On the first, second and third days of kindergarten, my just-turned-six-year-old was a champ. He marched right on in and emerged six hours later, triumphantly on day one, and then a little more wearily as the days passed.
Then, on Thursday morning, as we waited for the bell to ring, his sister whacked him straight in the face with the tetherball. And the floodgates opened.
“I don’t want to go to school,” he sobbed, wrapping his arms around my thighs. “I miss you too much, and it’s too long, and I don’t want to go. It scares me!”
The bell rang, and his panic ramped up. As the other kindergarteners filed in, his teacher called out to us, asking my son if he’d like me to join them in the classroom for a bit.
He looked up at me with his tear-stained little face, and I smiled and nodded, even if inside I was thinking omigod no!
Prolonging this kind of stuff never seems to help, and it didn’t help that morning, either. When I left ten minutes later, he was still in tears as the kindergarten aide sat with him.
That day, he came out teary. That night, at bedtime, he was a mess. And now here we are, heading into week three, and he’s been up and down ever since.
It’s hard to tell if things are getting better. And all I can think about is my brother, who had such terrible anxiety about school that he ended up having panic attacks under the teacher’s desk and his own little desk in the principal’s office.
You’d never know it today, but my successful and super composed little brother had it really rough from kindergarten through the fourth or fifth grade (!).
Now I’m looking at my son and racking my brain – and the internet – to try to head things off. It’s hard to decide whether what he’s experiencing is textbook anxiety, but frankly, I don’t really care about the labels. I just want to know what I can do to help him.
In the two weeks since school began, he’s bounced between crying on some mornings to resigned the rest, but he’s still coming out the door excited to share details of his day.
“I made this in my classroom today,” he said one day last week, showing me his classroom rules book. “And now I have to read it to you so you know the rules too.”
When we talk about this kind of stuff, he’s interested and proud – all good signs. But when I asked him who he plays with at recess, he shakes his head.
“I just sit on the wall and think about you,” he says. And I die a little inside.
His teacher tells me that he asks at least a dozen times a day when I’m coming to get him, and that he seems upset whenever they start a new activity because it means the day isn’t over yet.
So while I fight the urge to scoop him up and bring him home, because of course he can just live with me for the rest of his life, we’re doing our best to help him figure out how he can actually enjoy school – not just endure it.
We ask him to tell us what he finds scary, and we empathize with his feelings. We explain that it’s normal to feel nervous or scared of new things. We offer suggestions that might help when he starts feeling frightened, stuff like taking deep breaths, or telling his teacher, or rubbing the special dollar bill his dad gave him that he keeps in his pocket.
We also remind him that preschool was scary once too but, after a while, it became a safe and familiar place. We tell him that kindergarten will feel that way too, that it just takes a little time.
I’m crossing my fingers that we’re right. And that it happens soon.