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Facing third grade? How to help with that challenging year

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In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. How is it different socially?
2. How to detect if my child is stressed?
3. How to offer support?

Don’t be surprised by the biggest change in elementary school: third grade.

That's when children may feel anxiety from the academic pressure of testing, say Deborah Newell, program director of Positive Parenting Program, known as Triple P, at Community Partners of South Florida, and Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager at the Faulk Center for Counseling in Boca Raton.

“Some children may be lethargic; others will throw up at school or be clingy,” Mortensen says.

Newell agrees. “There is a huge leap in academic standards. The need for reading comprehension goes up, and in math, there is a huge increase in abstract thinking,” she says. “And the writing requirements become larger.”

As if that weren’t enough, your child may change too, Newell says.


“They are starting to exhibit young adult socialization,” Newell says. “They are not quite as close to their parents. They are more concerned with what their peers are thinking. This can be unnerving. Parents say, ‘What happened to my cute little second-grader?’ ”

Newell has learned from experience. “In third grade, my daughter was crying and didn’t want to go to school,” she says. “My son in third grade got into a physical altercation after someone picked on him, and he finally had enough.”

Your best skills during this time: Watch your children, talk to them, act quickly when they change and support their independence. These skills, with a few adjustments for age, should serve you well until graduation, Newell says.

It takes patience and persistence to pry information from a child, Mortensen says. Ask your child specific questions on the ride home or while preparing meals.

“You might ask, ‘Who did you sit with at lunch? Or, did anything funny happen today?’ ” she says. You also can ask about your child’s favorite activities, such as arts or music, rather than just academics.

Don’t give up. If a particular subject doesn’t work, try another, Mortensen says. “Just being interested in them can open them up,” she says.

It’s hard not to judge your child, so you must hear them out when they feel like talking, even if you don’t like what you hear. “They will come to you if they don’t feel they’re going to be judged or punished,” Mortensen says.

Besides the transition points in school, changes at home can stress your child, such as moving, marital or financial problems, says Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, a child psychologist in Boca Raton. 

Another cause that can affect behavior is problems with friends, Siciliano-Hartt says.


Ask your child what’s going on but also consult the teacher, parents of your child’s friends and the friends themselves, she says.

Look at the pictures your child may be drawing, as they may offer clues. Art is another way your child expresses anger, fear or frustration, Siciliano-Hartt says. When stressed, children are more likely to act differently rather than talk about it, she says. Attentive parents will notice changes in behavior, ask questions and take action.

Take every opportunity to listen to your child. Eat together and talk during breakfast, dinner and even snacks before after-school activities. “You might not be talking directly about issues you or they are worrying about, but if something is going on, you’ll know,” Newell says.

An important talk doesn’t necessarily need a lot of time.

“If your child needs you, give them two or three minutes now,” Newell says. “If you constantly tell them, ‘Later, not right now,’ that’s when they develop patterns of interrupting, or they start acting up to get your attention. I wish I had known that when I was raising kids.”

Also take every opportunity to communicate with the teacher before an issues arises. If your child uses an agenda, check it for homework assignments and notes from the teacher, she says.

 “The minute something starts going wrong, the teacher will focus on that, and it can be downhill for the child,” she says.

Don’t wait for a crisis like that. Text or email the teacher to ask what your child is doing well and build on that, Newell says.

“Parenting is 24-7. It’s exhausting,” she says. “You have to take care of yourself too. You have to build your stamina.”


If your child encounters difficulties, discuss it with the teacher, Newell says.

 “Your child may need extra support from you too,” says Mortensen, who points out the teacher may send home a red card or note. “You can spend quality time with them, reading books, talking about feelings, coloring. It can make all the difference.”

Pedro Joseph kept a reading log when his son, Jaylan, attended kindergarten at Village Academy in Delray Beach. “It improved his reading, and I could be there to encourage him,” says Joseph, who has three sons.

School transitions are not always about schoolwork.

“Sometimes we solve problems,” Rachelle Similus said when she was a second-grader at Village Academy. When a boy in her class “started to say mean things about me, I told the teacher, and we went to the peace table.”

For children who recently immigrated, going to school here is a transition itself, says Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming at the Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach.

People who grew up in different cultures don’t always feel comfortable with seeking help from outside the family, Newell says.

“It can be a stigma, so we concentrate on whatever is working,” she says. “We are geared at making very small changes that make a huge difference, like talking about the positive things the child is doing.”

Language barriers can make it hard for parents to communicate with teachers. So Enith Similus, Rachelle's mother, took English lessons at night.

The Palm Beach County School District offers English classes at more than 30 locations throughout the year. For registered students, there is additional help with career counseling, family literacy and students with disabilities. Call 561-649-6010.


• Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming, Achievement Centers for Children and Families
• Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager, Faulk Center for Counseling
• Deborah Newell, Triple P program director, Community Partners of South Florida
• Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, former child psychologist in Boca Raton

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