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K-12: What you and your child need to know to survive and thrive this school year

It was early September and the Rocky Mountain air was starting to cool. I had a new pair of jeans and a bright pink shirt laid out next to my new saddle shoes. The sun wasn’t even up yet, but I sprang out of bed. Ready to get dressed, grab my new Holly Hobby lunch box and race to the bus stop. It was the first day of school, and I couldn’t wait to get there. Mom had to catch me in the yard to cut the tags off my new school clothes.

It could have been third grade. Maybe fourth or fifth. The memories run together now that I’m a 30-something mom with a school-age child of my own. But I haven’t forgotten the excitement and promise that came with each new school year. What would my teacher be like? What would I learn? What new friends would I make? I couldn’t wait to find out.

Reality usually set in by the second week. The teacher wasn’t all fun and games. The work was hard. Sometimes the kids were mean. Each new grade brought challenges that hadn’t even occurred to me that exciting first day.

As a parent now, I experience excitement — and fear — from the other side of the fence. What will my daughter learn? Is she ready? Will the other students be nice to her? Will they tell her things on the playground that I don’t yet want her to know? How can I best help her navigate the academic, social and emotional challenges that lie ahead?

Most parents are asking the same questions today. There’s good news for all of us: From the first day of kindergarten to the day students head off to college or the work force, experts consistently say that parents have the greatest influence on how well their children weather the often-turbulent school years.

The Evangel spoke with students, educators and counselors to find out how parents can best help their children survive and thrive this school year.


Early elementary

Curiosity, cooperation and confidence

Kindergarten is that critical first step for parents and students. Parents who have controlled every aspect of their children’s lives are now sending them out into the “real world,” and the transition can be frightening to parents and students alike.

For this reason, experts say kindergarten is as much — or more — about acclimating to the school environment as it is about academics. First and second grades build on this important foundation.

Debra Yonke has taught elementary school for 13 years and currently works as a staff development specialist for the R-12 School District in Springfield, Mo. She believes it is important to develop what she calls the “three Cs” in early-elementary-age children: curiosity, cooperation and confidence. If a child is interested in learning, able to work and play with other children and secure in his or her self-worth, teachers have a much easier time instilling the academics.

There are a variety of ways parents can foster the three Cs. Yonke stresses with parents the importance of exposing children to a wide variety of experiences. Trips to the zoo and library and nature walks at the park, for example, encourage curiosity and provide opportunities for discussion. “Children who come to school without these experiences are at a great disadvantage,” she says.

Cooperation is also critical to academic success. Educators recommend that children spend time with alternate caretakers prior to entering kindergarten, allowing them to practice being outside the parents’ care. Parents should also provide opportunities for social interaction with other children their age and help normalize problems and work through solutions when social challenges arise.

The third C, confidence, comes from meeting a child’s intense need to belong — to a family, a school, a group of friends — and a need to contribute, by giving back to family, school and friends. Children can and should be given responsibilities around the home and opportunities to help others in practical ways.

A curious, cooperative, confident student is teachable, and educators say that’s the most important quality for an early-elementary student to bring to the classroom.

“If students come to me ready to learn with these things intact, I can teach them all the academic things they need to know,” says Sherry Vargason, a first-grade teacher with 25 years of teaching experience.

Dr. Pat Barrett, a psychologist and child therapist with EMERGE Ministries in Akron, Ohio, says it is also important for Christian parents to know that many books will be read to children in public schools that show alternate lifestyles and behaviors as normal.

“It is important for parents to continue to instill their spiritual views and beliefs, to maintain open communication with their children and help them see that what the world says is normal may not be right in God’s eyes,” she says. “Children at this age need to be taught how to handle the differences in belief systems in a respectful manner.”


Upper elementary

School gets serious

In the third or fourth grade the learning environment becomes more independent. It is helpful, Barrett says, if children have regular age-appropriate chores and responsibilities at home and have learned how to work independently by this time.

Parents and students should be prepared for an increased amount of homework and standardized testing during the upper-elementary years. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following tips for developing good homework and study habits:

• Create an environment that is conducive to doing homework. Youngsters need a permanent work space in their bedroom or another part of the home that offers privacy.

• Set aside ample time for homework and studying.

• Establish a household rule that the TV stays off during homework time.

• Be available to answer questions and offer assistance, but never do the work for them.

• To help alleviate eye, neck and brain fatigue while studying, it’s recommended that youngsters close the books for 10 minutes every hour and take a break.

• If your child is struggling with a particular subject, a tutor can be a good solution. Talk with your child’s teacher first.

It is also during these years that children begin to choose and be chosen into peer cliques. They are still very much influenced by parents and teachers, but around this age peer groups become more influential. Yonke recommends that parents help their children foster healthy friendships by getting to know friends’ parents, inviting children to their house and providing other supervised opportunities for the children to spend time together.

