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FIRST-GRADERS MEET THE CHALLENGE

Q. My daughter is in first grade, and when she hits a difficult problem in her homework, she quickly goes from calm and studious to arms folded and yelling, "I can't do this," then refuses to finish. Occasionally she doesn't complete papers in class when her teacher knows she could have. Now I think the partial papers are a result of the frustration she shows at home. What can I do to help her overcome it and keep going?

-- Philip Cichanowicz, Bucyrus, Ohio

A. Hitting the schoolwork wall isn't as uncommon at this age as you might think, say parents who called Child Life. For many children, first grade is the first time they encounter so many new and challenging demands at once.

To conquer this problem, you must first focus on diffusing the child's frustration. Then tackle the fear of failure by zeroing in on any success the child has had so far and offering lots of praise. Finally, help your daughter learn the lifelong skill of breaking assignments into manageable chunks.

"I, too, have a first-grade girl who gets intensely aggravated when she can't do everything right the first time," says Shantell Marshall of Orrville, Ohio. "The most important thing to do is speak to her in a calm voice and get her to settle down.

"It's not so much the academic pursuit that is the main objective, but teaching your child the patience that goes with the learning process," Ms. Marshall says.

When Sheryll Landers' first-grader faces homework meltdown, she's found her daughter's anger is so out of control that she must help her physically calm down.

"I found that if I pick my child up and cuddle her, even though the action is bad and she's mad, I cuddle her and calm her down, and then she's able to reel herself back in," says Ms. Landers, a reader from El Paso, Texas.

Melanie Trupkiewicz of Cloverdale, Calif., also faced this problem with her first-grader until she realized that her child needed emotional support and a "time for chilling out."

"Acknowledge the difficulty by saying something like: 'No wonder you're so upset. That's a tough problem and you've been working so hard,' " Ms. Trupkiewicz suggests.

It also helps if parents keep in mind that young children enjoy doing things they're already a little bit good at, says Priscilla L. Vail, author of "Emotion: The On-Off Switch For Learning" (Modern Learning Press, $14.95).

Try to break the assignment into several parts that won't be so overwhelming, and if possible, start with a part you know the child can easily master, says Ms. Vail, a learning specialist and consultant who lives in Bedford.

Then heap on the praise, says Stacey Buckley, a reader from Tampa, Fla.

"I teach eighth- and ninth-graders, and my experience has shown me that praise works wonders," she says.

When possible, help a child learn a new concept by linking it to something she already knows.

"Ask her what she already knows about, (for example) addition," Ms. Vail says. "This helps her bring bits of information into the front of her mind. Then the prior knowledge is waiting so the incoming new information has a place to sink in. This is called the Velcro phenomenon."

If none of these strategies works, have the child evaluated by a learning specialist to discover if she could have underlying learning difficulties, advises Lawrence J. Greene, author of "Improving Your Child's Schoolwork" (Prima, $16.95). If the school will not provide the testing, Greene advises parents to ask the family health care provider to recommend someone qualified to do the testing.

"I would also have her eyes tested," Greene says. "Maybe she needs glasses. It could be as simple as that."

(Note: Ms. Vail's book is not available in bookstores. To order, call (800) 627-5867.)

Can you help?

NO FOLLOW-THROUGH: "My 8-year-old does his homework, but he cannot remember to turn it in once he gets to school," says K.B. from Charlotte, N.C. "He also has trouble following through on other things like bringing home his assignments. I don't know how far to go in terms of reminding him and making sure these things get done. I know he needs to learn to do it on his own. Any advice?"

Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have advice, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to bevmills@aol.com

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