Overcoming Separation Anxiety on the First Day of School

Entering a new environment filled with unfamiliar people can cause anxiety for children -- and their parents! Find out how to overcome the separation anxiety that accompanies a child's first day of school.

What You Can Do Before School

Preparing your child for school before his first day can greatly reduce any separation anxiety your child may feel when you leave. Here are some ways to familiarize your child with his new environment:

  • Introduce your child ahead of time to common school activities, such as drawing pictures or storytelling.
  • Visit your child's classroom a few times before school starts to familiarize her with the space.
  • Have your child meet his teacher.

Don't minimize the importance of easing your fears as well as your child's. If you feel guilty or worried about leaving her at school, your child will probably sense that. The more calm and assured you are, the more confident your child will be.

To prepare yourself for the upcoming tear-filled good-bye:

  • Ask your child's teacher what her procedure is when children are crying for their parents. Make sure a school staff member is ready to help your child with the transfer from your care to the classroom.
  • Find out how the school structures its daily schedule. Many preschools begin with a daily ritual, such as "circle time" (when teachers and children talk about what they did the day before, and that day's activities), to ease the move from home to school.

Tips for Tear-Free Goodbyes

Saying goodbye on that first day can be the hardest moment for parents and children. Here are five tips on how to ease the separation anxiety.

  • Reintroduce the teacher to your child. Allow them to form an initial relationship. Make it clear that you trust the teacher and are at ease with her watching your child.
  • Bring a friend from home. Ask the teacher whether your child can bring along a stuffed animal to keep in her cubby in case she needs comforting. It shouldn't be her favorite one, though, because there's no guarantee it will come home in one piece. Other favorite choices include a family picture, a special doll, or a favorite blanket.
  • When it's time to go, make sure to say good-bye to your child. Never sneak out. As tempting as it may be, leaving without saying good-bye to your child risks her trust in you.
  • Once you say good-bye, leave promptly. A long farewell scene might only serve to reinforce a child's sense that preschool is a bad place.
  • Express your ease with leaving. Some parents wave from outside the classroom window or make a funny good-bye face.
  • Don't linger. The longer you stay, the harder it is. Let your child know that you'll be there to pick her up, and say "See you later!" once she's gotten involved in an activity.
  • Create your own ritual. One of the moms in Shanon Powers's class, in Kansas City, Missouri, says goodbye to her son the same way every day: She kisses him on the lips and gives him a butterfly kiss (her eyelashes on his cheek), and then they rub noses and hug. When the embrace is over, he knows it's time for her to go to work.
  • Consider a reward system.< Linda Roos, of Scottsdale, Arizona, gave her kindergartner his own calendar. If he went to class without putting up a fuss, she put a smiley face on the calendar (otherwise, he got a sad face). On Friday, if he had five smiley faces, she made him a treasure hunt as a treat.
  • Learn the other kids' names. When you can call your child's classmates by name ("Look, Matthew, there is a space at the train table with Eli and Katie"), it makes school seem much more familiar and safe.

Security Alert: Bringing Comfort Objects from Home

Being away from home for the first time isn't easy, so send your child off with a discreet little memento to help him handle it better.

  • Leave the lovey at home: Get a T-shirt made with a picture of her Woofie or Teddy at zazzle.com.
  • Lunch-box love notes are a great way to let your child know you're thinking of her while she's at school.
  • Little kid toys: He might not be allowed to take his favorite car into the classroom, but he can keep it safely in his backpack.
  • Blanket statement: Cut a tiny piece off her blankie that she can keep in her pocket and touch when she needs a pick-me-up.
  • Time will tell: His own digital watch will make him feel like a big boy, and he can look at it every so often to remind himself that you'll be picking him up soon!

Source: The American Medical Association

Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in American Baby, the August 2003 issue of Parents magazine and the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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