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NEW YEAR, OLD FEARS // Parents' Top 10 fears

We all have 'em: The "what if's" that bounce around in our brains when our children are at school. How do they spend their day? Is all going well? For every parent who has ever wanted to be a fly on the wall, here are the Top 10 (unofficial) fears, so at least you know you're in good company.

My child is not ready for (fill in the blank) kindergarten, middle school, high school, college.

More than likely the child is ready, and you are not. Be brave. (Cry in the car after cheerfully dropping off your baby.) Preschool teachers are seasoned at evaluating readiness for kindergarten. Other ages require careful observation by parents and teachers. A common misconception is that readiness is expressed by knowledge, such as a 5-year-old who can spell Tallahassee. Experts counter that it is, instead, a readiness to learn.

My son or daughter won't have any friends.

Ideally, your child has been learning social skills all along. And one or two friends will do _ he doesn't have to be "Mr. Congeniality." Listen to children talk about peers and ask about their feelings. The little stuff _ "Sara didn't shoot baskets with me in gym today" _ is major to a child. Invite friends to your home and on family outings. A visit helps cement a friendship and allows parents to see who their child is hanging out with.

My child will be bullied or harassed.

Personal safety is a frightening and difficult issue. Parents of middle school students, in particular, have complained to school officials about bullying and assault both on and off school property. Several report little satisfaction with resultant action. Do not stop with one appeal. If the teacher cannot help, go to the principal and PTA. Enlist other concerned parents. Talk to the school resource officer. Ask the bus driver to be an extra pair of eyes. If supervision needs to be increased, set up a parent watch. If you are truly concerned, change schools.

He or she tosses lunch in the trash, particularly "real" food such as fruit.

That's possible. Parenting magazines say to cut sandwiches in the shapes of smiley faces or make stick people out of carrot sticks to tempt picky eaters. (Who has time?) Experimenting with smaller portions of many kinds of food sometimes works. Some parents shoot for a late lunchtime: The child will be starving and will eat anything. It may be corny, but a note of love and encouragement or a riddle tucked into a lunchbox never hurts.

My child struggles academically and doesn't seem to care.

Teacher and parent can work together to give a child additional help and reward good work and valiant effort. Inquire about tutoring, perhaps from an older student during school hours, or testing for placement in special programs that complement classroom work. Don't forget self-esteem. There are many ways for a child to excel beyond academics. He or she needs to find a valued place in a group, whether in the school band or on an after-school swim team.

My child never tells me about school, and answers my "What did you do at school today?" with "nuthin'."

Savvy parents have learned never to ask open-ended questions. Instead, try, "What was the most fun thing you did in school today?" "Who did you eat lunch with?" "Are these fractions as hard for you as they were for me?" Some children will spill every detail the second they see you; others may need some chill time and may not be ready to talk for an hour or two after school. Never underestimate the value of a conversation over a sinkful of dirty dishes.

I am uncomfortable going to the school, talking to teachers or helping with homework that is unfamiliar to me.

Orientations and open houses are invaluable in cracking that emotional barrier. Many schools are reaching out to families by offering health, counseling and other services or referrals on-site. If a teacher regularly phones just to chat about a child, kiss his feet. Some parents are intimidated by memories of their own trying school days. And some schools, frankly, are poor at communication. But you must be partners in your child's education. Phone with questions, leave your name and number, schedule a conversation about your child's (or your) algebra phobia. Persevere.

My child will be injured in a fall on the playground, or worse, someone who has brought a weapon to school.

Evaluate what your school has done to ensure safety: signing in visitors, limiting access to buildings and grounds, using the buddy system for students outside of class, putting teachers or aides on duty on the playground. If there are shortcomings, talk to the principal, get on the school safety committee, volunteer to form one. At one St. Petersburg elementary school, concerned parents prompted construction of a fence. At a Pasco County middle school, there are no lockers. The hope is to reduce tardiness and curb contraband.

He or she will make the wrong friends, try drugs, take dangerous risks.

Beyond talking to your child about these issues _ and be aware that such talks often occur in casual asides shared during car rides or while cooking dinner, not in major sit-downs _ parents can play "what if" with their child. "What if your best friend offers you a cigarette?" Parents can inquire about what life-skills training is offered in school and lobby for more. In many elementary schools, for example, kids learn about bad drugs versus good drugs. Older students may benefit from role-playing on how to handle peer pressure or weigh consequences.

My child will get lost in the crowd.

It is a source of constant amazement to see how a teacher with 28 or 30 students soon knows each one. A parent may inform a teacher about a child's shyness, quirks and, particularly important, any major changes at home that may affect his or her behavior, such as a death in the family, divorce or other crisis.

Sources: Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century, Report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development; Rhudine Poole, program specialist with Florida Mental Institute; Greg Wright, principal at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey; school districts in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties; parents of children grades K through 12.

_ SUSAN ASCHOFF, Times staff writer