Separation Anxiety the first School Experience

The American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic Guidebook, DSM-1V, describes Separation Anxiety as stress that children experience when their parents temporarily leave them. Those who experience this stress related insecurity may be afraid that they will not survive if the parent is not close by to take care of them. A child may become reluctant to attend school, visit friends or play alone, due to this apprehension.

Separation anxiety which is present more often in girls than boys is a phase that normally occurs in babies and toddlers. It begins between the ages of 6-9 months old, peaks around age 2, and begins to decline until age 3. However this is not always the case as it continues to afflict 4 percent of children, beyond this stage. This behavior may coincide with difficult family conflict or change, as this anxiety is more likely reoccur in response to such environmental changes and stressors as a loss or the birth of a new baby. This is particularly apt to occur if it was present beforehand.

Most often separation usually takes shape at the beginning of a new school year, when the parents leave. Undoubtedly one of the most challenging mile stones of both toddlers and parents alike is the first day of school. This may include going back to school or beginning pre-school. Children with separation anxiety are frightened to leave home, due to fears, questions and concerns such as, “Will I be liked and accepted, or will kids be mean to me in school? Will I be good enough? Will I say something stupid and have all the kids laugh at me? Will I know my way around?”

A distinction must be made between separation anxiety and school phobia as they are not the same. Usually children with a school phobia have been bullied or abused in some way at school. However those with separation anxiety are usually not afraid that teachers or students might harm them.

A child’s initial experience at school must help the child feel secure in that environment. It is these first experiences within a structured educational setting that will shape their perception of school. This view will hopefully foster a lifelong love of school and learning, enabling them to flourish.

Megan & Pat’s First Week of School

Pat, the mother of three year old Megan had informed me that if Megan cried that she just would not send her to school any more. I managed to persuade Pat to at least give it a fair try. One thing was for sure though. Pat was not leaving until Megan was content with the idea of going to school. Both Megan and Pat immensely enjoyed their first week of school. However any suggestion that Pat might actually leave sent Megan into a wild fury. At least she was coming to school. The question remained, would Pat graduate along with her in June? The turning point arose when Megan went over to comfort another child who was whimpering. Megan gently placed her little arm around Emily’s shoulder. She softly said, “Don’t worry, mommy always comes back.” At that point Pat stood up abruptly and shouted “and here I am sitting here like an idiot” She promptly rushed over and swept up Megan. Pat handed Megan to me as she did up her coat. “I want you to take her” she replied. “Are you sure” I answered, before I could realize that Megan in her rage had ripped my shirt. “Yes” answered Pat rushing off without looking back, probably for fear of turning back. Megan did calm down after about a half hour. She did make it through that day, and eventually through the entire next two years, turning out to be my prize pupil.

 Emily Takes Off

Emily’s first day of school proved to be pretty turbulent as well. I remember well her clenched fist, madly shaking at the window as Emily’s parents drove off. While we were having our snack, the silhouette of this angry and naked two year old emerged from behind the wall. It was Emily. Upon spotting the open door, out she flew. I chased this nude child down the corridor, of the synagogue, all the while services were going on, pigged tails and arms waving frantically. I desperately tried to catch up with her as quickly as possible, since I had four others waiting alone for me back in the nursery room, doing who knows what. I finally made it back to the room with Emily, panting, out of breath. Emily was struggling to get away in my arms. Megan’s eyes were glaring at us, bulging out with fear. Perhaps she thought I was leaving as well, when I went pouncing after Emily. I looked over to her and said calmly, “Don’t worry Megan.” Barbara has everything under control. However I had no clue how I was going to keep Emily from running away. Perhaps I would need to tape the door shut or tie it down with some rope. Did I have any rope? I didn’t know. I began to struggle to contain this squirming little figure, still determined to head home. We were now both on the floor. I finally lost this battle and Emily made it to the door once again. I noticed to my relief that she was about half an inch too short to reach the knob. Emily just stood there beside the door hopping up and down frantically. Emily turned out to love school. The only issue that her mom found to be troublesome, aside from her constant nudity, was her conversations with total strangers, whom she approached. Whenever they were out, she would walk right up to them and reply “mummy leaves me.

 The Invisible Mom

A final story which I have to re- account does not end successfully like the others. It is that of the invisible mom. She lurked outside of the classroom door the first day of school. Her head pierced through the window on occasion. As soon as her son caught a glimpse of her she immediately ducked down. I wondered if Adam felt that she was hiding from him. Each time Claire, his mom’s profile reappeared in the glass, Adam would begin to howl. It was not enough that she had left him on the inside of this room. She had to prolong the torture by playing this game of disappearing and then reappearing, when she mistakenly felt he was no longer aware. At this point we were on our way to the washroom as a group, which was down the hall. Upon seeing us coming Claire quickly flattened herself out against the wall. Did she think that she would be able to make herself invisible? Adam was hysterical; not blind. Upon spotting his mom a then calm Adam began to shriek. At this point his mother scooped him up. “I don’t think he is ready for this” she said. I don’t think Claire was ready for separating from Adam. I never saw either of them again.

Helpful Suggestions

To avoid such an unfortunate mishap here are some helpful hints for a child’s first school experience. It is possible for all caring dedicated professionals to help ease this transition for everyone involved.

