Summer is traditionally a time when kids relax and unwind. But as the season draws to a close, many children experience anxiety about making the big switch from daycare or preschool to kindergarten, or elementary school to middle school. Those fears are normal, and there's a lot parents can do to allay them. This month, Dr. Mary Ann Donnelly-DeBay, a clinical psychologist for the Winooski School District, offers advice for easing the stress of school transitions.
KIDS VT: What are some of the challenges kids face when entering kindergarten?
MARY ANN DONNELLY-DEBAY: A lot of kids feel scared that first week of school, and, for many, their worries are much different from their parents': Where am I going to eat? Who will I know there? For some kids, just going to the bathroom in a new school is a big deal. Where is it? Is the toilet flush loud and terrible? In one school I worked in, we had to change the flush because it was so loud!
KVT: What skills do teachers expect from incoming kindergartners?
MADD: Schools want to know if a child can sit and listen to a story for 10 minutes. Can he or she summarize a story's main idea and support it with details? Does he or she have a good number sense? Can the student get from point A to point B without major problems? But ultimately, kids' social skills at this age are more important than their academic abilities.
MADD: Social skills are the biggest predictor of future academic success. Children who have difficulty in social interactions and get rejected by their peers in kindergarten tend to perform worse in school, and have more absences and negative attitudes toward school that last throughout their school years. Some parents are needlessly freaked out if their kid can't write the alphabet by the time they enter kindergarten. Kids don't have to arrive in kindergarten knowing how to read, but having been in daycare or regular playgroups is really helpful.
KVT: What do you recommend for kids in home-based care who haven't spent much time in classrooms or group settings?
MADD: Even if kids are at home with few or no peers, it's important for them to have those social experiences. So if parents take them to social settings, such as library story times and play dates, especially with someone who will be in their class, the child goes in not feeling quite as isolated.
KVT: How else can parents ease the transition?
MADD: Parents should visit the school in advance and meet the teacher, even if they can't make it to an officially scheduled orientation. That can help the teachers learn about the child's strengths and weaknesses. Figure out what time the bus pickup is, or when you'll leave home on school mornings, and change your child's routine a few weeks beforehand so the first week isn't so traumatic. Discuss little things so kids know in advance what to expect, such as what their lunch period is going to be like or that they may have to open containers for themselves.
KVT: What are your thoughts about holding a child back if he or she isn't ready for kindergarten?
MADD: Some kids get retained for another year of preschool. But holding a child back is really not an intervention. The skills that a child will need in kindergarten don't magically develop. There are exceptions, of course, but scientific research suggests that it's not an effective solution. Today, most schools have social skills groups, school therapists or highly qualified teachers who incorporate different programs to address kids' social needs.
KVT: What challenges do elementary school kids face when transitioning to middle school?
MADD: Mostly, it's the change in peer composition and reduced adult supervision. When kids are making more moves from one classroom to another throughout the school day, that can be a lot to handle socially. For some kids, they go from being the king of the hill to the bottom of the barrel, so that can be tough. If a kid is on the younger side of the class, that can be even harder socially. If you have a child who's potentially a victim of bullying, down times when there are fewer adults monitoring what's going on can be difficult.
KVT: What can parents do to prepare kids for that transition?
MADD: The tips are almost the same for middle schoolers as they are for kindergartners: Encourage social opportunities or summer camps, play with your child indoors and out, and explore new activities. Limit kids' screen time and establish consistent routines for meals and bedtime. Show your kids you are proud of them and express a positive attitude about school. Try to normalize their fears. Talking to your child — and really listening — are key. Finally, be sure to make time to sit down together as a family. Families that stay engaged with these transitions will experience more school success.
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