Jodi* was nervous the day that her 4-year-old daughter started school at a Scarsdale preschool. A week before, she’d taken her child to meet her teachers and see the bright and cheery classroom. On the first day, she helped her daughter hang up her coat and re-introduced her to the teachers and shelves of new toys. But when Jodi tried to say goodbye, her daughter had a meltdown.
“That mother stayed in the classroom until the end of October,” says Sue Ugliarolo, curriculum director at Scarsdale Friends Preschool, a Quaker-based program in Scarsdale for kids ages 2 to 4. “The other kids in the classroom were asking why their mom wasn’t there, so we told them that she was a teacher’s helper. That little girl stayed close to her mother in the classroom for a long time.”
Starting preschool is challenging, in part, because it’s the first time that children are leaving the protective cocoon of their parents or caregivers. Children and parents often share feelings of separation anxiety. After days and months spent in each other’s company, it can be particularly difficult to say goodbye, even if it’s only for two hours a few days a week. “It’s a huge developmental milestone,” says Ugliarolo. “Separation is something you’ll go through your entire life, and it takes time and preparation.”
We asked Ugliarolo to tell us what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to easing a child’s separation anxiety. Her first tip: Take a child’s anxiety seriously. Says Ugliarolo: “Separation is a really big deal.”
Set a Classroom Routine
Ugliarolo has found that it helps children if you develop a set of classroom rituals, a set of actions that you do every single time you come to school. Maybe you come in, help him hang up his or her coat, sign in, read one book together and then high-five goodbye. “Establish it and do it every day,” she says. “It will make them feel comfortable and prepare them for the moment when you’re going to leave.”
Discuss a Transition Plan With Teachers
Ugliarolo often tells parents to think about their child’s disposition. Parents know their kids better than anyone. If you suspect that your little one may have a challenging time at the first few drop-offs, Ugliarolo suggests speaking with his or her teachers beforehand. Then you and the teachers can come up with a transition plan. For example, tell the teacher if your child often cries right when you leave him, but bounces back a few minutes afterward. Then the teachers will better know how to handle your child’s teary outburst.
And What If Your Kid is the Bawler?
Don’t sweat it. “Think of separation as a process,” says Ugliarolo. “It takes time.” In other words, it would be kinda strange if your 2-year-old just waved goodbye when you walked out the door. If your child is really struggling, consider a baby steps plan: You stand by the door on the first day. On the second, you stand outside the door. On the third, you say goodbye and walk out.
Don’t Ask to Leave
Ugliarolo says the most common mistake parents make is asking to leave. Think: You’ve walked your child in to preschool. You got them settled at the sand table. Then you ask: “Can mommy go now?” Ugliarolo says that it’s better to speak in affirmative sentences. “I can see you’re having fun with playdough. Mommy is going to leave now and do some shopping.”
Saying Goodbye is a Must
There’s no slipping off, says Ugliarolo. It may have the opposite effect of what you intended. Saying goodbye builds trust, and it’s important that your child knows you’re not going to just vanish on them when they get to school. Pickup is just as important. Make sure you’re on time or a bit early. If they’re waiting for you too long, it may start a negative association with school.
Talk About Actions, Not Emotions
When talking about preschool, some well meaning parents may add to feelings of anxiety in their children. When it comes to the preschool set, less is more. Teachers send home communication home just so you don’t have to drill your kids at pick-up. Ugliarolo suggests talking about specific tasks at school (like what song they sang in music) over emotional questions like: Did you play with anyone today? Did you make any friends? “Those are all anxiety inducing questions,” says Ugliarolo. “Really, those are our anxieties more than the child’s.”
Keep Mornings Calm
Allow enough time to get out of the house before school. If you’re rushing around trying to get your child to eat breakfast and get dressed and then you load him in the car and forget his backpack, he’s probably feeling as frazzled as you are. “This can create anxiety in children,” she says.
*Jodi’s name has been changed out of respect for her privacy.