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Home : Parish/School Life : Parish and School News
9/21/2011 10:02:00 AM
New at school: Prepare kids, but give them independence
Central Catholic High School photo
At Central Catholic, with its largest freshman class in decades, Sophia Ziels and mom Trina get material from math teacher Steve Workman.   
Central Catholic High School photo
At Central Catholic, with its largest freshman class in decades, Sophia Ziels and mom Trina get material from math teacher Steve Workman.
Jesuit High School photo
At Jesuit High, Fr. Paul Grubb greets Patty Manning with freshman daughters Nicole and Jennifer. Catholic schools are working to help new students adjust.
Jesuit High School photo
At Jesuit High, Fr. Paul Grubb greets Patty Manning with freshman daughters Nicole and Jennifer. Catholic schools are working to help new students adjust.
Ed Langlois
Of the Catholic Sentinel

For kindergartners and freshmen in high school and college, the first weeks of fall term can be exciting but nerve-wracking. The same goes for their parents.

Catholic schools do a lot to ease the transition. And experts say parents can do a few things to help prepare new students, especially being positive. But parents should then step gracefully out of the way.  

At St. Mary School in Albany, kindergartners ease into the term, bringing supplies a few days before classes and attending half days the first week. Geri Warze, their teacher, is extra nurturing at the start. Her goal is to "make sure they feel safe." She plays music in the room and allows students to explore for awhile.

Robbie McGinty has taught kindergarten for 10 years at St. John Fisher School in Southwest Portland. During the first week of school, McGinty has students come in one at a time for an hour. She shows them their desks and cubbies and lets them get accustomed to her. Her theme for the first weeks is, "No surprises."

McGinty urges parents to accentuate the positive with youngsters, telling stories of happy memories of kindergarten. It would also help students if parents made a calendar that shows the school week, a visual guide for what's coming.

"Parents can help by instilling in children an attitude that what they are about to do is a valuable experience," says Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Many parents may have had bad experiences in school or feel critical of teachers. There is no need to pass those stories on to youths, says Ristau, who has taught at all levels and raised children of her own.  

For parents of kindergartners, Ristau advises: "There's no need to cry in front of kids the first weeks. That futhers separation anxiety. Cry in the parking lot."

Blanchet School in Salem, which offers grades 6 through 12, matches new students one-on-one with current students. Called ambassadors, the veterans walk newbies to classrooms, help open lockers and answer questions. The new students and ambassadors later go bowling.  

"It feels good for new students, and being an ambassador is an honor for older kids," says Chuck Lee, president of Blanchet,

At Central Catholic High School in Portland, older students act as guides early in the year.

"They make sure no one sits alone for lunch," says Chuck Blickle, a counselor at Central Catholic for 27 years. "As a freshman, the goal is to fit in. You don't want to stick out."

Central Catholic places students in groups of various ages for discussions and activities throughout the year. "How cool is it when a senior comes up to you as a freshman and says, 'Hey how did your drama tryout go?'" Blickle says.

For parents, Blickle advises, be available and don't stop being a parent, even if you should not hover. "Deep down, kids want that communication," he explains.  

Today's high school freshmen, so accustomed to socializing via gadgets, may not be comfortable meeting peers face to face, says Elaine Forde, diversity director and counselor at Jesuit High School in Portland. That's one reason Jesuit encourages new students to attend summer sports and arts camps and holds an incoming freshman social as early as May. At Jesuit, older students are always on the scene for new arrivals as guides.

Before the school year, parents can help walk students through their schedule or can encourage them to join clubs, says Forde. But once the term begins, it's best to drop kids off in the parking lot, wish them well and drive away.  

Jesuit has a buzz phrase: Don't be a helicopter parent.

Forde says some freshman adjust in a day, while others take a month or so. By spring, the school will feel like their place, she explains.

At St. Mary's Academy in Portland, first years start the term in a homeroom, attending three interrelated classes with the same group. That helps make connections. Students do community building exercises and write in journals. The groups celebrate birthdays, do community service and relax together.  

"The quicker we can get them acclimated to the school and to each other, the sooner they can focus on their studies and find their passion," says Pat Barr, principal of St. Mary's.

Karen Eifler, a professor in the Department of Education at the University of Portland, suggests that parents use questions to highlight what's good about school.

"Avoid giving an option to be miserable," Eifler says. "Don't say, 'How was your day?' Phrase the question to invite the positive: 'What was your favorite thing about school today? What was the best thing about the first week?'"  

If a student is having a hard time, she suggests asking questions that lead to optimism. If for example, a student complains about having no friends, ask, "What can you do to make new friends? Want to practice?"

Eifler suggests having a treat to mark the end of the first week or month.

College freshmen are experiencing a whole new level of independence. Childhood has ended.  

Patrick Bartos, staff psychologist at the University of Portland Health Center, says students are dealing with less imposed structure, so must discipline themselves. Socially, students are establishing a whole new network. Balance between school and social life can be hard to strike.

"It’s during college that students begin to develop their own individual sense of identity," Bartos says. "This process takes significantly longer for today’s young adults than it did for those of previous generations."

Parents, he explains, should encourage the process of self-discovery. Don't pressure students on academic choices or goals.  

But, says Bartos, stay connected. He suggests asking the freshman how much contact he or she would like.  

"Ultimately you want to be a secure home base that your child will feel comfortable returning to when he or she faces challenges," he says. "But when your child does reach out for support, don’t rush in to solve the problems or make decisions."

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