Janesville79.6°

Keep your cool in school

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Catherine W. Idzerda
August 21, 2008
— What if nobody likes me?

What if I can't open my locker?


What if I trip in the cafeteria? Get lost in the halls? Can't find the bathroom?


Heading for the first year of elementary-, middle- or high school means a whole new set of social rules and academic expectations.


Soon-to-be middle and high school students probably have spent the summer fretting in silence. It's the kind of anxiety they can't talk about with their parents. Parents, as they well know, were never young. And those who once might have been young are now so old they can't know anything at all.


And those soon-to-be kindergarteners might be excited, but when it gets right down to entering the classroom—well that's a different story.


But here's a secret for parents (don't tell the kids): You can make those transitions easier.


Local educators offered these tips:


Avoiding kindergarten tears

These days, it's the parents who are more likely to weep when their kids go off for their first day of school.


"A lot kids are excited about being in school," said Andrea Kerkenbush, Edgerton Elementary School principal.


If kids have been in an "educational" day care, preschool program or 4-year-old kindergarten, they're used to being away from home.


"They feel like they are the bigger kids of the little kids," Kerkenbush said.


The Edgerton School District holds Kindergarten Camp before school starts so kids can get used to what the school day is like.


"Parents often feel separation anxiety," Kerkenbush said. "They want to know about potty breaking and busing."


Stephanie Gogul, who has been teaching for 14 years, said kids' anxiety about school ranges from very little to Code Red-level panic.


"A lot of them have not been in a school setting," Gogul said. "They're generally the littlest people in the building."


At Adams Elementary School in Janesville, where Gogul has taught for nine years, kindergarteners come in with their parents for one of three registration periods. At that time, kids meet their teachers, see their classrooms and the "lockers" where they'll put their school supplies.


It helps if parents can talk to children in advance about what new experiences and challenges they'll have at school.


Even if your children appear to be raring to go, Gogul suggests parents:


-- Attend the registration or event that introduces kids to their teachers and their classrooms.


-- Tell kids about the school day: "There's going to be stories and playtime and time for lunch."


-- Tell the child if someone they know will be in the classroom, such as a friend from the neighborhood or day care.


-- Role play potentially difficult situations—without making it scary. Help them come up with the answers to questions such as:


"What should you do if you need the go to the bathroom?"


"What if nobody is playing with you at choice time?"


"What should you do if you want to play with a toy another boy or girl is already playing with?"


"Who could help you find the cubby with your name on it?"


-- Tell kids what you'll be doing during the day and when you'll be back to pick them up.


"Kids worry that because it's new for them, maybe Mom and Dad won't know what to do," Gogul said.


Say something such as: "I'm going to go home and clean house, do a little grocery shopping and by then it will be time to pick you up," or "I'll be working today at my office and thinking of you. Grandma will come and get you right here."


-- Make sure kids know that school is important.


"Encourage kids to do their best; let them know you value what they do," Gogul said. "Explain that school is their ‘work,' just like you have to go to work."


It's especially important during the first few weeks of school to engage kids in conversations about their "work" day.


Listen carefully, take it seriously.


Middle school madness

Middle school kids are savvy enough to know what terrors might be in store for them at the next level. Nobody wants to be thumped on by a pack of eighth-graders.


In the Edgerton School District, educators hold middle school orientation the spring before the start of year.


That way, kids don't fret all summer.


"We want to set their minds at ease," said Jerry Roth, Edgerton Middle School principal. During the orientation evening, students go through a mini schedule, meet teachers and learn about middle school academic and behavioral expectations.


They also learn about the basics, such as how to get your locker open and where to acquire a hall pass.


Many of the fears that new high school freshmen have—how to find and open their lockers, moving from class to class and making new friends are shared by middle school students.


High school horrors

The high school class of 2012 can take a deep breath and relax.


Many area schools have a freshmen orientation free of the frightening specter of older students.


"On the first day of school, the upperclassmen stay home," said Jim Halberg, Edgerton High School principal. "Freshmen go through a shortened version of their classes, learn where everything is and aren't fumbling with their lockers in front of the upperclassmen."


At noon, the school hosts a friendly cookout in the courtyard, where students can find their old friends and meet their new teachers.


At Craig High School in Janesville, the first day is "geared for freshmen," said Michael Kuehne, Craig principal.


Each student is matched with his or her adviser and a member of the LINK crew, a group of older students who serve as mentors to the newbies.


After orientation and a variety of other "welcoming activities," freshmen run through a shortened schedule of their classes.


After a cookout, the freshmen get to run through their classes again, this time with the upperclassmen.


The "social aspect" of high school is often what causes freshmen the most anxiety, Kuehne said.


"They're very uncertain of themselves; uncertain of where they'll fit in," Kuehne said.


Kuehne wants to reassure young people that there's a place for everyone at high school.


Parents should do their best to reassure their teens they'll find a family of friends at school.


"No matter what happens, they will be a special part of out family, a part of the community," Kuehne said. "Wherever they are in life's process, no matter what their interests are, there's a place here for them."


As for that first day/first week nervousness, Kuehne wants new students to know everybody feels that way.


"All of the new students feel nervous, no matter what they look like on the outside," Kuehne said.


"If it reassures them at all, we have new teachers who are nervous, too."



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