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School Daze

Not all kids are emotionally ready to learn

SATURDAY, Oct. 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Now that the excitement of the first weeks of the new school year have died down, some young children may be having second thoughts about education -- particularly the emotional challenges of their classrooms and schoolyards.

Sandra F. Rief, a San Diego-based school consultant and author of the new book Ready, Start, School, says, "Younger children often experience anxiety simply about the separation from home. They worry about whether they will like their new teacher, and whether their new teacher will like them. And they are surprised when the expectations of the school are unlike those of their parents or previous teachers. Some just aren't as emotionally ready to learn as others in their same class or grade."

Rief recommends that parents be particularly aware of their child's school adjustment early in the academic year, before small emotional issues escalate into potential learning problems.

"Connect with your child's school early," she says, "particularly the classroom teacher who's usually a parent's best ally. Establish regular communication channels, so that information about your child's adjustment can be shared freely and responses to problems devised and implemented quickly."

As Sharen Crockett, a family studies professor at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., points out, there are plenty of school-related issues that can result in emotional distress in the early elementary years.

"Young children are afraid of what they don't know," Crockett says. "In a new school year, they're afraid they might not have any friends at school, that they'll be alone, or that they won't have time to play. Or, they may fear specific unfamiliar aspects in the school environment -- like riding a bus or going to the cafeteria or gymnasium."

Bullying on the playground and concerns about personal appearance or physical size in relation to classmates may also be emotionally trying, as can children's fears about their budding academic abilities.

"Some children worry they should already know certain things when the school year begins," says Crockett. "For example, kindergartners may be concerned that they must already be able to read and write. The idea should be reinforced that they are going to school to learn these things -- they don't have to know them in advance."

Even national and international events -- the terrorist attacks and their ongoing aftermath, in particular -- can play a role in increasing young children's anxiety about school.

"Children today have an increasing number of emotional stressors," Rief says. "The uncertain world situation and widespread discussions of war, the highly publicized acts of terrorism, increasing violence within schools themselves, street crime and neighborhood violence and conflicts at home -- all of these can be disturbing to youngsters and interfere with their emotional adjustment at school."

The key, says Rief, is for parents and teachers to be alert to and aware of how well 5- to 8-year-olds are handling the stress they encounter outside of their comfortable, familiar home environments.

Fortunately, she adds, clues to young elementary-school-age students' emotional status are generally easy to recognize.

"Children experiencing emotional difficulties often have problems interacting with their classmates," she says. "They may be too bossy or too passive or unable to cooperate and share. Often they strike out at others in frustration, or may retreat entirely from classroom activities. These are all signs of emotional immaturity."

Rief notes that such emotional immaturity often responds well to early intervention by both parents and school staff. "Children who lack the skills to manage their emotions can learn these as they master basic academic skills," she says. "But someone has to be aware of their need and take responsibility for teaching them."

Another thing parents can do is develop a home environment that creates and supports the social and emotional maturity required for school.

"Children need a certain degree of structure in their lives and in their homes," Rief writes in Ready, Start, School. "But structure does not mean rigidity and strictness. Structure means letting children know their boundaries. It means simple and reasonable rules and expectations, and consistent follow-through."

Rief also points to the impact parents and older siblings can have as role models.

"A home environment most conducive to a child's acquisition of social and interpersonal skills," she says. "And healthy emotional development is one in which the child experiences and observes family members treating each other with respect, managing their own anger and frustrations, and being kind, cooperative and tolerant of each other."

What to Do: Should schools take an active role in preparing students emotionally to be active learners? One perspective on the topic can be found at Connected.org. Learn more about how to recognize children's emotions and stimulate appropriate emotional growth at Alternative Parenting.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sandra F. Rief, M.A., school consultant, San Diego; Sharen Crockett, M.S., professor of family studies, Harding University, Searcy, Ark.
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