The first Day of of School Dealing with Preschool Separation Anxiety

It is the first (or second or third!) day of preschool. As a preschool director, I patrol the doorways, greeting new arrivals and projecting what I hope is a happy, excited attitude about the beginning of a new school year! I see quivering lips, tears in the eyes, arms reaching for one more hug as our new little students line up to follow their teacher to the classroom. I offer the box of tissues in my hand to the anxious parents attached to these lips, eyes and arms, assuring them that we will call if they are needed before pick-up time!

The first few days of preschool can be an anxious time for both parents and students. There is really no magic formula for getting through it, but a few well-thought-out actions will help. Teachers often opt to follow the lead of the parents in this matter. Parents are their child’s first and best teacher, and know their child best. A parent knows if a display of emotion is genuine or not. Some children are truly distraught at the thought of being left in an unfamiliar place; others are masters at manipulating mom and dad.

Some parents elect to follow their child to the classroom and see that they are settled in, busy and smiling before making their exit. Other parents have a different attitude as they approach the door of the preschool: “Just peel him off of me and keep him!” Quite often a parent knows that their little ankle-biter will have a temporary outburst of emotion, but settle down once mom or dad is out of sight. Many parents will ‘hang out’ in or near the building until they are sure that the crying they hear is not coming from their child. A few parents will call the school office from the parking lot to see if they are needed.

What can parents do to help a child who might suffer from separation anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:

1. If possible, visit the preschool with your child a few times before that first day. Arrange to meet the teacher at least once.

2. Point out the preschool as you drive by on other errands: “Look! There is your new school! You get to go meet your new friends in just a few days!”

3. Allow your child to take a ‘security’ item with them from home: a blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, book or toy. Preschool teachers understand this need and are patient with the children bringing items from home for the first several days of school. If the item becomes a distraction to other children, the teacher can suggest that the child put it on her desk for safe keeping, but still within view of the child. Or the item can be placed in your child’s backpack for a ‘rest’ and be taken out again at playtime.

5. Depending upon how you feel about ‘bribes,’ you can make a ‘deal’ with your child: “If we have NO TEARS today at preschool, we’ll have a cookies and milk party when you get home!”

6. Bring a family picture to preschool for your child to tape inside the lid of her pencil box.

7. Give your child a special item that reminds him of you. Example: the bracelet you are wearing, an item from your purse or the car. Assure him that you will be back to get him and the item.

What can a preschool staff do to help children during this transition time?

1. Plan to have extra people (ones you know and trust) in the building to help on the first days of school.

2. Plan to get the child involved as soon as they arrive at the door. Have interesting toys or books handy so that the children can immediately become engaged in activities.

3. Teachers can talk about the daily schedule or have a schedule chart on the wall. Showing and telling the children the daily schedule will help them to learn the sequence of events that will occur before mom or dad comes to pick them up.

4. Teachers can also be flexible and rearrange their day to help the situation. Perhaps it is better to engage in directed play in a play center or on the playground rather than try to sit in chairs in the classroom when a child is struggling.

5. Ask the child questions about his home, parents, siblings and pets. This will sometimes help them feel better.

6. Teachers can encourage the whole class to be ‘happy friends’ together, and everyone will get a sticker at dismissal time. Or if one child in particular is struggling, perhaps the teacher can encourage just that student with the promise of a surprise at the end of the day if he has a happy day.

Occasionally, a child will become very distraught after their parent has left the premises. A parent recently told me this story: When her daughter returned home from preschool, the mother asked, “What did you learn at school today?” The little girl answered, “I learned what happens if you cry too much!” “Oh? What does happen?” asked the curious mother. “You throw up!” answered her little girl, who had observed that response in a classmate earlier in the day!

Parents, be prepared to help with the process of acclimating your child to preschool. If necessary, plan to stay for a short time at the beginning of their school day. Explain to your child what to expect: “Johnny, I will walk with you to your classroom and help you hang up your coat and backpack. Then we will hug goodbye, and you will go sit down in your chair. I will be at the grocery store while you are at school. Then I will come and pick you up!”

If your child is one of the very few who will not settle down and stop crying, be prepared to spend time at the preschool with your child until he adjusts. Another idea is to return to the preschool early to see how the day is going. The preschool staff may call you and ask you to come console your distraught child. The staff cannot be expected to give your child special attention day after day. They will do their best for a reasonable amount of time. The teacher has several other children to attend to in the class, and one very upset child cannot be allowed to continually disrupt the class. At some point in time, it might be necessary to make a decision to withdraw your child from the school. Allowing your child to grow up and mature for several more months could make a big difference in his or her behavior.

Yes, the first few days of preschool can be anxiety-filled. However, the number of children who work themselves into an emotional frenzy is very small. The vast majority of the children adjust quickly. They bond with their teachers, make new friends easily and become immersed in the wonderful world of preschool.