This article appeared in the August 17, 2006 Jewish Advocate.


Send your children to kindergarten with confidence

By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent

This September, many area families will experience the start of kindergarten, a time often fraught with significant separation anxiety. Teachers and school administrators, who know this well, often employ innovative methods to facilitate this critical transition.

At home, too, there are ways by which to prepare, but the challenges can be formidable. Children fear the coming new environment and the change to their familiar routine. Parents worry about their child’s social skills, academic prowess and emotional state. Yet it’s inevitable, in fact state-mandated and regulated. According to Section 8.01 of the Mass. Department of Education’s Laws and Regulations, (1) All school districts shall provide kindergarten education for all eligible children; (2) Class size for kindergartens shall not exceed an average of 25; and (3) Kindergarten classes shall be taught by qualified and certified teachers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 90 percent of eligible children nationwide attend kindergarten. (73 percent start at age 5, 13 percent at age 6 and 7 percent at age 4.) And studies have shown that children who attend require less remedial education and receive better test scores.

As hard as it may be, experts advise parents to stay involved, from preschool on. It pays off. “Compared to non-preschool parents, parents of children who participated in preschool activities had higher occupational aspirations for their children, more satisfaction with their children's school performance, and greater parent involvement in elementary years at home and in school,” wrote Holly Kreider for the Harvard Family Research Project’s April, 2002, “Getting Parents ‘Ready’ for Kindergarten: The Role of Early Childhood Education.”

So there seems to be no choice but to try to approach the looming deadline with intelligence and foresight..

In the Aug. 2005 Jewish Independent of British Columbia, the Jewish Family Services Agency said that the first step is to recognize these apprehensions, and try to normalize them. “Being nervous or afraid of a new situation or change is a normal and reasonable reaction for most young children, and even for many adults. Remind yourself, your partner and your child how you have handled other changes in your lives.”

Barbara Meltz, parenting writer for the Boston Globe and a frequent speaker to parent groups, says that children often take emotional cues from their elders. “If you are sad or anxious about sending your child off to kindergarten, your child will likely pick up on that and could become more anxious as well,” she told the Advocate. “In fact, there can be a kind of magical thinking: ‘My mom/dad doesn't think I'm smart/big enough to go to kindergarten.’"

Meltz, who authored the book ''Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World" (1999, Bantam/Dell), advises owning up to emotional blips. Explain that while you are proud they are grown up and know they will do well, you remember when they were a baby, which makes you a little teary.

“Separation anxiety is actually a normal reaction for young children confronting their first formal separation from family or caregivers,” Jayne Jacova Feld wrote last year in South Jersey Magazine. “And in many cases, parents have as much trouble letting go as do their children.”

Once you’ve acknowledged your vulnerability, take action. Certain tactics can help turn the situation around.

Experts advise that parents change the summer schedule to resemble the school year. Go to bed early and get up early, and thus avoid a tired, uncooperative child when the real time hits. Have the child help prepare the lunch and snack and plan a light, fun evening the night before. One sure-fire ploy is to make it fun. Shop for school supplies and clothes, and let the child choose the items to give them a feeling of control. Call the school, ask for names of some children who will be in the class, and try to arrange play dates. The child will then know people, and the parent can meet other parents.

The JFSA of British Columbia advises visiting the school shortly before classes begin, to stem irrational fears in the child. Go to the classroom, play in the playground. The Jewish Day School in nearly Bellevue, Wash., offers a "Step Up Day" in May, where incoming children visit classes and parents chat with staff, who offer give helpful suggestions to prepare for kindergarten.

If you have older children, remind them to accentuate the good and tone down the bad about their own experiences. If you don’t, well, that may add to the predicament. “It’s much harder for only children,” said Eric Osview, who lives with his wife, Brookline native Phyllis Levine, and their son Aaron in Arlington, Virginia. “The kids who have seen their elder siblings go off to school definitely fare better,” he said.

“The typical child's single biggest worry is the bathroom,” adds Meltz. “What if I have to go really badly? What if I can't remember where it is?” Whether or not they voice this concern, Meltz advises drawing a map of the room, pointing to where the bathroom is, where the reading corner is, etc. And, she says, go ahead and contact the kindergarten teacher and make a plan to visit as she is setting up the classroom just before school starts. Although parents may think of this as intrusive, it isn’t. “A good kindergarten teacher expects some kids to need this little boost, and she'll welcome you,” she says.

