Sunday, May 13, 2007

A QUESTION OF MENTAL HEALTH: Are There Really Witches in the Basement?

ARE THERE REALLY WITCHES IN THE BASEMENT?

A mother's story:
She is 5 years old going on 6 and first grade is just around the corner. The summer will soon end and the serious business of school will begin. She knows where she will be going because we drive past the building regularly. Each time, I cheerfully point to the sprawling brick fa├žade announcing that she will soon be in first grade. I describe my first grade teacher with fondness in hopes that her fears will be calmed. She usually sits quietly in the seat next to me staring straight ahead. Occasionally she will boldly announce that she is not going to school. She sees no need for the exercise. She is perfectly content learning at home from her siblings or neighbors. She already knows how to read and assures me that she can learn anything that she needs on her own. I sigh and steel myself for the battle that I know will ensue in the fall.
Lately, she has been drawing pictures of the school building. It is usually quite large on the page and the basement windows are particularly menacing. The latest version has a black figure oozing between the bars on the windows. The fingers are pointed, the mouth is full of teeth. This is the witch that lives in the basement of the school. I try to explain the modern construction technique of slab building that eliminates the need for a basement. I know that the building has no basement, but my arguments are to no avail. Someone has convinced her that a witch lives under the classrooms. I go looking for her brother.
At first he pleads innocent then admits that it was a great tease. He knows that she is afraid of beginning first grade and he just couldn't resist the story about a witch living in the basement. He defends himself by saying that a few of his elementary teachers were witches so it is not really an exaggeration. This is going to be a long year.

DRAW ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE
Reflect on your own experience of elementary school. Tell the stories that you haven't thought of for years. My second grade teacher put a large wire cage in one corner of the room. In that cage we watched "Bitty Hen" live and lay eggs and hatch baby chicks. It was marvelous! Looking back, I do not know how "Bitty” survived the stress of all of those voices, and noses pressed against the wire each morning. For all I know, the teacher may have gone through numerous chickens without our knowing. "Bitty" was the center of attention and our class was the talk of the school.
Even if your stories are tragic, they are worth telling. Your child will take comfort from knowing that they are not the only one who has ever been afraid of school.

DRAW OUT THE FEAR
The witch in the basement is more than a brother's tease. The child who is afraid of separating from mother or afraid of performing in school is trying to communicate that fear. Your child's fear should be taken seriously. Listen to the fear and draw out more information by saying “tell me more", " tell what will happen next". Using these specific phrases will encourage your child to explore the fear and help your child to feel secure because you are taking the fear seriously. Leave questions behind. They demand rational and specific answers. Fears are usually not rational or specific. You will learn more with the "tell me" approach.

DRAW A BOUNDARY
Once you know more of the nature of the fear, you can draw protective fences to create a sense of safety and comfort for your child. You may want to consult with the school psychologist before school opens to get more ideas of how to create a sense of comfort that your child can carry from home to school. The child who is afraid of leaving mother behind, can be comforted by taking some specific token or symbol of Mom to school. These treasures can help to calm a child's fears and refocus the child on the task at hand. The child with learning problems or fears of performance can be comforted by clear expectations that are easily attained. Do not be afraid to set lower expectations at first and gradually raise the bar as your child's comfort increases. Stay away from asking your child to do his or her best. Make the expectation specific and concrete. At the end of the day, you should both be able to easily see that the child has been successful. Even the simple task of bringing your lunch box home can be a mark of success for the first week.
If the fear persists beyond week 2, consult a professional. Early intervention will save a lot of heartache for you and your child.

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