The start of preschool is a milestone that's often anticipated with great excitement and joy, but also with lots of crying, uncertainty, and heel digging—from both kids and parents! "For children, the main source of anxiety around entering preschool is that they have absolutely no idea what to expect," says Katrina Green, a certified early childhood and early childhood special education teacher at the Just Wee Two program in Brooklyn, New York.
"They have spent the first three to four years learning the rules and routines of their family life and they are completely unfamiliar with the new rules and routines they will encounter. For parents, the main source of separation anxiety is worrying that their child will feel abandoned."
Read on to learn the best ways to help a child with separation anxiety and to successfully start this new school adventure—together and apart!
Many moms may see their child have a bad first reaction to preschool and immediately decide to pull him out of the classroom. But that's a bad idea: "It denies the child an opportunity to learn how to work through negative feelings and sets a precedent of not having to face problems," Green says. Instead, consistency is key when it comes to making preschool a part of your child's new routine. Simply going together on a regular basis will provide your little one with a strong sense of anticipation. Keep your goodbyes short and sweet so that your child knows what to expect but doesn't prolong your departure. When you pick him up at the end of the day, reinforce the idea that you came back, just like you said you would. This way, each day's drop-off won't feel like you're both starting teary and upsetting goodbyes all over again.
Ideally, your child's preschool teacher will be a warm, caring, and experienced individual who can anticipate her students' needs. But since she is new to you, too, brief her with necessary information that will help her and your child get to know each other better. "It's helpful for me to know as much as possible about a child's home life in order to ease their transition into preschool," Green says. "Their eating, sleeping, and toileting patterns are just as important as knowing their favorite color, what games they like to play, or what songs they like to sing. It also helps to know what techniques the family uses to calm a child down when she is feeling upset or anxious [so I can] try to replicate those techniques in the classroom." Be sure to let the teacher know about any medical issues, such as food allergies.
Have your child bring a little reminder of home to the preschool to ease his separation anxiety and reassure him. If he doesn't have a favorite doll or blankie, even a beloved book or a sippy cup filled with his favorite drink can do the trick. "I had a child enter my preschool program who was experiencing major anxiety," Green reveals. "In the beginning, we encouraged him to bring photos of his family and items from home. He filled an entire Whole Foods bag with toys from home!" Comfort objects may seem like small stuff to you, but they can provide a real sense of security to kids in an unfamiliar environment. "Children almost always outgrow the need to bring a comfort object to school," Green says. "However, children may feel the need for comfort objects at school (even if they are separating with no problem) when transitions are happening at home (such as a new baby, a move, or Mom or Dad starting a new work schedule)."
It might be tempting to bolt from the room, but your little one will feel more afraid if you suddenly disappear. "Moms should never be ripped away abruptly from their child," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., child and family psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Aware Parent. "It can take up to ten weeks for a child to fully be ready to be left at school without her mother." Dr. Walfish says. "The best way to handle the separation process is to begin by Mommy going to school with her child and sitting next to her. She should not interact with her in games and toys, but rather be there as a safety net." Instead, develop a good-bye ritual. This could be anything you and your child decide on, such as a special hug or handshake followed by a "See you later, alligator!" Once you've said your goodbyes, it's best to skedaddle so that your child doesn't become preoccupied by your presence. Seeing her involved in an activity is a good cue that it's time for you to go.
Don't chastise your toddler and say, "Nolan doesn't cry when his mom leaves." "Honoring your child's process is the best way to make the transition to preschool as smooth as possible," Green says. Don't worry -- eventually your child will outgrow the separation anxiety. "The child who never cries when his parent leaves him may act out the scene over and over again during play to process his feelings. Another child may need to cry at every separation for a while in order to work through his feelings," Green says. "It's okay to keep leaving the child if he keeps crying," Green continues. "A complete and successful transition into school can take months, especially if there are family vacations or breaks from school, when children often regress, or if there are changes happening at home." But in all her years of teaching, Green hasn't encountered one student couldn't overcome his separation anxiety.
Once you've left your child, resist the temptation to go back and check on her, and don't phone the school every hour. "If you're always checking up on your child, you risk the reciprocity of your child checking' on you constantly," Dr. Walfish says. "It is extremely helpful for moms to develop a team approach with their child's teacher. This way, mom can feel safe and confident that her child will be well cared for when she is not there." Trust the teacher and trust yourself; have confidence that you made the best decision and chose the best preschool for your child.
Come up with a mantra such as, "This is best place for [your child's name]" or "Bringing [your child's name] here is the right decision" to remind you of why being apart is good for both you and your child. Then, keep repeating it as often as you need it! Kids can pick up on your mood, so if you're nervous and anxious when you drop your child off, he will likely take on your attitude. Remain calm and be upbeat, even if you don't feel 100 percent cheerful. But if your little one does pick up on your worries, just continue to provide him with reassurance. "Remind him that you will always return and that there are people at school to keep him safe," Green says. Always remember that starting preschool is a positive step for both you and your little pupil.