“Be very matter-of-fact,” says Barbara Potts in “When you put them to bed each night, go over the schedule for the next day in detail.” Potts says that routine is very reassuring to children.

Make sure that your child knows that you have confidence that they will be safe and just fine at school without you. It may be easier to separate from mom at home, so feel free to let the child ride the bus to school or ride with a neighbor. But if you’re dropping off, think about who the drop-off parent or relative will be - a less emotional person may be best. Arrive in enough time to greet the teacher, check out the class, and look at the desk and locker together. Praise them for being a big girl or boy. Don’t linger - make a quick, yet upbeat exit.

School programs help young learners acclimate as well. Grades K-4 at Maimonides are held at its Brener Building campus, at 2 Clark Road in Brookline. At the After School Program for Grades K-6, children can explore new interests and skills, which can even become permanent passions, in areas such as Arts and Sciences, Martial Arts, and Sports and Fitness and Mishmar, Torah Learning. A faculty-supervised recess for K-2 is held Monday through Thursday from 3-3:45 p.m., to coincide with the later pick-up time for older children. Maimonides also holds MateS (Maimonides Afterschool Time ExperienceS) for K-6, on Monday through Thursday from 3:45–5:45 p.m., for homework, games, arts and crafts and snacks.

According to Susan Benett, Director of Recruitment and Admissions at The Rashi School in Newton, a Kindergarten social is held the week before school starts. A scavenger hunt is conducted. “Kids get a list of things to discover, count, and find around the building,” Benett said. This way, they can familiarize themselves with the grounds, in a fun way. Questions include: "Find the room with real fish in a fish tank," "How many jumps does it take to get from one end of the cafeteria to the other?," "Count the number of blue tiles on the floor in the first floor hallway," and "Find a room with a piano in it.”

Kids also create an art project: a life-size cutout of themselves onto which they can paste yarn and googly eyes, etc., said Benett. The school gives them a Rashi T-shirt to add to the cutout, which is displayed in the classroom for them to see when they arrive the next week. Benett says that new families are also given buddy families who know the school and can answer questions regarding lunch, early pickup and other issues. “As this is my first year with the school, I haven't been through the K social yet,” Benett said. “But from what I hear, parents love the opportunity to come to the school and ‘warm up’ and put a toe in the water, and so do the kids.”

“For us, going into kindergarten is not a big deal at all,“ said Chava Vorst, Kindergarten Judaica Teacher at Shaloh House in Stoughton, which operates a Preschool and Kindergarten. “It means just going up a class in the same building.” More intense preparation comes before first grade at Shaloh. “Then, for children who will go on to a Jewish day school, we discuss that they will learn more parts of the morning Davening, or that they have learned all the Hebrew letters already, and in their new school they will learn the vowels so they can make words,” she said.

Shaloh operates a Secular Kindergarten as well, led by Opal Maccdonnal. ‘We talk a lot,” she says. “We discuss what happens when you turn a certain age: ‘When you were three, you moved to this class, and when you were four you moved to this class,’ and so on.” Maccdonnal reminds them that they will make new friends at Shaloh as well as at future schools, and can always see old friends at play dates. “I tell their parents about special friendships they form,” she says. She recommends the books “Will I Have A Friend?" by Miriam Cohen (1989, Aladdin), which is about a child who worries about the first day of school until he connects with another boy, and “Grover Goes to School,” a Sesame Street Start-To-Read Book which describes all the new things Grover learns on his first day. Maccdonnal advises having a puppet show. “Leave the puppets out for the children to act out the situation on their own.”

JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School, which is located in Watertown, integrates Hebrew language, Jewish studies, and an attachment to the State of Israel in its programming. “For parents and for students alike, the transition into kindergarten began on a special weekday in May called ‘The Kindergarten Round-Up’,” said Helen Quint, Director of Admissions and Community Outreach. There, children entering kindergarten met for an hour in the classroom with their teachers and “outreachers,” she said. “Parents also met with professional and lay leadership for an orientation session.” Quint distributed the class list with contact information, so that parents could begin to arrange play dates.

JCDS also hosts science, math and music programs for children; summer programs run by the school’s parent association, the JCDS Vaad Horim, have included an annual Ice Cream Social, a Bagel Brunch, and a Swim Party. A mentor program links entering and current JCDS parents, and a Back-to-School Picnic with families, faculty and staff is held a week before school begins. “Then the first day of school offers the opportunity to continue to get to know the community, with a segment of time for parents to remain with their children’s classes, and with light refreshments for them before they leave for the day,” said Quint.

