Separation Anxiety Tips (from CDS with notes for other schools)

Family happy mother send children kid son boy kindergarten to school

Separation anxiety is fairly common in the toddler and preschool years. It is most likely to happen in response to the start of a new school year as it is a change in caregivers, setting, peer activity and schedule all at once.

Goodbye rituals can be helpful. When my girls were little we had two high-fives and a hug as our goodbye. A ritual lets the child relax until that happens and then clearly signals the separation. Keep the actual goodbye short and sweet. The guideline is – Don’t say it until you mean it, then say it, mean it and go.

Goodbyes are important and moving through them helps to build a sense of trust in the system. This also means to avoid being the parent who sneaks out. If you wait until your child is busy and then sneak out without the goodbye, they are more likely to cling longer the next time.

It is most helpful to keep an upbeat attitude and expression through the separation. Your words, tone and look should all reassure your child that school is a great and fun place and you are entirely confident leaving them here.

It can be helpful to send your child with a small, soft toy or other object from home (not their most loved/bedtime lovey please). Teachers may let them have this as they need for the first few weeks. Gradually, they may encourage the child to have the toy stay in the bag, and eventually to stay in the car or at home.

At Country Day School, we strongly encourage all families to drop-off and pick-up in our carpool system. This can help ease separation anxiety by keeping goodbyes short and by having the child arrive to the same activity each day. At CDS this activity is gathering on the porch. Arriving to the same activity each day helps because the child knows what to expect as they get out of the car. If you are at a school that drop-off happens at the classroom, the hope is they are doing about the same things in the same ways each day during the drop-off window. To have this added benefit, children also have to arrive on time.

If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, it can be helpful to be one of the last to arrive and one of the first to pick up. Let’s say your drop-off is 8:30 – 8:40am and your pick-up is 11:30 – 11:40am, it’s helpful to drop-off closer to 8:40am and pick-up closer to 11:30am. At drop-off and pick-up, this means less time sitting and waiting on the porch. Also at pick-up, it can be upsetting to wait longer and watch other children go home first. If you are at a school that drop-off happens in the classroom, teachers may encourage you to be one of the first to arrive so your child is coming in to a quieter classroom and the teacher may be more available to help with the transition. Either way, good to ask and follow the teachers suggestions about times.

At home, it can be helpful to look at class pictures online and talk about their teachers, friends, classrooms and activities. It may also be helpful to have playdates with classmates often. The more they feel connected to others in the class, the less separation is an issue. It may be helpful to drive by the school, wave and talk about how fun school is or, if allowed, play on their playground on your days off.

Many schools are happy to briefly email or call to let you know how things are going. If a child is experiencing separation anxiety, they can also let you know what improvements they see over the first few weeks of school.

It may be helpful to read upbeat books about separation and starting school including:

Separation Anxiety
• The Kissing Hand by Penn
• When I Miss You by Spelman and Parkinson
• Llama, Llama Misses Mama by Dewdney
• Will You Come Back for Me? By Tompert
• Owl Babies by Waddell
• The Invisible String by Karst
• I Love You All Day Long by Rusackas
• Oh My Baby, Little One by Appelt

Starting School
• DWs Guide to Preschool by Brown
• The Brand New Kid by Couric
• Wemberly Worried by Henkes
• Timothy Goes to School by Wells
• Do I Have to Go to School? A First Look at Starting School by Thomas and Harker
• What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff
• Maisy Goes to Preschool by Cousins
• Going to School by Civardi
• Preschool Day, Hooray! By Strauss

What to Do When Your Child Says “I Don’t Wanna Go to School”

Parent Taking Child To Pre School

At some point, most children go through a phase of not wanting to go to school. For others, that push can ebb and flo for years. My younger daughter, Claire, has always had a difficult time going back after the Winter Break. There were tears in January throughout elementary school.

