," echoes Kathryn Everest, director of guidance and counseling for the Fort Worth school district. She advises parents to try to stay calm and loving -- which may be challenging, of course, if your kid is having a tantrum on the front steps of the school.

School-age children are busy building skill sets, and one of them is problem-solving. Before you rush to "fix" the situation -- by maybe running into the classroom on Day 2 to take care of an injustice that your child reported the night before -- give your kid a chance to figure it out for him or herself. Give your child a chance to "own" a problem and solve it on her own, says Pat Borgfeldt, family-life education program manager at the Parenting Center in Fort Worth. This will help to "build self-esteem to handle future issues," she says.

This doesn't mean abandoning your child emotionally. Be there for your child if he's struggling, says Borgfeldt. Assure him you'll help him find the right answer.

Keep communicating with your child -- and if problems persist beyond first-week jitters, it's important to assess whether there's serious trouble. Step in if your child seems truly depressed. Indicators include a dramatic change in appetite, avoiding certain kids or sleeping too much. If you spot symptoms of depression, you might want to arrange for your child to see a professional at school. As school-psychologist Severe says, "Kids will spill their guts to me but not to their parents."

To help you navigate through the first days, we've gathered more age-specific advice from Severe, Everest and Borgfeldt, as well as Cathy Guttentag, assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Texas Children's Learning Institute in Houston, and Rhonda Okerlund, a teacher at Shackelford Junior High in Arlington. Here's what they say about helping your children through this annual rite of passage.

Kindergartners and other first-timers

Many kindergartners have some previous experience with preschool, which helps. Still, the typical kindergarten is part of a much larger building populated by hundreds of people, all of whom are older and bigger. That's intimidating to many 5-year-olds, but not all.

"My daughter started last year, and everyone was asking if she was excited, so she felt good about it," says Guttentag.

Leading up to the first day, she has seen some kids who "go marching around in their new clothes and backpack, and get the message from friends and family that this is going to be fun."

On the other hand, Guttentag says, a more introverted child, or one who's not used to being away from his parents or who has a slightly anxious personality style may have some worries. "Imagine yourself in that situation -- What if I get lost? Where's the bathroom? Who is my teacher?"

Here, our experts' tips on making that first-day experience less stressful for young children:

Ahead of time, take your child to visit school and even meet the teacher. Little things really help, like locating the bathroom. In the Fort Worth school district, registration days are good for this. Call your school or watch the marquee to find out when those days will be. Also, beginning today in Fort Worth, counselors will be on campus to assist. Call your school to find out a good time for your child to visit before the first day.

Ask the teacher if your child can bring a special doll or blanket.

Use pretend play or a dry run. Before that crucial first day, drive your child to where you'll drop him off. Talk about where you'll meet at day's end.

Arrange a play date with a classmate before classes begin.

If your child has been staying up late, ease him into the new bedtime routine.

Put a copy of a favorite family photo in your child's backpack.

If your child reads, put an "I love you" note in her lunchbox.

If it's allowed, walk your child to his class on the first day, hug and kiss him and remind him when he'll see you again.

Take your cue from the school; it will likely have a very clear plan for how parents should proceed.

Don't be alarmed if a child temporarily regresses into "younger" behavior, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. Stay calm and it will soon blow over.

Middle school and junior high jitters

The major new challenge for most kids at this stage is changing classes on their own. Instead of lining up and walking together as a class, each student has her own schedule. No one wants to stick out by getting lost, or by committing any of the numerous other adolescent social faux pas that are generally invisible to the parental eye. Add to this the particular self-consciousness and status anxiety that strikes at this age, and you can have a real case of nerves on your hands.

"The goal is to fit in," says Okerlund, who has taught junior high for 11 years. "Hair, clothes, music, it all matters so much at this age."

Coolness counts, big time. "I see students who 'act out' as the big, tough junior high kid," she says. "It usually means they're very afraid of going from being the big kid in elementary school to being the little kid again."

To complicate matters, your child may resist your attempts to fix things. It's part of the natural adolescent assertion of independence. "[A] lot of times, kids do have the knowledge to resolve problems on their own," says Borgfeldt. She often sees success when, rather than issuing orders, parents ask gentle questions like, "If that happened, what would you do?"

Approaches to adolescent angst:

■ Arrange a get-together with friends who'll attend the same school. Big brother or sister can make an appearance and offer reassurance.

■ Ease the early-morning frenzy by agreeing on where you'll "stage" items that need to go to school, such as permission forms. Talk about how lunches will be prepared or paid for.

■ Make time in the family schedule for more homework, reading and studying.

■ Remind your child that he doesn't have to "act cool"; everyone has questions.

■ Let your child attend "Howdy" dances and other extracurriculars so that she feels like she fits in.

■ Suit your "helping" style to your child's personality. Some anxious youngsters will flat-out tell you they don't want to go to school. Others aren't so forthcoming, and you'll have to use finesse to find out what's on their minds.

Hints for high school

Good news here: Bullying has been increasingly recognized by school authorities as a problem to be dealt with. In fact, Sal Severe says this is the major recent development for children of all ages. "Kids are sometimes worried about being exposed to drugs or mean kids or being made fun of," he says.

At any age, if bullying is a problem, report it to school officials promptly. Bullying can include many behaviors, such as pressure to use drugs or humiliating a child by making fun of him. Most schools have programs and procedures in place.

How to help your high school student:

By this age, most kids have developed the skills to resolve a variety of issues. Often, a parent's best role is to be supportive and encourage brainstorming.

Suggest that your child make use of student council members and other leaders who are likely to be available to answer questions and give directions.

Encourage your child to ask questions sooner rather than later, before he begins to feel panicky.

If your child is anxious about grades, remind her to take advantage of tutoring; extra help from teachers before or after school or at lunchtime; and other resources that teachers or counselors can recommend.

Remind your child he can go to the counselors' office if he needs to chill.

Remember the big picture. "Talk about different careers and how going to school is the way to learn what is necessary to launch successfully into their future," Everest says.