“Community-building for all constituencies at JCDS is a basic, ongoing process that provides the context in which we can accomplish the overall goals of the school,” she said.

Home and school-based innovations may help, but there is no denying that kindergarten is a huge step in a child’s life, with logistics far beyond day care and preschool. And if they don’t seem to work, don’t despair - your child may be slicker than you think. For example, complaining children can actually be somewhat conniving. “Is your impression of his misery based on what he is telling you or on reports from the teacher?,” asks Potts, who recommends enlisting an objective observer like a school counselor. “Some children believe that mom wants to hear how much they missed her, so they say how sad they were all day even though that was not the case. It could also be that your son feels threatened by some of the other children.”

Meltz also advises staying aware. “A child may vacillate between acting more grown up and regressing,” she says. “That's normal, and it's typically because they have this vague idea that going to kindergarten means they are supposed to be more ‘grown up’ but they don't know exactly what that means.” Meltz says the child may fear that if they are “grown up,” the parents will no longer take care of them. “That pushes them to regress or push the limits as a way to see if you will.” Thus, parents need to tolerate regression. If the child suddenly stops dressing him/herself, just help.

But if the problem continues, you may want to seek out counseling services, either from the school counselor, or a therapist that your pediatrician can recommend. Resources are available for more specialized cases, as well.

Many of the suggestions of Diane Adreon of the University of Miami Center for Autism & Related Disorders seem universal: Establish new bedtime and morning routines, as well as a time for quiet activities, in the weeks prior to the beginning of school. Have the child wear school attire (call and find out what is standard). If there are uniforms, soften them up in the wash. Make up visual and written schedules, pictures and names of teachers and personnel, and videotape a walk-through school schedule to view together. Practice finding homeroom from the bus stop, opening lockers, going through the cafeteria line and other routines.

Learning disabilities affect over 20 percent of children in grades K-12. Area Jewish initiatives include Maimonides’ special needs program, which began in the early 1980s and services over 100 K-12 students in both Judaic and General Studies. Children are seen individually or in small groups; support staff work with teachers and the social worker to help with personal and social issues.

The JCCs of Greater Boston operate a Gan Yeladim day care center in Newton for pre-kindergarten assessment needs. Etgar L’Noar, a program of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, assists children with moderate to severe disabilities. Another Gateways program, The Jewish Special Education Collaborative (JSEC), provides support services within the day schools. Staff includes an occupational therapist, special educator, speech and language therapist, social worker and psychologist, as well as volunteer high school students.

“Children with special needs who attend integrated preschool programs in public schools or have received special services or early intervention services have successfully made the transition to day school with the help of JSEC programs,” said JSEC Program Coordinator Sue Schweber, who explains that JSEC’s speech and language therapy and occupational therapy is integrated within the school day. “We review the child’s records, observe the child at his or her present program, and meet with their staff. The process allows us to make sure there are adequate supports in place,” she said.

Other special needs programs include The Lexington B'Yachad Program, a collaboration between Temple Emunah (Conservative) and Temple Isaiah (Reform) in Lexington; The Newton Area Special Needs Program, held at Congregation Mishkan Tefila and Temple Emanuel in Newton; The South Area Regional Center (Temple Beth Emunah, Brockton; Ahavath Torah Congregation, Stoughton; Temple Beth Am, Randolph; Temples Beth Abraham and Beth David, Canton); and The Sudbury Valley Jewish Special Education Initiative (SVJSEI) (Beth El and B'nai Torah in Sudbury, Beth Elohim in Acton, Kerem Shalom in Concord, and Or Atid and Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland). Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley adds a special educator to observe children in classrooms. The Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE)‘s TeenAde trains teens to aid and tutor children in community day schools and congregations.

With the needs of your child first and foremost, don’t forget yourself. Adreon has another great suggestion: make a day for you. “Remember, you have to make some effort to take care of your own needs, if you plan to have the time and energy to attend to the needs of others,” she says. She also, very wisely, suggests befriending school personnel, the people who help children succeed. Make cookies, she says, and have the child practice the social skill of offering them, but also, donate classroom items, give gift certificates and write letters of support. “Teachers and school personnel are very under-appreciated,” she says. No kidding!