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FIRST-WEEK BLUES: START OF CLASSES OFTEN CAUSES ANXIETY - BUT THE STRESSES CAN BE LESSENED.

SHARE FIRST-WEEK BLUES: START OF CLASSES OFTEN CAUSES ANXIETY - BUT THE STRESSES CAN BE LESSENED.

Pretend you've just been promoted to a new department at work - a job you've been hoping to get.

But it means moving to a different floor, with a new boss and unfamiliar co-workers.Delighted as you may be, chances are you're also a bit worried about what to expect.

In many ways these mixed feelings are similar to those children face each September.

"All kids have some back-to-school anxiety," says Cathleen Rea, a clinical child psychologist in Newport News, Va. "Change causes everyone to experience some stress - even kids who are looking forward to school."

Parents usually give kindergartners plenty of attention as they start school, but Mom and Dad expect older kids to treat re-entry as old hat.

Yet older students often toss and turn during the nights before the first bell rings.

Kate, 8, is anxious because her best friend Lauren has switched schools. Kate is worried about who she'll talk to on the playground.

Lauren has fears about making new friends, learning a strange bus route and being in a new school.

Meanwhile, Jeff, 12, is worried about starting seventh grade, which means going to middle school. How will he find his way around? What will it be like to have seven teachers instead of one?

Whether a child is 6 or 16, each school year represents a new set of unknowns. And for many children, that can cause anxiety.

"Children experience a lot of different demands in the school setting," says Susan Forman, an associate provost at the University of South Carolina.

"If the child doesn't have the resources - in either academics or relationships - to cope with the demands, then he or she will experience the return to school as stressful."

It doesn't help to deny or minimize a child's anxieties. By validating and initiating discussions about them, parents can enable their kids to explore issues and prepare for what might happen.

In fact, says Catherine Belter, the chairwoman of the Education Commission, National PTA Board of Directors, "your child may not even admit that he feels nervous about going back to school. His stress may be internalized. He may get moody and not communicate. He may even act out."

According to Sherryl Browne Graves, the chairwoman of the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling Programs at Hunter College in New York City, children can be stressed by any number of factors connected with returning to school.

It may be the change of schedules, differences in expectations or simply the realization that they've been on vacation for months and feel unprepared for academic work.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

To ease the transition from carefree summer to structured school days, you may need to adjust your own schedule.

During the first few weeks, keep outside engagements to a minimum so you can be available to your kids.

If you work outside the home, try to take a half day off work the first week.

"When my daughter began school, her father took her in the morning and I picked her up," says Maudlyn Fenton, a Brooklyn, N.Y., child-care worker. "We did that for about a week, until she got accustomed."

By splitting the responsibility, the Fentons each needed less time off work, and their daughter felt that her parents were involved with and cared about this big event.

Parents who can't adjust their work schedules should try to arrange for a friend or relative to drop off or pick up their kids.

Kids need to know they can count on you - or another adult they feel close to - even if it's only to go shopping for supplies and listen with a sympathetic ear.

Although there's no way to remove all a child's fears, parents can help.

A child like Kate, for example, needs to be assured that she can still see Lauren on weekends and after school.

She also may need some help and encouragement in developing new friendships. Inviting other classmates home for an afternoon can do a lot to ease Kate's feelings of loss.

Being a "new kid" - like Lauren - means having to make friends and get used to an unfamiliar setting.

Arrange to visit the school before the first day. Seeing the lunchroom, playground and classrooms can help a "new" child feel less anxious.

Ask for the names of some of your child's classmates who live in your neighborhood. Arrange a few get-acquainted play dates, so your child will know someone to sit with on the school bus or meet at lunch.

Similarly, a student starting middle school - like Jeff - needs to be reminded he isn't alone: His classmates will have similar worries about going to middle school for the first time.

Have your child call a few friends to see who will be in his homeroom or first-period class, so they can find their way around together.

Unlike kindergartners, older students take a certain amount of baggage to school with them.

If your child had a hard time with math last year, don't brush that aside. During the summer find informal activities that involve math at home.

Fractions take on a sweeter flavor when kids are following a brownie recipe that needs to be halved. Math has more meaning when it's used to help budget and shop for a family picnic.

Some kids - 5 percent of elementary-school children and 2 percent of the junior-high population - get so worked up they develop school phobia. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

"These are children who have trouble with transitions," says Dr. Barton Schmitt, the author of "Your Child's Health" (Bantam, 1991).

The best treatment, Schmitt says, is to send your child to school every day, even if she complains of the usual symptoms. Never ask how she feels. It may encourage her to complain.

If school attendance is enforced, the problem should improve in a week or two. If it doesn't, consult your doctor.

SCHEDULING FOR SUCCESS

As the new school year begins, so do after-school activities - sports, lessons. While it's important to foster nonacademic interests, you need to help set limits so your child doesn't become overscheduled.

Jill Hochberg, a family therapist, felt that her kids, Evan, 6, and Janine, 10, "were running too much and had no unstructured time." Hochberg helped her kids cut back.

"Evan kept karate but passed up Little League. Janine is going to have to choose between band and private piano lessons. In making choices you always lose something, but you gain something too."

HASSLE PREVENTION

Saying goodbye to the lazy days of summer often means readjusting schedules and routines. Here are some time- and temper-saving tips.

- Summer habits of late to bed and late to rise can translate into a rude awakening come fall. Gradually shift bedtime a week or two before school opens.

- To prevent cries of "Where are my . . . ?" take the time now to get closets and drawers in order. Clear out clothes that no longer fit.

- For homework, fix up a work space that is pleasant, well-lit and away from distractions. When you shop for school supplies, buy extras for homework.

- By third or fourth grade, kids like making their own lunch and after-school snacks. Shop together for ingredients that are easy to assemble.

- Buy an alarm clock for your child. Kids tend to argue less with a bell than with their parents.

- Establish TV-viewing limits now; it will save you from having to negotiate (or argue) on a daily basis.

Getting kids off to school calls for one of the hardest tasks parents face- that of supporting your child while simultaneously letting go.

It's like helping them ride a two-wheeler: In the end, it's the child who does the pedaling and survives the skinned knees.

At best, parents can hold the seat to give them a steady start. But knowing when to let go is just as important.