It is perfectly common for children to experience some form of separation anxiety and tears during any trying period, or brand new experience. How quickly this anxiety passes depends on the child’s past experience with caregivers, the skill of the new caregiver, and the appropriateness of the new setting. Accept that a temporary period of adjustment is usually necessary and that is ok to be sad. However they will get through it. Most children are flexible, resilient, and can readily adapt to new situations quickly. Furthermore teachers and administrators have witnessed many first day of schools, and therefore know what they are doing when it comes to distressed first time students. Most have enough experience to be trusted to promote a sense of belonging and quickly get all children into routines. Parent’s separation anxiety, along with their feelings of guilt and worry, are normal. Be reassured yourself that the challenge of adapting to a new environment is one of those life experiences that will help the child to grow and develop. If you block the separation, you end up fostering excessive dependency. Remind yourself that your goal is to raise a happy, independent child. If parents are overly anxious or worried about the child being left alone, this anxiety will be transferred to their children. If the parent feels insecure about leaving the child, the child will no doubt pick up on this emotion. They will fear the parent’s anxiety regarding leaving them, making the separation all the more difficult. Children often use their parents as a bridge for developing a relationship of trust with a new adult. If the child sees that the parent has a calm attitude, and is comfortable with the caregiver they are more likely to feel this reassurance as well. Talk up the exciting side of going to school, such as being big enough to handle this new challenge, learning new things, and making new friends as information assists in preparing children for what ever is to come. Predictability is extremely important in a young child’s life as is the goal to try to put a positive spin on everything. A parent once taught me an extremely comforting line. “The teacher is like mummy, when mummy is away. If you need something then you can ask her. She is there to make school a safe place for you.

Talk to the teacher about your child before the start of the program. Feel in the people who will be working with your child on the child’s fears, likes, dislikes, habits and anything else that you feel will help a caregiver understand the child. This information will assist in preparing teachers for the child’s arrival.

If a child demonstrates obvious signs of distress, when the school year begins, bring the child to visit the program prior to attending it. Many programs do have a meet and greet week to familiarize them with the school setting, along with the staff. It further serves an excellent means of allowing the teacher to get to know the child before they actually start school.

Information can be provided by talking to children a about school before their first day. Ensure they understand that they will be staying at school without the parent. Many parents falsely assume that this is understood by the child. Such phases as “School is for little people. Those chairs are too big for mummy”, may help to explain this concept. Assure the child that either you or someone else will be back at the end of their school day in order to pick them up. Validate the child’s feelings by reminding them that sometimes it feels sad when mummy leaves and its ok to miss her.

Bibliotherapy or the use of literature may prove to be useful as well as a spring board for discussion of the child’s fears and concerns. Read and discuss stories about the first day of school such as Barney and Baby Bop go to school by Mark Berthal along with many others included in the wide range of stories related to this topic.

Role playing is another effective tool which can be used as a means of transition for a child who may be a bit shy. Dramatize various situations, such as introducing ones self, saying hello to a strange child, or asking the teacher, or assistants for help. Playing other games such as “Hide and Go Seek and Peek a Boo”, in which the parent disappears briefly and then reappears, helps the very young child to understand that when you leave you will always come back.

A gradual separation can involve a parent leaving for shorter periods of time and gradually increasing these visits to assist the child in adjusting to this new change. There are three phases of separation; the first consisting of the attachment phase in which the child clings to the parent or guardian. At this point they are certainly not ready to be left on their own. The parent should sit on a big chair at the back of the class, and attempt to gently encourage the child to participate. However the parent should refrain from participating themselves. If the child wishes to partake in the activity they must do so on their own, in effort to move them on to the next stage.

In the observation stage the child may become board by not engaging in any activity. Or they may become distracted by actually discovering that there are interesting things happening around him. Consequently they may wander away from the parent, check out the room, and explore what is going on. The child at this stage may watch the other children, yet not actually participate or initiate communication with them.

The involvement or engagement phase constitutes the final part of this process. Finally the child may actually take an activity out and begin to work on it. Or they may begin to interact with the other children in the group. This is the involvement stage, in which the child is ready to be left on his own.

A leaving ritual is often helpful as well. Create a short goodbye ritual and use it every time. Avoid sneaking out while the child is distracted, as this only enhances anxiety when you disappear. The parent should go over and tell the child that they are leaving, once the child is ready for this, before they actually go. When it is time to leave at this point the parent should actually leave as opposed to dawdle. Some crying is expected. But chances are that the child will calm down sooner than later. The longer you hang onto the child the longer they will cry and cling. Once you leave, don’t go back as it may provoke more tears. By coming back each time the child’s cries are heard, this will only serve to tease the child by prolonging the agony. It also sends the message that if I scream loud enough then mummy will come back. Rather calm behavior should be reinforced.

I discovered a technique which has been helpful in the past consisting of reinforcing calmness. This involves offering to pick the child up, so long as they are calm. Teaching children calming techniques as taking a deep breath may be helpful as well in making the child feel more in control. Many other anxiety management techniques outlined in the section on stress and anger management may prove to be useful.

Transition Objects can greatly ease this separation as well. Pack a photograph of the family pet or members of their family in the anxious child’s school bag. One parent packed a little tape recorded message saying “Mommy and daddy love you Jonah. Have a great day at school”. If the child is experiencing a difficult time they may wish to bring a favorite blanket or Teddy Bear to school, which helps them to feel safe. Teddy bears have big ears for listening. They are warm and soft, and great for hugging. It is something that the child can turn to with difficult feeling that they are not sure how to handle. Some people are of the opinion that they do not want their children to get attached to certain articles. However if it eases the child’s transition into school, I feel that it serves an excellent purpose.

Any strategy which ensures that the child’s needs for security and acceptance are met would be considered perfectly acceptable.Most importantly it is essential to remember that separation issues require persistence and patience. Take comfort in knowing that crying usually prevails for less time, each visit provided another school phobia does not occur as an outcome of feeling intimidated by the school environment. A securely attached child, one in which there is little processing of overt conflict, will overcome their separation anxiety in due time. Eventually they will separate with ease graciously welcoming the parent, and usually rejoicing upon their return.