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Parenting : 'Big School' Fright : Good preparation smooths the road to kindergarten, most children's formal introduction to education.

August 20, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for Valley Life

April Becaria couldn't wait to attend kindergarten to follow in the footsteps of her siblings, Nicole and Robert. But when the big day arrived, April dis solved into tears. In fact, she spent the first two weeks of school sobbing on a rug in her classroom at Granada School.

A teacher at the Granada Hills elementary school tried to console April's mother, Terry Becaria, saying: "Honey, don't worry. Two years ago, a little boy was so scared he hid under a desk for the first two weeks."

"That was my son," Becaria replied.

Kindergarten can be tough, on both kids and parents. Originally designed for socializing children, kindergarten has evolved into the first "big school" experience--with desks, rules to follow and numbers to memorize.

As the formal introduction to elementary school, kindergarten can be rocky even for preschool graduates. These children may fear the larger, public elementary buildings packed with hundreds of other students. Having found security in a warm, individualized environment, some may also have trouble leaving preschool friends behind and adjusting to a teacher-student ratio of up to 35 to 1.

There are ways, however, that parents can allay a host of concerns that children may have about kindergarten.

"The first issue that usually crops up is abandonment," said Encino psychologist Nora Weckler, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Psychological Assn.'s task force on parenting. When a child fears being left behind, Weckler cautions parents to avoid saying, "Oh, there's nothing to be afraid of."

"Instead, say you understand their fear," she said. "Children like to hear stories about when you went to kindergarten and what the first day was like for you."

During tearful goodbys, Weckler said, children need to be assured of a parent's return. "Show them exactly where you'll be when you come back," she said. "Be prompt. A wait of five minutes can be an eternity to a 5-year-old."

Teachers caution against "the long goodby."

"I've had parents lurk behind trees or pretend to get in their car and come back," said Mary Jones, who has 28 years of kindergarten teaching experience, 17 of them at Tarzana's Nestle Avenue School. "When kids see that, they begin to wonder if maybe school isn't such a safe place after all."

Some children, such as April Becaria, may be uncommunicative about their fears for long periods.

"All she would say was, 'Mommy, I miss you, I miss you!' " said Terry Becaria, who cared for Nicole, now 10; Robert 8, and April, 6, full time in her Granada Hills home before they entered school. "Sometimes it was hard to pry her off me at the door."

Becaria finally "got very concrete" with April, a technique that experts say often works. "I said, 'Remember when I would drop Nicole off every day and pick her up--and how I pick Robert up every day?' " Becaria said. "That sunk in. The next day, she sailed out of here with a 'Bye, mom!' and a huge smile on her face. It was like the fever finally broke."

Other parents and teachers handle persistent fears by letting children bring a bit of home to school. At Lindenbrook School in Valley Village, some children stash a family photo in their cubby to turn to when times get tough.

Because children's fears can be very practical ("How will I get to the bathroom?" "Who will feed me?"), parents should explain kindergarten in tangible terms.

"Tell your child about what to expect--like recess, lunch, reading time, quiet time and so forth," Weckler said. She suggests acclimating children to their new routine by walking or driving the route to school several weeks before the first day.

Also helpful is giving youngsters a tour of school ahead of time. Details are important. Teachers advise showing children where the bathroom, cafeteria and playground are, what door they'll enter and where they'll hang their coat.

Some teachers believe that the cafeteria may be the most intimidating area for new children.

"Kindergartners will sometimes have to eat lunch with a sea of big, loud kids," said Richard Cohen, kindergarten teacher at the Farm School in Woodland Hills. "If that's the case, I suggest arranging a visit during lunchtime. Hold their hand and talk to them about where they'll sit with new friends their own age."

Above all else, be enthusiastic and confident in your child's ability when visiting the school or talking about the new adventure. If a child has siblings, use them as shining examples of what can be accomplished, Weckler said.

"We praised April for her accomplishments each day after school and asked her about her new friends," Becaria said. "That seemed to help. I have one more, Brittney, who's starting kindergarten in September. She can't wait. But then again, that's what the last two said."

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