14th January 2001
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Boo hoo, it's first day blues

By Uthpala Gunethilake
From morning, strange things have been hap- pening to you. You were woken up earlier than usual and given a good scrub. Then your mother dressed you in a brand new uniform, most probably your first. Complete with a bag and a bottle of water you later find yourself in an unfamiliar place swarming with strange kids, all dressed the same way. Mother says this is your class and that you are to do what the teacher tells you. And mother is going to leave you here. That is the last straw. You hang on to her saree and start screaming at the the top of your voice. 

Familiar scenario? It's a universal scene enacted in almost all grade one classes, at the beginning of a new school year. Although most children today attend preschool before starting school proper, it still cannot take away their panic at having to cope with a new environment, especially a big new school and strange, often stricter teachers. 

"It's not as bad as it was some years ago because now children attend Montessori before they start school. But even then, there are some who start crying and clinging to their mothers. This can go on for weeks sometimes," says Nelum Perera who has been a teacher in the primary grades for 27 years. 

If starting school is difficult for children, it is also a nerve-wracking time for anxious parents worried how their children will cope with unfamiliar surroundings and the added pressure of being one in a big class. For the fortunate ones, their children settle in smoothly. One parent, K. Dassanayake (name changed) said her child adapted very quickly to grade one. "There were problems when she started Montessori. She wouldn't let me go, and would make a fuss in the morning saying she didn't want to go to school. I would cajole her, and if it didn't work I had to be a bit firm. But after a while she got used to it and there were almost no problems when she started school," she said. Added Mrs. Dassana-yake, "Now, once she steps inside the gate she totally forgets about me and runs straight to her friends!" 

But there are other children in her class -grade 2- who still haven't got used to being in school. 

So how should such situations be handled by parents, anxious not to cause their children any anxiety. Mrs. Perera believes the best course of action for a parent is to leave the teacher to handle the child. "I strongly advise against parents staying in school with their children. It makes it difficult for us to handle the child. When the mother is around, the child runs straight to the mother: but if the mother isn't there he or she comes to us. Then little by little, the children get used to being without their mothers."

Added Ms. Perera, "It's important that mothers tell the children the truth, that mother is not going to be in school, and that he or she will be looked after by the teacher. Telling them that you are waiting outside defeats the purpose. In fact, you mustn't wait outside. Tell them that it's time for them to be on their own and let them adapt."

Another parent Mrs. P. Samarawickrama's son started school last year and she went through this experience. "My son didn't want me to leave him, so I would tell him that I would be waiting outside. Sometimes he would suddenly dart out of the class to see if I was there. If I wasn't, he would start crying. In the end his teacher told me to make it clear to him that mothers aren't allowed to stay in school. After some time, once he got used to the other children, he accepted this," recounted Mrs. Samarawickrama.

However Ms. Perera explained that if the child comes from an unstable home, the parents should alert the teacher to any difficult circumstances. "The child might be making a fuss in class because he or she is not happy at home. If the teachers are told about this, we try to treat the child with special care."

Another worry that parents sometimes have is that their children may not be able to keep up to the required standard. They constantly compare notes with parents of children attending other schools and feel distressed if their children seem not to have learned as much. But such worries are often unfounded. "Parents expect us to give homework, but I feel homework is an unnecessary burden for first graders. What the child learns at school is enough, and you must give them time to play and have fun," says Ms. Perera. Indeed, the grade one class used to be the most colourful and happiest class in school, always full of prattling kids and smiling teachers. A happy foundation at this stage can indeed go a long way in helping a child enjoy a well-rounded school life. 

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