Tears dry, fears fade as children adapt

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Danny Derryberry, 5, wipes away tears on the first day of school, in Nancy Hicks’ kindergarten class at Sherman Avenue Elementary School. Danny’s mother, Mary Derryberry, left, said that the first day of school was the first time he had ever been away from her. (The Vicksburg Post/C. Todd Sherman)

Leaving a clinging, sobbing 5- or 6-year-old with new kindergarten teacher is tough for the child and for parents.

“Most (parents) have been the sole teacher for all their (child’s) lives,” said Jane Brock, counselor at South Park Elementary School. “It’s a big step to give the reins to someone else.”

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The tears and fears of separation usually subside within the first few days of school, but when it begins to interfere with normal behavior, it can become a problem, said Missy Tello, counselor at Sherman Avenue Elementary School.

When trying to decide whether normal separation anxiety has evolved into more serious behavior, Vicksburg Warren School District behavior therapist Rhonda Denman first looks at the child’s peers.

“During the observation process, one thing we’re interested in seeing is how does child’s behavior differ from other children the same age,” Denman said. “I’m looking for how much does that particular behavior interfere or impair child’s ability to function successfully in the classroom.”

She said that abnormal behavior must continue for four weeks before age 18 for diagnostic evaluation.

Danny Derryberry, 5, headed to school excited about starting kindergarten at Sherman Avenue Elementary, but his demeanor changed when he got to class Aug. 12.

“He wanted to go school,” said Danny’s aunt Sarah Reeves. “He was really excited until he found out he wasn’t going to be with his sisters all day. He thought they’d be in one big place together.”

Danny was fine by the end of the day, Reeves said, but his older, fourth-grade twin sisters still walk him to class each morning.

“He loves school,” Reeves said. “He said he’s made some friends. He’s learned how to write his name so he writes his name everywhere.”

Here are some tips that may help you and your child ease into the new adventure called school.

Keep your child talking. “Ask what they’re afraid about,” Tello said. “If they can write, ask them to write it down. If not, ask them to draw a picture.”

Let them know that what they’re going through is normal.

“To a certain extent, you expect kindergartners not to walk in and own the place,” she said. “You want your child to be a little leery of a new place.”

Talk to the teacher. “One thing I can say to my parents is have open communication with the teacher,” said Jane Brock, counselor at South Park Elementary. “It’s the only way we’re going to be able to make the education experience a positive one for the child.”

Brock said that kindergarten teachers know that their students are making a big transition and that most spend extra time during class with social and hands-on activities.

Encourage your child. Don’t harp on the negative parts of the day. Ask open-ended questions about the child’s day. Ask what the favorite part of a child’s day was and what made it the favorite. Make your child laugh.

“Develop some sort of reinforcement system with the child, some type of incentive program with stars or points,” Denman said. “One thing you definitely don’t want to do is reinforce negative behavior (of crying or repetitively missing school).

“The primary difficulty I’ve seen is parents wrestling with guilt of pushing the child out of the car while the child is screaming and crying.”

A security object may help. If permitted, allow your child to take a family photo, small stuffed animal or an object that reminds that child of home. They will be able to touch and see the object, which may relieve any fears or anxieties stemming from being away from home. Be sure to contact your child’s teacher about school policies concerning bringing personal belongings to the classroom.

“Kindergartners have no sense of time,” Tello said. “Eight hours in a class seems like a week to them.

“Kindergarten is the bridge between mom and big school,” she said. “Children are starting on a whole new journey into education.”