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:
• 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
• 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