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Parents Play A Key Role In Reducing Children’s Stress At School

Suzanna Smith, 352-392-2202 ext. 255

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Parents are the key to reducing their child’s stress in school, says a University of Florida expert.

Times of transition are stressful, and starting or going back to school is one of them, said Suzanna Smith, an associate professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). If the start date is delayed as it was with Hurricane Charley, the child may already be dealing with stress.

“Parents set an example for their children in dealing with stressful situations,” Smith said. “In effect, parents program their children to react like parental clones, both in what they do and in what they say.

“Parents should tell their kids stress is both a good and bad thing,” said Smith, “and that stresses will pile on top of one another if you let them. Parents need to show that anyone can learn coping skills to keep stress at a manageable level, and then demonstrate those skills.”

Smith, an expert on human development in the UF/IFAS family, youth and community sciences department, said children will be less fearful about school if their parents are confident and enthusiastic about the topic.

“Parents can help their children by telling them what to expect when they get to school, by listening to their fears and by supporting them as they take this big step in their lives,” said Smith. “Verbalizing your confidence in your child’s coping skills will help that child see himself or herself as successful, no matter what the age of the child.”

Children of different ages tend to be very specific in what they worry about, she said. “For example, elementary age children worry about the utter strangeness of school, with its structured days and the absence of parents. There’s no time for daydreaming in school.”

Some students are anxious about the size of their schools, getting lost, and navigating halls and locker areas. Middle school kids are often preoccupied with how they will fit in with their peers, while high school students worry more about academic and athletic performance, and dating. And if they have a job, they worry about that as well, Smith said.

“Reassuring a child going into elementary school is pretty straightforward,” Smith said. “For these younger children, parents can say ‘You’re going to love school this year; you’re going to have a great teacher and meet lots of new friends.'”

She said parents can teach their children how to make new friends, if they show their child how to open a conversation with someone they don’t know.

“Even if they only ask, ‘What’s your name?,’ that sort of question usually opens up a conversation between children, and then they are off and running,” said Smith. “This process is easiest if there’s a parent on hand the first few times to encourage children to talk to each other — practice does make it easier.”

Schools also play an active role in helping children adjust to school with “meet the teacher” programs, held a day or two before classes actually start, and with programs for incoming kindergarteners held in the spring.

Visit the school together, before the year starts, and meet the teachers, Smith said. This is especially helpful if the school is large, because big schools are more intimidating.

“The teacher’s enthusiasm the first day also helps children relax,” Smith said. “They also like order…it helps reduce their fears about what they need to do and what’s expected of them.”

The stress of starting school should ease after the first week or so, Smith said. And the minor stress signals like headaches and stomachaches should also disappear. Parents should be alert to more severe stress symptoms — such as nightmares, increased shyness, and an intense dislike of school — and be ready to intervene.

“Older kids may focus on another culture they find online, especially in chat rooms, and withdraw from interaction with their families. If you see this happening, you need to seek professional help from your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional,” Smith said.

Older students want to feel independent and sometimes may act like they don’t need their parents. This is simply not the case, Smith said. Children of all ages need their parents, particularly as they go through stressful transitions.

Communication is the key to supporting children during these times, and the trick is to know how to be there for teenagers, Smith said. Sharing activities, doing something the child enjoys doing, is a good way to open communication lines. Celebrate the end of the first week of school as a family, even if it’s just chocolate ice cream after dinner.

“For children, everything depends so much on the parents,” Smith said. “Parents need to be available to talk, when the child wants to talk, even if that’s at 10 p.m.”