The End-of-School Blues
By Idelle Davidson

It's hard to say good-bye to a special teacher, good friends, and even the daily routine.

It was the last day of kindergarten and Julie Perlmutter, of Calabasas, California, didn't want to leave. She looked around at the block corner, the Legos, the artwork on the walls, and at the turtle she had once taken home overnight, and her eyes filled with tears. "I was really sad because I was going to miss my teacher, Mrs. Fogelman, and all my friends," said Julie.

"Some children feel a real sense of loss and uncertainty at the end of the year," says Robert Pianta, Ph.D., a child-development specialist at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, in Charlottesville. Parents often try to point out how much fun summer vacation will be or the excitement of becoming a big first-grader, but this probably won't be much comfort.

"While adults can look forward to events in the future, 5- and 6-year-olds still live mostly in the present," says Dr. Pianta, author of Enhancing Relationships Between Children and Teachers (American Psychological Association, 1999). Even for kids who've experienced an end-of-the-year transition in preschool, the concept that in three months they'll be in a different class with another teacher and new friends can be difficult to grasp.

For nine months, their teacher has nurtured them and encouraged them to feel successful about their accomplishments, notes Sandi Schwarm, Ed.D., director of the University of Southern California Childcare Program, in Los Angeles. Once school is over, they feel as though they're literally missing a piece of their lives. Kids also build surprisingly strong bonds with their classmates. Research at the University of Miami Medical School has found that preschoolers moving on to kindergarten have "attachments with peers that are so strong their separation mimics the effects of being separated from their mothers," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., a professor of psychology. "Kindergarten-age children may have an even more severe reaction than preschoolers because they're more aware of how much their friends mean to them."

For some kids, these feelings of loss at the end of the year can lead to mild anxiety or depression. "If you ask them to draw themselves and how they're feeling, they might draw a small body that has missing or distorted parts or a downturned mouth," says Dr. Field. Your child probably won't tell you how he's feeling, however, because it's still hard for a 5- or 6-year-old to articulate this mix of worry, sadness, and confusion. "Kids often fight off tears because on some level they know they're supposed to be big kids and not cry," observes Dr. Field.

Instead, they're likely to send vague nonverbal messages: They are cranky or moody, overly physical with friends or siblings, argumentative, have difficulty sleeping or eating, lose interest in favorite activities, and regress to younger behaviors, such as clinginess or thumb sucking, for no apparent reason.

Even if your child isn't showing obvious signs of distress, try asking some gentle questions. You might spark a conversation by saying, "Some kids worry when they have to go to the next grade and handle the things the bigger kids are handling," suggests Dr. Pianta. But don't overdo it; no child wants to be barraged with advice or questions. Think about other times when your child has made a change or handled a new challenge successfully, and make the connection for her, advises Dr. Pianta. You could say, "Remember how nervous you were before your first sleepover? Even though you said you didn't want to go, you went and had a fabulous time. Going to first grade is like that—something you're worried about at first because it's new, but it will be lots of fun."

Kindergartners are used to the predictability of having the same routine every day—watching a half hour of Sesame Street after they wake up, catching the school bus, listening to a story, spending time at the playground—and not having a specific schedule during the summer can be unsettling. Talk to your child about her plans for the summer, whether they include swimming lessons, camp, or a vacation at Grandma's. "It's helpful to put the dates of different activities on the calendar," says Dr. Pianta.

Your child probably won't know who her first-grade teacher will be until close to September, so ask her teacher to introduce the class to all of the first-grade teachers before kindergarten ends, suggests Sherry Kaufman, a veteran kindergarten teacher at Westwood Charter Elementary School, in Los Angeles. This familiarity makes Kaufman's students feel a lot more comfortable about moving on.

Here are some other ways to celebrate the end of kindergarten and help your child's summer get off to a good start.

• Help your child make or buy a small gift for the teacher, or bring flowers, on the last day of school.

• Let him bring a camera to take pictures of his school friends, teachers, and classroom -- and then hang them on the refrigerator or in his room.

• Make a special end-of-the-school-year dinner and invite grandparents or other relatives.

• Suggest that your child write a story or paint a picture of all the things that he liked most about kindergarten.

Ask your child which of her classmates she'd like to see over the summer and schedule some playdates for the first few weeks. "Kids need to know that friendships don't have to end with the school year," says Dr. Field. Remind her that she can still be friends with kids even if they're not in the same class next year.

• Encourage your child to send his kindergarten teacher a letter, e-mail, or drawing over the summer (but gently tell him not to expect a reply).

• Continue some of the routines from kindergarten, such as posting a large list of the day's activities or eating snacks out of his lunch box.

Above all, tell your child how proud you are of all that he's learned and accomplished this year and how much you're looking forward to all the special times you'll have together this summer—eating ice-cream cones, inner-tubing on the lake, catching butterflies, or riding your bikes. And be sure to let him know that he can go back and visit his kindergarten teacher on the first day of first grade.

Copyright © 1999 Idelle Davidson. Reprinted with permission from the June 1999 issue of Parents Magazine.