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Kindergarten Fears

Q. Our 5-year-old is extremely nervous about starting kindergarten, even though his older sister goes to the same school. How can we help?

Familiarity isn't always a source of comfort. At times it can up the intimidation factor. To your son, elementary school is where bigger, older, smarter kids go  -- kids, like his sister, who already know how to read and write, ride the bus, eat lunch away, find the bathroom, and remember the teacher's rules.

The best thing you can do is to bring this Major Milestone down a notch or two in his mind. Instead of trying to build excitement by hyping his new schoolboy status, downplay it. Tell him that kindergarten will be a lot like preschool.

Show him that when his big sister started school, she was the same little 5-year-old he is now. Dig out some of your daughter's kindergarten pictures, drawings, and "writing" samples.

One day last summer, our eldest took her worried little sister aside and told her, confidentially, that "kindergarten is really just one big playdate." For the moment, at least, it made school seem a little more doable.

You might try to find out precisely what he's afraid of. It may be something very specific (how will I go to the bathroom without my preschool teacher to take me?) that you can answer simply and reassuringly. Once class assignments are posted, try to have your child and his teacher meet casually before the first day of school, and see if you can set up playdates with a couple of classmates.

And don't be surprised if tactics that worked with your first child don't work with your second. Two classics that backfired in our house: shopping for new school clothes and suggesting that Ellie bring a family photo to school so she could "see" us whenever she wanted to. The new clothes were just one new thing too many, and the picture made her cry. Seven months into kindergarten, Ellie was still wearing her high-water preschool jeans and using last year's lunch box. But, she had to admit, kindergarten was basically one big playdate.