Fifth-grade teacher Amie Turner, who has taught for six years, says that fifth grade presents several new challenges for elementary-age children. The onset of puberty is a major event for children, and the physical and emotional changes have a significant impact on a student’s ability to cope with classroom challenges.

“I wish every parent could be a fly on the wall in my classroom,” says Turner, who notices a big change in her students every January. “It’s like clockwork: Before Christmas everything is just fine, and over Christmas break the kids completely change. The girls are suddenly more sensitive, emotional, and meaner to each other. The boys become a lot more aggressive. Boys and girls start ‘going together.’ The drama really picks up.”

Turner says if parents are not talking with their children at home about puberty and the changes that are happening both physically and emotionally, students have a more difficult time adapting and staying on top of their schoolwork.

In the fifth grade, and sometimes in the fourth, many schools start to departmentalize. Students may have one homeroom teacher, another for math, and another for science, etc. Teachers say this is a huge adjustment for kids, but an important one in preparing for middle school.


Middle school

What happened to my child?

The transition to middle school usually means there are many new students to interact with, more teachers to adjust to, and intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility. All of this comes at a time when students are also experiencing a host of changes associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence. They are beginning to think of themselves as individuals outside of the family unit.

Attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers. The atmosphere at home may become strained as parents and children struggle with redefining roles and relationships.

“It’s so true,” says Val Cantu, who has taught middle school math for four years. “You think you know your child and then they hit middle school. Suddenly you’re asking, ‘Who is this child?’ ”

Cantu says she sees many parents back off on their level of involvement at this stage of their children’s lives. This is a common mistake, she says. “These kids are starting to look grown-up, but emotionally they are not very mature. Parents possibly need to keep a closer eye on them than they did before. It’s important to have good communication with teachers, to know where your child’s grades stand, and to know whom your children are hanging around with.”

She also recommends that parents get to know the school counselor, who can be a wonderful resource when a child is not transitioning well.

Parents need to work hard to foster open communication with their children, especially as they grow into the teen years. Steve Dunleavey, a counselor at EMERGE, recommends that parents establish regular one-on-one “activity nights” with their kids, approximately once per month with each child.

“The kids set the agenda for these times,” he says. “Whether it’s roller skating, laser tag, whatever your teen likes to do — it’s during these times that open communication happens.”

Dunleavey acknowledges it is difficult to find a balance between being overly intrusive and being aloof, but not finding this balance is one of the greatest mistakes that parents of teenagers make. “This is why these activity nights are so important,” he says. “You create an opportunity for discussion and then let your child determine when they want to speak or if they want to speak at all.”

He calls this practice “parenting through relationship.”

“Building a relationship with your kids through what they like to do will really help you get them through this time,” he says.


High school

The future is now

Ninth grade is a critically important transitional year, says Lori Haldorson, who has been teaching high school math for 22 years.

“All of a sudden students are taking classes for credit and they have to pass or they will not graduate,” she says. “That is a very, very difficult concept for a lot of kids. We lose a lot of students in the ninth grade.”

Learning time-management skills becomes important if a student is to be successful in high school. In earlier grades, teachers often made decisions for students that students now will be expected to make for themselves. Parents should stay alert and be ready to help their children in making responsible decisions regarding their class load, extracurricular involvement and church activities.

Sometimes, parents can ask school counselors to assist students in understanding how the choices they make now will affect college, work, or other training after high school.

“Students and their parents need to be realistic about how many activities they can handle,” says Haldorson. “There are so many choices for students, and there is more pressure than ever to be involved in sports and extracurricular activities. Many students are working part-time jobs as well. Academics become the least important thing for a lot of kids.”

As ninth-graders navigate the transition to high school course work, they also face new social and emotional issues. Decisions on dating, sexuality, smoking, drinking and drugs will continue to confront them throughout high school.

Haldorson says many parents underestimate the social pressures that students face. “As adults we can avoid most of the temptation that our students cannot,” she says. “They have to go to the locker room; they have to go to the cafeteria, the crowded hallways. If parents are not giving their students the tools to handle tough situations, teenagers find it very difficult to handle temptation.”

Sami Iannone, a recent high school graduate and member of Lakeside Assembly of God in Oklahoma City, says facing the social pressures of high school was made easier because of the support she got at home.

“I had to take a stand early in high school that I was going to hang around the right people. I lost some friends that way, but in the end I gained respect from my peers.”

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. “I would come home crying sometimes because I felt left out,” she says. “But my parents were right there to hang out with me. We’d go to dinner, rent a video or something. They would listen to me, pray with me and encourage me.”

Sami says that’s what teens need most from parents. “So many teenagers don’t feel loved because they can’t measure up to their parents’ expectations. Kids just need their parents to love on them.”

Ashli O’Connell is assistant editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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