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Dr. Sears: The Full School Day

Q  My daughter is about to start all-day school. Class runs from 8:30 to 3:30  -- that seems like a long day for a 5-year-old. How can I help her to adjust?

Most moms share the same kind of anxiety before the first day of school. It's a kind of developmental milestone, and it comes with a lot of questions: How will the "baby" adjust to being away at school for six to eight hours a day? How will mom herself adjust to being separated from their child so long? Usually these worries gradually recede after classes begin. Most children adjust to school quite well (especially if they have had gradually increasing hours of preschool for a year or two). Yet, some children do take a while to adjust to longer days. Here's how you can ease her transition:

Be sure she gets a good night's sleep. Sleepy children and long school days are not a good match. Sleep-deprived children show poor attention span and cranky behavior. Most 5-year-olds need at least ten to eleven hours of sleep at night. Begin the school year by making sure she gets an extra hour of sleep at night, just to be sure she's well rested.

Start the day with a brainy breakfast. Studies show that school children who eat a nutritious breakfast make higher grades and are better behaved than children who either skip breakfast or eat a junk-food breakfast. Make sure your child gets the three main ingredients that make up a brainy breakfast: protein, nutritious carbohydrates (such as fruits, whole grains, and high-fiber cereals), and healthy fats (like those found in eggs). Check out my previous Q&A, "Menu for a Brainy Breakfast," for some nutritious breakfast ideas that kids enjoy.

Join the PTA. As a parent of eight and a member of our local school board, I believe that a school is only as good as the parents supporting it. Get involved at her school  -- it will help you to relate to how your child spends her day. And you might be surprised by how school policies affect your child. One issue that a lot of schools face lately (including the schools in my district) is the prevalence of junk foods and caffeinated beverages in the school vending machines. Some states have just recently outlawed sales of soda in schools  -- but they did so only after parents voiced their concerns about how these foods might harm children.

Notify the teacher of your child's special needs. It's important for teachers to know if your child has difficulty separating from home or any other emotional quirks your child has. Get to know your child's teacher well and be sure there is a match between your child's individual style of learning and the teacher's style of teaching. If your child needs a little bit of extra attention to help school adjustment, help the teacher to learn to identify the needs and how to deal with it.

Beware of labels. It's too common nowadays for a child to be given some unfair label of "A.D.D." or a "learning disability." Here's where you need to be an advocate for your child. Many children who are stuck with these labels really only have a difference. Some children think and learn differently, and therefore need a different style of teaching. A lot of the time, their only real problem is with boredom. These children not only think outside the box, but if given appropriate teaching that matches their individual style of learning these children often grow up to build a better box.

Watch for red flags. If your previously sweet child turns sour after starting school, that's a sign of an adjustment problem. It might be a mismatch with the other students, the teacher, or the curriculum. It's important that the child's first year of full-day school be a positive one, because the main goal of education in the first couple years is to instill into the child a love of learning. Some other warning signs: vague pains (such as tummy aches and headaches) that only occur on school days, change of emotions from happy to sad, and overall less energy.

Want to change your school? Parenting and Georgetown University has teamed up to launch Mom Congress, a brand-new program to help moms connect and advocate for positive change in their children's education.
Join the Mom Congress initiative