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According to the Virtual Children’s Hospital (www.vh.org), a digital library of pediatric information, it is normal for children to experience anxiety. Separation anxiety occurs when children are frightened or upset to be away from a parent or loved one.
This can result in their refusing to go to school or stay at a friend’s house. In some children, a general reluctance may be the difficulty; in some, illnesses such as a sore throat, headache, and stomachache could also result.
“This is the first time that children get anxious about being without Mom or the regular caregiver, when they realize that Mom is elsewhere and that they are not with her,” says Nancy L. Eldred, professor of psychology at San Jose State University.
“It can develop into a very serious disorder if reinforced,” says Eldred of separation anxiety. “If the child has problems going to elementary school and such behavior is encouraged, it could lead to problems in high school, leading to dropping out,” she cautions.
She feels that adjustment to school should happen fairly quickly. And, it is normal for kids to cry as they learn to deal with change.
Every child is unique and even children from the same household may have varying attitudes about starting school.
“Both my daughters were so different,” says Amy Tan, mother of two daughters aged 19 and 11.
“My older daughter, Evelyn, was so brave,” she says. “On the first day of school, the teachers allowed the parents to stay with the children, but she didn’t want me to be there. She was waving at me to leave.”
“My second daughter Evonne, on the other hand, on her first day, held on to me and didn’t let go,” she says. “She was happy enough going—she had seen the school before—but once we got there and she saw the other kids crying, she started crying as well.”
Unable to see their children crying, many anxious parents stay outside the classroom, as did Tan. Her daughter would insist that she meet her during the break, and this she did till Evonne was in the second grade at Ellis Elementary School in Sunnyvale.
“She really started enjoying school after she started making friends,” says Tan.
Good friends in class make many children happier about going to school. Malathi Iyengar, whose daughter Lakshmi is now 21, shares Tan’s opinion.
“She wanted to go to school,” she says, of Lakshmi. “She was an only child, so maybe she wanted to meet other kids, have their company; maybe she wanted friends.”
She attributes her daughter’s enthusiasm for school to the fact that she was exposed to other school-like environments as a child and started early at the Sherman Oaks Presbyterian Preschool.
“I started taking her to Gymboree when she was 9 months old, and later for swimming, gymnastics, and dance classes as well,” she says. “So when she started preschool at two-and-a-half years, she was not really new to it.”
Eldred too, approves of preschool, as here, children learn to follow rules and grasp basic developmental and social skills. She feels that on play dates, under supervision by parents, children never really learn to interact with each other.
Play dates, however, do have some benefits. Hema Iyer, who has two daughters, Nikita and Ritika, ages 6 and 3, says that she used to take her children to the International Mom’s Club, one of which is present in every city.
The meetings were held for all mothers and their children who were not yet going to school. She feels this taught her children who went to school in Santa Clarita and Calabasas to learn to function in a group and follow directions.
“My daughters love going to school,” says Iyer. “I can actually tell them, ‘you are not behaving well, I won’t take you to school,’ if they misbehave.”
She adds that constant appreciation and reward make children feel important and happy and encourage good behavior. She also mentions that parents have to be firm about what they think is best in the long run.
Gender doesn’t influence behavior at this age and Eldred feels that boys and girls are not really different in finding school a big change.
“Girls are socially more competent, so boys may have a bigger challenge,” she adds.
Sudha Ramaswamy, mother of two boys, Krishnan and Arjun, confirms. She put Krishnan in preschool when he was barely 3, and he attended schools in Santa Clara.
“Krishnan cried on the first day of school,” she says. “It continued for the first week.”
Her son wouldn’t look at any other child or play with any of the toys and kept asking the teachers when his mother would come back. She credits the teachers who gently helped him to adjust to the new environment.
Ramaswamy adds that school has also had one important benefit; it has made Krishnan more mature after meeting children his own age and better adjusted with his little brother, whose presence he earlier resented.
“School made a vast difference in his attitude towards his little brother. He is more caring and affectionate,” she says.
Sunita Prakash, curriculum director at Rainbow Montessori Elementary School, Sunnyvale, who has worked for nearly 20 years with the Montessori schools, elaborates on what eases the transition to school.
“A lot depends on the preparation,” she notes.
She mentions four kinds of preparation, that of the parent, the child, the school, and the teacher.
“Parents should be ready to let the child go,” she advises. “If the parents are unsure, it reflects in the child. If the parents have trust in the environment, that gives the child confidence.”
She says that children who do not adjust easily are usually very sensitive children, and therefore, sensitive to separation as well. Previous exposure to other people and personalities also matters.
“Children whose activities have been more contained in the home will have more challenges to face,” she says.
“The role of the teacher is to identify every child who might have a problem, by looking over the family background and thinking of ways to encourage and help the child,” she says.
According to Prakash, the school should encourage the parents to bring the children in before starting school, and help them through this transition. If all these four factors are covered, the first day of school can be a positive experience for both parent and child.
Here are some steps she suggests to help your child:
Bring your child to school a few days early, so that he can meet the teachers and become comfortable in the environment.
Talk to the child and prepare him for school. Don’t overdo it, for you can also make him anxious.
Make it a short, loving goodbye and walk away quickly. Children often seem to sense when their parent is around and will not settle down till they feel that the parent has left.
It helps if the parent to whom the child is less attached drops off the child at school. Then the separation has already taken place at home.
Encourage rewards, not necessarily tangible ones like toys, for good behavior. Talk about happier times later, like a visit to the park.
Priya Gopalakrishnan is a graduate student of mass communication and journalism at San Jose State University.