Nearly 1,000 elementary students will switch schools this fall as part of the new policy changes in the Brainerd School District.
This means parents may be dealing with more anxiety issues with their young ones before the first day of school Sept. 2 than they've typically had in previous years.
Even students who will be enrolled at the same school this fall may be worried because their best friends won't be there, or because familiar teachers or school staff members won't be there either.
While elementary teachers and staff - many of whom may be new to the school themselves - are planning special events or activities to help during this transitional time for students during the first weeks and months of school, there are some ways parents can help ease stress for their children.
"It's not unusual for young children to have problems with anxiety," said George Tetreault, a psychologist with the Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative. "Little kids are fearful with change and transition and it's going to be a transition year."
Harrison principal Jeff DeVaney (left) gave a school tour to Tim (left) and Michelle Dickens and their children Tyler, 8, a second-grader, and Zo, 6, a first-grader, and Michelle's parents, Dave and Patty Batty, at the school. The children are newly enrolled at the school and were previously homeschooled. DeVaney himself is new to the school this fall, having served as principal at the former Lincoln Elementary School. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Tetreault said one of the best ways parents can decrease anxiety in their children about the first day of school is through healthy lifestyle changes. Children with good sleep and nutrition and who are physically active suffer from less anxiety, he said.
It's also important that parents act positive in front of their children about these changes, helping their children look forward to a new school experience.
"The attitude of the parent is picked up by the child," said Tetreault. "I think you can develop some excitement, typically taking kids back to school shopping can help, or finding a way to make it exciting. ... When parents are calm, kids are calm. Kids really look to their parents on whether things are safe or not. Anxiety is really about fear and kids are afraid."
He said when parents say encouraging things like "I heard this school is awesome" or "I heard you have a great teacher," it reinforces that the school year is something to look forward to, not to fear. If the child overhears a parent talking to others saying things like "I'm so worried about John this school year," the child is going to feel more anxious.
Tetreault said the same thing goes for teachers, too.
"I think the more reassuring the teacher is, I think more comfortable the child is," said Tetreault. "It will add an element of greater concern if the teacher says, 'I don't know where my books are.' I think teachers have a pretty good sense for these things."
Parents often worry that their child will have difficulty making new friends, but Tetreault said children are usually better at making new friends than adults are.
"I think kids naturally make new friends," said Tetreault. "After a few weeks in school they know everyone in their class and they're all best buds."
Tetreault said a child's apprehension should disappear after the first few weeks of school, but the real concern should come if after a few weeks a child is still exhibiting anxiety about school, or doesn't want to sleep in his or her own bed. If this continues, then talk to your child's teacher and find out what kind of behaviors the teacher has been seeing with your child in the classroom. The school's family collaborative worker might be a good resource as well, he said.
Nearly half of the teaching staff and about one-third of the students will be new to Harrison Elementary School in southeast Brainerd this fall, said Harrison Principal Jeff DeVaney, who is new to the school himself. He served as principal at Lincoln Elementary School before Lincoln and Whittier Elementary Schools were closed due to budget reductions in May. Lincoln School is now known as Lincoln Education Center, which houses the former Minnesota Learning Center.
DeVaney gave a tour of Harrison last week to Michelle and Tim Dickens and their son, Tyler, 8, and daughter, Zo, 6, who will attend Harrison this fall. The children's grandparents, Dave and Patty Batty, also went along since they were visiting from Phoenix, Ariz. The children have been homeschooled by their mother but the family decided to enroll them in public school this year because Tyler was in need of some extra support.
"I wanted to make sure they get a feel with the school," said Michelle Dickens, about their Harrison visit. "Tyler can get overwhelmed and I wanted them to see what it's like without anybody here."
Tyler was most impressed with the elementary school's library.
"It's cool," Tyler said, of his new school. "I love the library because I love reading. I love reading and doing computer work."
Zo said she and her family had gone school shopping the week before and she already has her Hello Kitty backpack and is ready for school.
"I'm really excited for them," Patty Batty said of her grandchildren starting school at Harrison. "It's just going to expand their horizons. I think it's going to be really good for them."
"I'm looking forward to meeting their teachers and also seeing their reactions to (school)," said Dickens.
DeVaney said he is looking forward to the new year at Harrison. He has plans for ways to develop a new "Harrison family" at the school and will incorporate some of the traditions he had at Lincoln into those that have been in place at Harrison.
"I find it exciting," DeVaney said, of changing schools. "We're going to create a new family of learners."
Tracy Bluth, a third-/fourth-grade special education teacher who just moved from Nisswa School to Harrison this summer, echoed DeVaney's excitement. It was sad for her to leave Nisswa after teaching there for 10 years but she's looking forward to the start of the new school year at Harrison.
"I'm excited. I'm a little nervous, but I'm excited," said Bluth. "I'm just up for the challenge. New is good. Change is good."
Cora Larson stopped into Harrison School last week with her 5-year-old daughter, Autumn, who will be in kindergarten there this fall. The family moved to Brainerd in April and it was their first time visiting the school. While Autumn had been enrolled in preschool and knows what it's like to go to school, her mom conceded she was probably more nervous than her daughter.
"I'm nervous and excited at the same time," said Larson.
Her daughter's take on her new school?
"I like it," Autumn said with a smile.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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