Tiny fingers will eagerly tug loose their parent’s clutch. Hands that gently mended boo-boos, cut crusts off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and unknotted muddy shoelaces for five or six years will tremble as they wave goodbye.

Many of those hands will then reach to wipe a tear. Only this time, it will be their own.

Starting kindergarten or first grade can be scary.

Especially for parents.

As doors open this month for the 1997-98 academic year, 5- and 6-year-olds will scurry down school hallways toward a new phase of their lives. They’ll disappear behind classroom doors and begin the adventure of school.

Behind them linger mom and dad, reeling in the emotional, bittersweet moment.

The best way for parents to handle the first day of school is not to make a big deal of it, said Frederic J. Medway, a child psychologist at the University of South Carolina.

Keep the camcorders and cameras at home. And definitely hide the melodrama taking place in your mind.

“That first day of kindergarten or first grade takes on a little more importance than it should,” Medway said. “The vast majority of children adjust well. If kids are nervous about it, it’s because they’re picking it up from their parents.

“Parents should always be very positive, upbeat and optimistic about school around children. You don’t want your child to pick up any anxiety.”

But that’s a tough assignment for many parents.

“It’s like (the children) have been in a cocoon,” said Rose Sheheen, principal of Blaney Elementary in Elgin. “Now, they’re going out into the real world.”

The best thing parents can do is leave, educators say. Walk your child to the classroom, say goodbye and go away.

Parents usually opt to drive children to school the first few days, rather than putting them on the bus. Many educators agree that’s a good idea.

“I drove my daughter to school,” Sheheen said. “But then she begged to get on the bus, so I put her on the bus. But then I followed the bus home.”

So it’s easy for Sheheen to understand parents’ emotional turmoil. She remembers standing outside her daughter’s classroom window and peeking in to make sure she was OK.

“But I did leave,” Sheheen said. “That’s the best thing to do.”

Parents wonder, are their children ready? Will they say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir”? Will they remember their ABCs and 123s? How will they behave?

Will they learn things they don’t want them to know?

“We were proud,” said Eric Jeffcoat, remembering those first days he sent sons Brock, now 12, and Shane, 9, to school. His youngest son Kevin, 5, starts kindergarten at Swansea Elementary on Aug. 20.

“But we were worried, about how they were going to behave, how they were going to react and interact with the other children.”

Parents also dredge up memories: first words, first steps, first smiles.

They think about what’s ahead. They dread the day their child refuses to kiss them in public; when cuddling won’t cure all their woes. They know those days are getting closer.

“You realize your child never totally belongs to you again,” Sheheen said. “You share them with the teacher.”

And that makes many cry.

“Sometimes we have to put our arms around the parents and reassure them,” Bradley Elementary Principal Thelma Gibson said.

The growth of two-income families using day care, and the emergence of preschool programs, make the school transition less drastic for many parents and children.

“For many, it’s a smoother transition, not quite as traumatic,” said Julian Ruffin, a counselor at Richland Memorial Hospital. “But again, it’s still different. . . Psychologically, you feel like you’re letting go of them a little bit more.

“It’s a natural, or normal, transition state that all families go through . . . like crawling, walking, the first baby sitter. This is a big one. . . . Parents are a little anxious to let go.”

The children, on the other hand, are ecstatic about being in school. Toting new lunch boxes and backpacks, most are oblivious to the fact that mommy and daddy are sad.

Educators recommend visiting the school with the child before the first day. Roam the halls, look in the classroom and meet the teacher if possible. Stress the importance of school.

“Help them look at the good side of school,” Ruffin said. “Emphasize that learning is going to be fun.”

Parental anxieties could also be eased by seeing the classroom where the child will spend much of his day, and meeting the person who will be disciplining, teaching and praising her.

In some ways, experience eases the angst of letting go of that hand the first day. In other ways, it doesn’t.

Eric Jeffcoat will worry a little less about 5-year-old Kevin’s first day because of good experiences with Brock, 12, and Shane, 9. But Dad will still worry.

“They’re all different,” Jeffcoat said.

And when he hugs Kevin goodbye that morning, he’ll probably feel a little pang.

But he’ll let go. He knows Kevin will be back, full of stories and excitement.

Medway said that’s when the day should be treated specially.

“That should be a time when parent and child sit down and talk about the first day of school,” the USC child psychologist said. “Do something special. Make a special dessert, a special dinner. . . . Don’t put all the emphasis on the front end.”

Lezlie Patterson covers Richland District 1, Lexington District 4 and schools in Lugoff and Elgin. Call her at 771-8308 or by fax at 771-8430.

August 7, 1997  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 61
August 7, 1997  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 62

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