Passing one of life's tougher milestones: a child's summer before kindergarten


If your child will be entering kindergarten in the fall, welcome to the summer from hell.

Is this an exaggeration? Take a look at this list of behaviors some early childhood educators say you may encounter:

FTC * Mood swings. One day, your child dresses himself quickly, with no fuss. The next day, he can't put his shorts on.

* Regression. It's been months since she sucked her thumb, except at bedtime. Suddenly, she's sucking any time, anyplace. If thumb-sucking doesn't apply, substitute wetting the bed, clinging to you in public, not going to the bathroom alone. . . .

* Acting out. You thought you'd seen your last tantrums ages ago. Now they're back, along with whining, pouting and crying.

* Talking back. Your normally respectful child is challenging you with words such as, "Why should I?"

It's not that you are going to see these behaviors all day long, all summer long, even in a child who is very anxious. But some degree of them is not only normal but to be expected, even in a child who usually takes change in stride, according to Jerlean Daniel, assistant professor in child development at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Change, any change, is hard for kids, and this, certainly, is a big change. A lot of unknowns," she says.

Therein lies one of the keys for parents. "The more you can make the unknown known, the easier time a child will have," she advises. She lists questions a typical child has: What will happen if I do something wrong? What will happen if I can't do the work? Who will I know? Will I remember everyone's name? Where's the bathroom?

As a way to reassure children, most school systems invite incoming kindergartners to visit. Whether your school does that or not, Ms. Daniel recommends three things you can do this summer to ease your child's anxiety: Take her to play on the playground; drive by the school; arrange playdates with new classmates.

Too much of a big deal

But be careful not to overdo any of this, cautions early childhood educator Hope Dauwalter. Too much -- especially of comments such as, "You're so big now!" and "Wow, you're going to be in kindergarten!" -- will only backfire. She says, "Instead of making a child feel good, it makes her think, 'This is such a big deal, I wonder if I'm up for it." Ms. Dauwalter is director of the Preschool Experience in Newton, Mass.

Indeed, some children interpret "You're-so-big-now!" remarks in a way parents would never imagine, according to child developmentalist Shirley Cassara: "They think you are pushing them away from you." Ms. Cassara is a parenting consultant and professor of human development at Bunker Hill Community College and an adjunct professor at Wheelock College in Massachusetts.

What does 'big' mean?

Feeling pushed away is often what prompts the regressive behaviors that can make this summer so tough, says Ms. Daniel.

The flip side of regression is feistiness, a child who challenges you. He's testing you, too, but in a slightly different way, says Ms. Daniel.

Both behaviors require the same response, says Ms. Cassara: Yes, the same rules do indeed apply. You can also use this as a conversational entree: "That kind of behavior is unacceptable, but it makes me wonder if you did that because you are nervous about kindergarten."

Few children will acknowledge that's so, simply because they can't identify their feelings. In that case, don't push, Ms. Cassara says. But she adds: "A child may think on it and come back to you later and say, 'I guess I am kinda wondering about kindergarten.' "

Your response is important. "If he says he doesn't want to go to kindergarten and you say, 'Don't be silly, of course you do,' you make it worse for him," Ms. Cassara says. "He can only conclude you don't understand him." Instead, she says, reflect back to him: "You sound like you're scared to go to school." And then: "It's OK to feel that way. Lots of people do."

The times when you can expect your child's concerns about kindergarten to be most intense are right now, as she is beginning to feel the loss of preschool, and, later, as summer ends and older kids begin to talk about school starting. Worries could also surface in spurts during the summer, for no apparent reason.

By August, if the subject hasn't come up, find some way to bring it up yourself. Says Ms. Daniel: "Drive by the school and say, 'There's Michelle's school. It will be your school soon.' " Leaving the topic untouched until just before school starts is only asking for trouble, she says.

Stressful for parents, too

Of course, some of what can make the summer before kindergarten hell has less to do with our children than it does with us. "This is very stressful for most parents," says Barbara Willar, an early childhood specialist with the National Association of Education for Young Children.

Letting go is part of it, she says. So are practical issues, like new child-care arrangements or adjusting to a new schedule. For parents who are going through this for the first time, Ms. Dauwalter says, "They feel like they are losing control."

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