There’s crying, there’s clinging, sometimes there’s screeching.
There are definitely looks of terror—and not only from your child but from the teacher and other parents too.
If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about: separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is when children become scared and anxious when put into new situations and they’re away from their parents or caregivers. Most babies go through this phase as a part of normal development and it’s common for children to develop these anxieties again, as they venture off into programs unaccompanied by a parent or caregiver.
Both my children experienced separation anxiety with their first drop-off program at preschool and there were tears (from them and me.) Those first few days (ok it may have been months) my daughter would hold onto my neck, with all her three-year-old strength and cry, all while I tried to maintain my cool and simultaneously build up excitement about this amazing new place I was about to leave her at. When the teacher finally did take her from me and I could still hear her crying as the classroom door shut, my tears started flowing too.
Fast forward 8 years and now I’m the preschool teacher and I’m the one trying to pry the children off their parents. Easier? Yes. Heart-wrenching? Absolutely! Over the years though, I’ve developed strategies that I feel ease the transition when doing a drop-off, and as a parent and preschool teacher, I wanted to share these tips with you.
1) Show your child their new school.
If possible drive or walk by the school multiple times before the first day and talk to your child with excitement about going to school.
2) Meet the teacher.
Please meet the teacher either with or without, your child. Most programs will have an open house or orientation prior to starting when parents can meet teachers. If your child is coming with you, try to go at a time when they are rested and fed and in as good a frame of mind as possible. You want any interactions with the school to be positive. Meet the teacher and investigate the class together with your child. Tell the teacher a few quick, key facts about your child such as their interests and if they know any other kids in the class. Keep the visit short and sweet.
3) Take a picture of the teacher and classroom.
This is great for sparking conversation about their new school/program. It will help you both remember what the teacher’s name is and will be useful for talking about what the role of the teacher is. Also, take pictures of the classroom and the toys and then talk about what they are most looking forward to playing with.
4) Send your child with a picture of their family.
This is something I ask the parents in my class to do. Sometimes an upset child just needs to see a picture of their family to calm down and feel reassured. It also gives the teacher and your child something to talk about. Your child can tell the teacher the name of the family dog, or how many siblings they have. This changes the upset child’s focus and for a few minutes, they are thinking about something other than being dropped off.
5) Pick your battles on the first day of school/program.
Remember that your child can smell your fear. If you’re anxious on the first morning of drop off it will show and your little one will pick up on this. Try to keep the morning routine as stress-free as possible, and pick your battles. Today is not the day to fret over the fact they don’t want to wear the outfit you had planned.
6) Make it short and sweet.
Your child’s first time being dropped off without you should not be for a full day. You want it to be short and gradually get longer as they adjust to being away from their parent/caregiver. Most schools or childcare centers will start with an hour and work their way up to the full time of the program according to how the child is adjusting. Ask the director or teacher to keep you posted on how your child is doing. Most kids do settle and get involved in an activity at least for a few minutes. This is a great time to pick up your child, as you want the experience to be as positive as possible.
7) Consistency is key.
Children who attend a drop off program everyday adjust faster than those that go every other day or even 2 x a week. That being said, this option doesn’t work for all families. If your child is having a hard time adjusting, talk to the program director about your child attending the program daily until they adjust. In the beginning, it is a good idea to have the child go every day to the drop-off program even if it is for 20 minutes. This will allow them to adjust to the idea that you or the caregiver will be leaving them but that you will be coming back. As a preschool teacher, this is the most effective way I have found to combat separation anxiety.
8) Have a goodbye routine with your child.
Remind them that (insert name of the person picking them up) will always come back. Make a plan for what they are going to do at school “Are you going to play blocks today or drive the cars?” Suggest they draw you a picture or even send them with a favorite book from home to read with the teacher.
9) Do not linger.
Walk your child in, give them a hug and a kiss and say goodbye with a reminder that you will always come back and then go! This is very important even if your child is hysterical. Teachers are taught to deal with these emotions and know how to handle these situations. If you hesitate and go back for one more hug or one more kiss you are showing your child you don’t have confidence that they will be ok. Your child will be ok! You know it, the teacher knows it and soon enough they will know it.
10) Always say Goodbye.
It is very important to say goodbye to your child. I cannot reiterate this enough! It is never ok to just go and hope they won’t notice. Your child needs to be reassured that you will be coming back and they need to hear the words “Bye, I love you”.
Dropping off an unhappy child at a program for the first time is one of the hardest things you will do as a parent but it is also one of the best things you can do for your child, as it teaches them confidence, independence and exposes them to early learning.
Have faith, keep calm, and know that June comes in the blink of an eye. By then, your child will be a whole new person.
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