As school bells ring anew, students and parents battle first-day stress

The first day of school is just about here, creating a palette of emotions ranging from excitement to fear and anxiety to relief and pretty much everything in between.

And that’s just among kids’ parents.

The Clark County School District kicks off the 2012-13 school year Monday. And while most of the focus on the first day of school falls, understandably, on what kids are feeling, it will be a pretty emotional day for many moms and dads across the district, too.

How emotional? Emotional enough that Donna Wilburn suspects the arrival of a new school year can make parents "as stressed out, or more stressed out, than the children."

Wilburn is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas. And, she says, "My business picks up two weeks before school starts. Everybody is stressed out."

To be fair, some parents greet the first day of school with flat-out welcome relief. There are, Wilburn notes, "parents who are, like, ‘I didn’t think school would ever start.’ "

The start of a new school year also can provide parents with a few practical benefits. Parent Mariana Hall, for instance, says that the return of school means no longer having to think of ways to fill her children’s summer vacation hours.

Hall and her husband have children in elementary school and middle school. She works in counseling, and her husband, who works at home, was able to care for the kids during summer vacation.

Now, with the children busy at school during the day, "I don’t have to be thinking, ‘What am I going to have to do to keep my kids entertained every single minute of the day?’ They get bored sitting around."

But, mixed with all of that are the concerns parents are likely to experience at the start of a new school year. Some concerns are nearly universal – who doesn’t want their children to make good friends and get good grades? Other concerns are more personalized.

Denali Jordan again will greet the new school year as both a teacher – of math, at Clark High School – and as the mother of daughter Sierra, 16, who this year returns to a physical classroom after two years of online schooling.

Jordan admits that she’s a little concerned about Sierra’s adjustment to a new learning environment. Also of concern to Jordan is that Sierra, an incoming senior, will be a year or two younger than most of her classmates.

As a teacher, Jordan has noticed that a common first-day sentiment among parents about school is happiness that the kids are not home anymore. But, she continues, "I also think parents are worried whether kids are going to stick around. A lot of times, kids come the first couple of days then just disappear.

"I’ve had kids who come the first day and then haven’t been seen for nine weeks. It happens a lot and parents don’t know about it."

Martha Perez greets the first day of school this year with sadness that her children are resuming classes.

Why? "She says because she’s not going to be home for us and we’re not going to help with chores," daughter Kelly Garcia translates, smiling.

Perez works in food prep at a restaurant, and her workday doesn’t mesh completely with her children’s school day.

"She says she’s going to miss us a lot," Kelly says.

And vice versa? "Yes," Kelly answers.

Perez says sending her children back to school was even more difficult when they were younger.

"(But) as we got older, it’s not that hard because we deal with it," Kelly says.

Kelly, 15, is entering her sophomore year at Western High School and admits that she was scared at first as an incoming freshman.

Mom Perez says she was scared, too, Kelly adds, "because I’d be in school with much older kids."

Tony Sink says he’s excited about his kids going back to school because they’re so excited about going back to school.

Sink says he’s not worried about their first day – the children attend Centennial High School and Leavitt Middle School – back in the classroom.

"My wife and I are pretty verbal, so if there are any concerns we voice them," he says. "If the kids are not worked up, I don’t get worked up."

James Kuzma, principal of Rancho High School, again approaches this year’s first day of school as both a dad – his sons are entering fifth and ninth grades – and as an educator.

He has noticed over the years – and particularly during his days as a middle school principal – that kids tend to be more nervous about the first day of school when they’re going to a new building as, for example, newly minted middle schoolers, or making transitions from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school.

And almost always, he adds, a child’s concern "certainly has an impact on you as a parent."

A common first-day parental concern is that children make new friends. That’s a particularly acute concern, Wilburn says, if the child had a hard year last year or if the child tends toward shyness.

Another common first-day concern, Kuzma says, is parents wanting to make sure their kids are safe.

"They’re concerned about safety," Kuzma says. "They know how big the schools are, and we all make sure we address that with them."

Wilburn also has talked with parents who fret about a child’s transition from public to private school or vice versa.

"If they go from public to private, the parent gets concerned about the amount of homework or the challenging schoolwork or that their child is going to be overwhelmed," she says.

"Or, if they’re going from private to public, they worry that their child isn’t going to be challenged as much and that they’re going to be bored and act out in class."

The first day of school also can bring financial concerns for parents. Hall says she shopped in thrift stores this year for her kids’ back-to-school wardrobes.

"They’re all boys and they don’t take good care of their clothes," she says.

Finances are a particular concern this year for Rebecca Sexton and her husband, Warren. The couple has two sons, ages 6 and 7, who attend Liberty Baptist Academy. Warren this year lost his job as a building inspector, and a job lead in Texas recently fell through.

"So now we’re scrambling, and that’s where the anxieties come in," Rebecca says.

In some cases, parents can create their own first-day-of-school anxieties by putting unnecessary pressure on themselves. For example, Wilburn says she often hears from parents who take too much responsibility for their children’s homework.

"They actually begin to stress out about the homework that’s coming. ‘Oh, I’m going to have so much homework’ – I’ve actually had a parent say that to me," she says.

Similarly, Wilburn has talked with parents who stress out over too-packed school year schedules and overinvolve themselves in their children’s activities.

"Sometimes, parents create this highly structured, very stressed school year by allowing a child to be in, like, five different activities," she says, and "that stresses everybody out."

It’s natural for parents to want their children to succeed in school academically and socially. But, Wilburn says, if they’re consumed, maybe there’s a problem.

"If you can’t sleep at night or you’re stressed out so much you can’t relax or enjoy your life," Wilburn says, "maybe you’re a bit overinvolved or overattached."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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