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Moving On Up

Excitement, anxiety normal when starting new grade

Back to school means more than back to the books. It also means lifestyle changes as kids get back to fixed schedules and, for some, this year’s transition will include a move not only to a new grade but also to a new school environment.

Good Start

For the little ones heading from day care to prekindergarten or kindergarten, parents should be prepared for excitement, anticipation, anxiety and apprehension. One of the best ways to help your 4-, 5- or 6-year-old adjust is to let him know what to expect. Visiting the school to tour the grounds, meet the teacher and even try out the playground can ease the fear and anxiety of the unknown. Going shopping for school supplies together and allowing the child to be involved is another great way to lower anxiety and build excitement.

The Middle

The transition from elementary to middle school can be daunting. Middle schoolers typically face a larger campus with more students and different teachers for each subject. For many tweens, classes are more challenging and homework demands significantly increase with more projects and formal research.

All of these academic changes can be tough enough. Add the social changes, as students try to figure out where they fit in and whether they will be accepted, and you have a recipe for mayhem. There are proven strategies you can use to help your tweens successfully make this transition. Children who engage in sports or other structured group activities such as religious youth groups or scouts struggle less with fitting in and have a greater sense of belonging, according to a wealth of research. Just being there for your child also is important. Successful teens are often those who have at least one adult in their lives whom they consider to be a confidant. These youngsters also have adults who set reasonably high expectations for them and encourage follow through.

As your tween navigates a new world of academics and social interactions, they also are experiencing physical changes as they enter puberty. Boys who mature early and display strong athletic skills tend to be more socially accepted, whereas girls who mature early sometimes struggle socially. As a parent, you might feel just as lost as your tween in dealing with this time of significant physical, emotional and cognitive changes, but you can help them muddle through the middle. Offer compassion and support as your child moves through this seemingly uncharted territory. Assure your child that her peers are struggling with similar issues.

Helping your tween develop their organizational skills can help, too. Parents can discuss plans for the day at the breakfast table and talk through how to approach the day’s duties. Developing an overall plan for the day, week, month and year with a calendar also can help your child get organized. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seek out tutors or older students who can share tips with your child on managing the demands of middle school.

Cap and Gown Bound

The students who ruled the middle are now the new kids on the block – freshmen. By now, most have some experience with transitions, although they are likely to continue to feel some combination of excitement and anxiety.

At this stage, everything seems to get bigger and bigger doesn’t always mean better. The changes can be overwhelming. High schools are often situated on larger campuses with more students in each class, harder subjects and more homework. Many high schoolers begin to distance themselves from their parents as they search for their identity and sense of self. They have a strong need to belong as well as to be an individual. High school students often think, and even say, that they would be fine if only their parents would leave them alone. Don’t be fooled. Although teens want to find themselves, they also want, expect and need their parents’ guidance and involvement.

Teens also are apt to take more risks than their younger counterparts. Many parents ask how their smart child could engage in such risky behaviors. This is largely due to their still developing brains that are full of lots of ideas but only limited brakes and judgment. Additionally, high schoolers are likely to be strongly influenced by peer group values and opinions. During this time, it is important for parents to establish and communicate their standards, but to keep lectures short, sweet and to the point. Parents should be sure to listen, praise and avoid criticism.

Remember that your teen is straddling the line between childhood and young adulthood and it is important to create a structured routine at the start of the school year. Parents should learn school rules and policies as well as homework expectations and discuss them with their child. It’s still important for parents to remain involved in school events, volunteering and attending functions. Knowing your child’s friends and teachers also is key to a child’s successful management of these challenging years.


Licensed psychologist Wendy Rice has practiced in Tampa nearly 10 years, providing psychotherapy for children and adolescents struggling with emotional, behavioral, friendship, family and learning difficulties. For information, visit www.drwendyrice.com or call 813-969-3878.

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