Tips and strategies to overcome preschool separation anxiety

The first day – or week – at a new preschool can be a time for tears, joy and anxiety. A preschooler’s anxiety can be nerve-racking for both the teacher and parent, not to mention the child. Remember that a child’s anxiety will lessen when they understand that their needs will be met. Here are some strategies that will help a child to understand that they have nothing to worry about.

Teachers need to have an area set up in the classroom where upset parents and the student can sit comfortably. This can be a small table near the entrance. This will allow the teacher to begin the day while the parent has somewhere to sit. Keep puzzles and books that the parent can use to attract a child’s attention. Teachers can get the other students working on arrival activities and then return to the upset parent and child. Keep a parent-friendly article handy, which will inform and encourage a parent about preschoolers’ anxiety.

Teachers can invite the parents to stay for a brief period to help calm the child. There are some parents and teachers who will just “cold turkey” cut off parents from their children, allow the tantrum and deal with things this way. This can be upsetting to all involved. This also upsets the other students, who may just be on the verge of crumbling with their own anxiety.

Keep in mind that parents don’t always understand that their child’s behavior is normal. Invite the parent to come in early or to remain after dismissal to talk about their child and the behavior. A private talk will allow the parent to gain some tips without having a screaming child to distract them. Remind them to talk to their child in a calmer moment about school and explain the school routine to the child. Give a copy of the school routine to the parent. That way, a parent can remind the child that they will return after nap and outdoor playtime.

Teachers can give the parent the option of starting slow. If the parent is able, they can explain calmly to the child that they will be leaving for a short while and that the parent will return in an hour. Meanwhile, the teacher is encouraging the child to join in the arrival activities. Although the child may still cry, he can be assured that the parent will be returning soon. Each day, the parent will be encouraged to return a little later than the previous day. This will help the child learn part of the classroom routine, but in short increments.

Having a pictorial “schedule” is another effective strategy. Preschool children can’t tell time, but they are comforted when knowing the order of their day. Using a large board, post in simple phrases and pictures the class schedule. For example, draw a circle for circle time, an apple or lunch box for lunch time.

Keep it simple and include everyday events such as arrival, circle time, outdoor time, lunchtime, restroom time, nap time and departure. Keep this posted at the child’s level and make sure to point at the board when a child asks, “When is lunch?” Soon, the children will learn the routine by looking at the pictures.

Including these strategies at the beginning and throughout your year will help ease the anxiety for parents and their child. Keep in mind that all children are different and that one strategy will work for one, but not for another. But the common element for all children is that they want to know their needs will be met. Once a child is confident that their needs will be met, then they are better able to cope with the separation anxiety when it hits.