Monday, July 11, 2011

Challenges of Going Back to School

Patricia Calabrese, PMH-NP

Oh, it’s that time again! A time when some kids are unhappy to go back to the structure of a classroom, but parents can be thrilled that their children are getting out of the house! Back to School! Summertime is a time for fun, flexible bedtimes, vacations, day camps, and lots of pleasurable activities. The adjustment to the grind of the school day is often a shock to everyone. Not only do children have to get up early, sit in a seat all day, do homework and go to bed on time, but parents and teachers have to enforce rules after a period of flexibility. The start of a new school year can cause anxiety for the entire family, but for children who have had a history of school difficulties this can be a particularly stressful time. New teachers, new schedules, new routines and new rules are all part of a new school year. Maya Cohen of Family/Education.com writes:

“Make sure the route to and from school is familiar to your child. If he is expected to walk or bike, then take a few practice runs with him and point out landmarks along the way. Make sure he is comfortable with going it alone by the time the first day of school arrives.”

Especially worrisome in a new school year is adjusting to the changing mix of peers in each new class. As a child grows older the security of being with familiar friends becomes more important. The concept of strength in numbers and not “sticking out as different” becomes anxiety producing, usually starting in the 3rd and 4th grade, and increasing with each grade thereafter. KidsHealth.org reports:

“Meeting new people or getting reacquainted with classmates can feel overwhelming, especially if you're the shy or reserved type. Start small: If large groups make you nervous, try saying hello to one or two new people a day — the kid at the desk next to yours in homeroom is a good place to start. Or ask new people to sit with you in the cafeteria.”

For children with anxiety disorders, the result of this stress is often appears as sleep difficulties, school refusal or separation problems. Older children may complain of difficulties concentrating or increased isolation, including more sleep. Teens may display irritability or anger, often channeled to familiar family at home. Predictability and routine is an important mainstay in squelching anxiety. Many children respond to visiting school during the summer, getting “a feel” for the sights, smells, and layout of the classroom. Starting the school routine a few weeks before school actually begins, may allay problems with getting to bed on time. Reinstating “no cell phone” rules or a limited TV schedule gradually may also help with adjusting to the beginning of the school year.

Teachers can be sensitive to children that seem “not to fit in”. Creating buddy systems, or working in teams can mix up groups of children so that cliques don’t become the dominant social system of the classroom. Many children are challenged with performance anxiety, so assigning verbal presentations early in the school year, before peer relationships are formed should be avoided.

For children with problems that result in behavior difficulties, such as ADHD, defiance, or learning disorders, preparation may be the key. Constructing clear, reasonable expectations often times in writing, can tell a child what is being required of him/her and the rewards and consequences that will follow. Desiree Murray on Medscape.org wrote the following:

“A behavioral family systems approach, which integrates cognitive-behavioral therapy with family systems therapy, is ideal for addressing these concerns.[4] Parents are taught to identify their long-term goals for the child in managing and organizing school and to create short-term goals that support the child's development of skills to accomplish this. Similarly, parents are encouraged to develop reasonable expectations for their child's academic performance and anticipate setbacks; these strategies often reduce parents' own anxieties and parent-adolescent conflict.”

Teachers often take the lead in structuring environments for good behavior. A predictable, positive-centered behavior program in the classroom is one of the most reassuring and comforting aspects of the school day. It helps all students to understand who’s in charge and that out of control students will be addressed by the adult in the room. As at home, this lowers anxiety.

Daily responses to inappropriate behavior are obviously needed with younger children, but as they get older, weekly or twice a week is more appropriate. In addition, not all rewards and consequences need to be tangible. Reinforcement of a more personal nature, such as a smile, praise and a good hearty “Hooray!” is worth its weight in gold.

You can help children, who dislike school, get back into a routine gradually by reading bedtime stories or visiting a bookstore, which are both ways to reinstate old habits. Being honest with kids who struggle with academics is always the best rule. Developing a plan early on, to deal with a child’s academic deficits will provide a more positive approach. A stable, strong relationship with a parent or caregiver is often the most valuable gift that a child will be given. Inconsistency can only add to anxiety. Children do their best in school when they live in homes with consistent rules and defined expectations. Being well adjusted to a stable home life, where they can count on certain experiences happening, such as celebrating some special event or knowing they can seek help with homework. Children will notice parental involvement perhaps to such an extent that they will not even notice a new school year is upon them.

Patricia Calabrese, PMHNP, is a graduate of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Patricia received her Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Maryland and completed her post graduate studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. Patricia is a licensed mental health nurse practitioner in Mississippi. Patricia joined the Pine Grove Staff in 1992 and currently treats child and adolescent patients at Pine Grove Outpatient Services with special interest in ADHD and parenting education.

Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services is an extension of Forrest General Hospital, located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Pine Grove’s world renowned programs focus on treating gender specific chemical addiction including a specialized track for co-occurring eating disorders. Additionally, Pine Grove offers a focused substance abuse healing program for adults age 55 and over. Other Pine Grove specialty programs include a dedicated professional’s treatment curriculum and a comprehensive evaluation center. Pine Grove also features a program for patients with sexual and intimacy disorder issues. Pine Grove was established in 1984 and has provided nationally and internationally recognized health care for over 30 years.

Visit www.pinegrovetreatment.com or call 1-888-574-HOPE (4673) for more information.