Smooth, calm morning – I understand their not wanting to go to school upset alone can be enough to knockout off the feeling of a smooth, calm morning. They may lose it, but you need to stay calm. Be the rock. If you need ideas to meet this goal, you might read Screamfree Parenting by Runkel or Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Markham.

Matter of fact empathy – When your child is upset, it is best to start there. Matter of fact empathy mean acknowledge the emotion, then continue with the routine. On a difficult morning this might be, “I know you are upset, you don’t want to go,” as you help put on their shoes, and, “I hear you want to stay home. I like staying home with you too,” as you walk them in. You are recognizing emotions and moving forward. Avoid starting with denial or reasoning. Denial would be “You like school. This shouldn’t be so hard.” Reasoning is “All of your friends are there, you’ll have fun at school.” Denial and reasoning are fuel for the argument.

Focus on the routine – It may be helpful to refocus on the routine. Talk to your child about the time available, steps that need to be done and the order. It may be helpful to make a chart together to keep track of the morning. Within each step, it’s often good to offer choices or challenges. When it’s time to get dressed, they might get dressed on the bed or the floor. A challenge might be racing you to get dressed. Here’s a blog post focused on improving your morning routine. If it is truly difficult to get through the morning, you might also start 15 minutes earlier to give everyone a chance to relax.

Note any patterns – By day two, the second year of Claire’s January blues, I was ready. Maybe it’s worse in September in your house. Maybe Mondays each week are hardest. Most things are easier when you see them coming. Knowing the pattern can help you plan.

Speak with their teacher – Whenever there’s a school related difficulty, it’s good to check in with the teacher. The teacher may be able to point to something specific happening at school, or may let you know everything seems fine once child is there. Either way, it’s helpful information. You might also ask the teacher for help. This might include setting up a specific way for your child to start school each day. Coming into a known situation (everyday the first thing will be this) may be easier than not knowing day-to-day. This might be giving your child a morning buddy; a friend to be together with for first transition activities and classwork.

Speak with your child – Occasionally and out of the moment, ask them what’s going on in the mornings before school. Ask what they are thinking about. Ask if there’s anything they are happy about, worried about, excited about or scared about at school. One question here and there, in a relaxed tone, at a calm time may be helpful.

Organize one-on-one playdates with a variety of kids from the class – Playdates give kids a chance to get to know their classmates. The more positive social connections they have with classmates; the more they might want to go to school.

Carpool – So this might be more time consumming than the initial push to avoid school, but your child may be more willing to go if they arrive with a friend. If your child is a bus rider this may mean having a bus stop buddy or asking the bus driver to help with seating friends together.

Alternate who manages the morning or drop off – It may be easier for a child to move through the morning with or separate from one parent than another, or from a sitter or grandparent versus a parent (if that’s available, even short term).

Things to bring – Not everyday, but occasionally, it may be helpful to have something for your child to take to or deliver to school. This might be something small to show his teachers or friends, a note he wrote or drew to someone, a snack to share with the class or a thing you need delivered to the office or guidance counselor.

Open talk time – As children move into late elementary school, keeping communication open is so important. Open talk time is an easy way to work towards that goal. This allows time for the child to vent and be heard, and for you both to work through things in a calm exchange.

Address any known causes – If there are academic concerns, revisit your homework plans, find new ways to practice the needed skills or hire a tutor. If it’s a social concern, meet with the guidance counselor, coach your child on ways to manage or follow up with the teacher. On either front, continue to monitor and follow up with interventions as needed. Do what’s needed to support your child in the area of concern.

Read related storybooks – For younger children, these books could be I Love You All Day Long, Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Kissing Hand or DW’s Guide to Preschool. For older children, Sophie’s Squash Go to School, The Brand New Kid or Sometimes I Worry Too Much but Now I Know How to Stop.

Read related parenting books – If it becomes a longer term or bigger issue, helpful parenting books include Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety, or School Refusal by Eisen and Engler or When Children Refuse School by Kearney and Albano.

There are also therapists who work with children around anxiety issues and school refusal.

 

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