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School daze: how parents can help kids struggling with school transitions

How to help kids cope with change

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Students moving from one academic milestone to the next may experience a wide range of emotions, from excitement to fear. Some students cope well with changes, but others need guidance.

 When students go from middle school to high school, they find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole. Students must "figure out the big business of moving from classroom to classroom, in three minutes, between the two bells," says Denise Newman (4616 S. Carrollton Ave., 504-482-1412), a clinical and developmental psychologist.

 Students also must organize a locker, select the right books and find a seat in the classroom and the lunchroom — tasks they've likely never done before.

 "The social dynamics are the most daunting feature," Newman says, especially since high school student populations are often larger than those at elementary schools.

 Newman says parents can help by making sure their child is getting enough sleep. She says adolescents need up to 10 hours of sleep, and possibly 12 when going through a growth spurt. Establish a sleep schedule and urge your child to prepare for the school day the night before by setting aside an outfit or packing a lunch.

 "Practice those things that make the first minutes of the morning a little less insane and give everyone a chance to take a deep breath," she says. "Taking on a school day is going to be a challenge in and of itself. It doesn't need to start off as a mess."

 Greater emphasis on grades can be overwhelming as well. After school, parents should ask about their child's day without dwelling on grades, Newman says. Remind them that challenging transitions do get easier, without dismissing their struggle.

 "If week one was really hard, it doesn't mean the rest of the year's going to be a flop," she says. "You have to give things time."

 The transition from high school to college can bring more unforeseen predicaments. The charter school network Collegiate Academies (5552 Read Blvd., 504-503-0008; www.collegiateacademies.org) runs four schools comprising a diverse group of students, and seeks to prepare each for success before and during the college experience. Lauren Katz, the network's director of college completion, says college students may face new struggles: financial aid, course work and time management.

 "We're here to be their college concierge, to help push them through," Katz says, and adds parents can help, too, by being involved in their student's college preparedness. They can visit colleges with their teen and participate in on-campus recreational events. Parents should encourage students to focus on reading and writing skills while still in high school, since those are instrumental to both academic and real-world success, and help advise them during the college admissions process by collaborating with the college counselor.

 If students continue to struggle, it may be time to consult a professional. Berre M. Burch holds a doctorate in school psychology and is the program director of Project LAST, which provides outreach for children dealing with trauma, at Children's Bureau of New Orleans (2626 Canal St., Suite 201, 504-525-2366; www.childrens-bureau.com). Children's Bureau receives referrals for struggling students, and has a school-based mental health program that places clinicians in a school to provide counseling. She says parents first should listen to and empower their kids.

 "Trying to fix the problem for your child can actually backfire, leading to your child feeling less competent in his or her ability to tackle new challenges," she says.

 But she stresses that having a conversation about mental health is important, especially if parents realize kids aren't coping well.

 "Just like we talk with adolescents about changes occurring in their bodies, we should also talk about changes happening in the brain," Burch says.

 Get to know the counselors or social workers in your child's school, and find out what services the school offers. Many mental health problems first appear in adolescence, and early intervention is key.

 "Navigating the mental health service system can be challenging," Burch says. "Include your child in the process so he or she will be able to assume a more active role in treatment."

Burch says these are signs that your child may need support from a mental health provider

Changes in sleeping patterns and eating habits.

Child often seems to be at a breaking point; exhibits signs of distress at minor stressors.

There's concerning content in your child's social media.

Negative emotional reactions are prolonged and interfere with daily life.

Suspected problems with using or abusing controlled substances.

Child is unusually socially isolated or withdrawn.

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