Separation Anxiety and the First Few Weeks of School

Andrea Evans
August 22, 2016

Is your child heading off to preschool for the first time this fall? Are you worried that she will cling to you for dear life and refuse to enter the classroom?

Some children waltz into the new classroom, wave goodbye to their parents, and then get to the "work" of preschool without so much as batting an eye in their parents' direction. Many others, however, experience separation anxiety. That anxiety is only natural—children are breaking away from the comforts of their home and parents for the first time and learning how to navigate an entirely new social situation. Though natural, it can be heart-wrenching for parents who are forced to listen to their kids' pleas or cries not to be left at school. Getting over those first few weeks can be tough for children AND parents. Here are some of our best tips for easing the transition to preschool:

Before School Starts

The First Day of School

1.First and perhaps most importantly - Don't wait until the first day of school to talk to your child about starting school. It is best to give your child a week (or more) to get comfortable with the idea that she is about to embark upon a new experience.

1.Leave yourself a lot of time to get ready and to get to school. Be sure to build an extra "toddler" cushion that allows for relaxed breakfast eating and dressing. This is not the day to get into a power struggle over the Dora versus Mickey Mouse cup. Let your child have her way this morning and try to avoid typical toddler confrontations.

2.Know and describe what a "typical day in the life" looks like. If your school does not have a pre-entry meeting with parents or children, call the school to find out what a "typical day in the life" looks like, and talk through concretely with your child what they will be do during day to build a sense of excitement and to lessen anxiety.

2.Pack a little "lovie" and a picture of your family. Put something in his/her backpack that is a comfort item from home (stuffed animal, favorite car, etc.) and let the preschool teacher know that it is in there should tears appear

3.Read books that explore going to school. There are some wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated books that help your little one understand that school is a natural process and that even though Mommy or Daddy may not be there, their love still is. One of our favorites is The Kissing Hand

3.Smile. Your child is really keying off of your emotions. It is extremely important for your child to see you being warm and welcoming to her new teacher(s). Again, if you seem to trust the teacher your child is more likely to as well.

4.Talk about being apart, but even more importantly talk explicitly about coming back. Much of separation anxiety stems not from your departure but your child's fear that you might not return. It is very helpful if you are able to tell a child exactly when in the day you will return (e.g. after circle time, just after lunch, etc.).

Still battling tears after a few weeks? Some children take to preschool like a fish to water without as much as a wave goodbye to parents. Most others take a lot longer, some up to a month. This time can be very, very trying for parents. Here are some tips to help you navigate the first month if your child continues to seem to have difficulty and to assess your concern that you've chosen the right school.

Persevere. The most important thing to remember is that you need to persevere. Separation is a very important developmental milestone for your child and, to be perfectly honest, for you as a parent as well. While it will tug at your heartstrings to drop him off those first couple of weeks, especially if tears are involved, just remember it is in both of your best interests.

Make play dates. If your child seems to be struggling to fit in or is perhaps a little more shy than his/her classmates, try creating a one-on-one environment outside of school where there are fewer distractions and it is less intimidating—at your home, for example. After a play date, when your child sees the classmate in school, there could be a direct association with home, which can help with separation anxiety.

Watch which adults/children your child connects with. If there are multiple teachers at drop-off, listen to whom your child really seems to talk about at the end of the day and try to do the drop-offs in the morning with that teacher. Also, talk about the children and teachers that your child seems to gravitate to on the way to preschool. If your child doesn't talk about other children or teachers, don't hesitate to ask the teacher at pick-up what interests/children your child seems to have to help you with those morning "pep talk" rides to preschool.

If after a month, your child still is having difficulty, reassess. Ask yourself whether the type of school/approach is the right one for your child and /or whether the chemistry with those particular teachers and particular students works. We have seen so many parents just bent on getting their child into "the" school they believe to be right for their child only to have that assumption turned on its head the first few weeks of school. While a school might have a phenomenal reputation, and in fact be a wonderful place for many children, it might not be the right one for your child. A child's reality is in fact a very small universe: a particular classroom with a particular set of children and a particular teacher(s). The chemistry, despite all of your amazing research as a parent before making the decision you did, just may not be right.

From the Parents

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