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Parents, ready for school?

September 03, 2007|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

Those lazy, hazy, crazy days are over for this year, and households with children are running into as many different attitudes about the return to school as there are kids.

While the littlest ones, having been prepped for weeks about the first day of school, are bounding out the door, eager to help name the classroom goldfish, some of the older kids are looking anxious and acting cranky.

The challenge for parents is to keep cool while trying -- as always -- to do the right thing. Experts in mental health, sleep and child and adolescent health offer some tips in easing the transition back to school.

How can I help keep alive the joy of learning that my children had in the first years of school?

Kids look forward to different parts of the school day. Find out what that is for your child, and build on it, says Ernest Katz, pediatric psychologist and director of behavioral sciences at USC's Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "Some kids are looking forward to the academics or to seeing their friends or to being on a sports team.

Try to link the peer group and the education together." That could mean encouraging participation in the French club, the school newspaper or an interactive environmental club that combines learning and social life.

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How do I help my child through the bad times, such as disappointing grades or a bout of unpopularity?

"I have a simple answer to that," says Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, pediatrician and author of "Touchpoints: Birth to Three" and "Touchpoints: Three to Six." "Sit down with them and say, 'It must feel like hell to fail. It would to me, and it must to you.' " After hearing that the parent gets it and isn't either minimizing the problem or getting angry about it, the child is more likely to listen.

Development isn't a straight upward line, and all children will feel that they don't measure up at some point. "There are ups and downs," Brazelton says. "The downs are for gathering steam for success in the ups."

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My child used to love school and now doesn't want to go to middle school. How can I help?

Younger children learn to get over their fear of separation from the family, but resistance to school can kick in again in preteens, says Dr. Kyle Hinman, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. "They were the king of the old school, and now they're the youngest again," he says. "They're wondering who their friends will be, whether their friends will think they're weird, or even if they'll get bullied."

Let the child take the lead in talking about what's wrong, but give them openings such as saying: "You seem worried."

"Let them see that you're noticing and that you're willing to listen," he says. Agree with them about certain realities, such as the difficulty of the work or the potential for meanness in other kids, but then remind them of their past successes.

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It's worse than that. I have to practically push my child out the door, and she always looks terribly worried.

"It might be helpful to let the child know she can call you during the day," Hinman says. In cases of extreme anxiety, parents might contact a school counselor.

"If academics are a problem, and it's really extreme, it's a good time to consider things that might have been overlooked before, like a learning disability," he says.

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How should I work with the school around my child's chronic health condition (asthma, allergies, diabetes)?

Not all schools have school nurses on staff, so a lot falls on the teacher. Parents should talk to the teacher about the condition and what to do in the case of a wheezing episode, for example.

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Popularity seems to be the only thing that matters to my high schooler. How do I convince her that she's going to school to learn, not to socialize?

Social status is one of the things that worry teenagers the most. "Acceptance is really, truly important at that age," Hinman says. "Adults have to remember that that's a really big thing; that's their world."

Teens aren't always the best communicators in the world, especially with their parents. But if parents take an interest in their children's ' friends, teens might open up. It's a delicate balance between appearing interested and appearing nosy.

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How much sleep does my child need on a school night?

School night or weekend night, the best routine is a consistent routine. "Younger children, kindergarten and first grade, generally need about 10 hours a night," says Dr. Sally Davidson Ward, medical director of the sleep lab at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

"Teens would do better with nine hours a night." Teens' biological clocks reset during adolescence. "As teens mature, their bedtimes move to later in the night biologically," she says.

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Is that much sleep really so important?

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