My First-Grader Can't Adjust to School

My first grader is having an extremely difficult time adjusting to being away from home. Each weekday morning begins with hysterical crying and worrying. At times, she makes herself vomit. My mother thinks I need to seek professional help. I think it's normal behavior since she usually describes her day as "wonderful." What do you think?


If your child's anxiety about going to school has not been greatly reduced by the time you receive this reply, you do need professional help. Start with the two professionals closest to the problem: your child's teacher and the school psychologist or counselor.

Your child's teacher is your partner in resolving this problem. She can make sure your child is greeted warmly when she arrives at school. She can also watch your child's relationships, to be certain that she is interacting on a friendly basis with the other children. She can make sure that there is no bullying or teasing involved. She may also check to be sure that your daughter feels successful handling her class work. A child who doesn't feel competent in either area, academic or social, will become school phobic in time.

This is not an uncommon problem in the early grades. School counselors can be a tremendous source of help and support. They usually have had training in helping children who fear school. A school counselor can help you with suggestions for handling the situation at home, as well as make sure your daughter doesn't fall through the cracks before everyone is satisfied with her progress.

There are some things you can do at home, however. The first is to be a good listener. Ask your daughter to identify her feelings when she gets up in the morning. After careful listening, you might tell her that the two of you are going to work together to help her get over her fear of going to school. Naming the issue will help you to work with it. You might ask if she has any suggestions: Children often know what they need. Some things you might try:

  • Establish a morning routine. Make it completely predictable and unhurried. Being in a hurry can produce an accelerated, shallow breathing pattern that feels very much like that of anxiety.
  • Practice humming a favorite tune together. Humming has a soothing quality that can slow down the breathing and produce calmness. Maybe you can hum together while she is dressing or walking to the bus.
  • Let her know what you will be doing when she is away at school. Some children worry that their mother will not be all right without them. If there is a new sibling, this may also be the basis for not wanting to leave. You might want to tell your child that you and she will have a special time without the baby when she comes home or before bedtime.
  • Give your daugher some extra cuddling before bed. She may still need to feel like she is your special little girl.
  • Help your child decide on a secret object to take to school. This can serve as a comfort item: perhaps a favorite toy or card, a note from you or a fuzzy piece of cloth from her old blanket. Whatever she brings, it needs to be small so that it can be kept out of sight, but available for her to look at or feel if she needs comforting.
  • Talk to your child about courage! Courage is doing something when you are afraid. She has to go to school, whether she fears it or not. Tell her about times you did things when you were afraid. Read her books or make up stories about courage. To help my own daughter grow braver, I wrote the picture book, "A Net of Stars."

By the use of some of these strategies, plus the help of the teacher and school staff, you should soon see a reduction in stress and hopefully a child that looks forward to going to school each day.

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