Tips for parents to minimize school separation anxiety for kids
The very first day of school--kindergarten, preschool or even day care--is a milestone for children and parents. It's a huge step towards independence for kids as they enter a new stage of learning and socialization--without the comfort of their parents by their side. And for parents, it can be overwhelmingly emotional to see their baby go out into the world. Which is why the day can bring a lot of tears--for kids and parents alike. But there are some simple steps parents can take to make goodbyes go smoothly. Lisa Hoang, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, offers the following suggestions:
- Lay the groundwork in advance. If there's still time before school starts, parents should take their children to their new campus and, if possible, their classroom. "Let them get familiar with the school, so the new surroundings won't seem as scary on the first day," Dr. Hoang says. "Some schools offer get-togethers right before school starts, so students can meet the other kids who will be in their class. If families can't visit the school beforehand, parents can talk about school and what the child can expect. There are also picture books about overcoming first-day-of-school jitters parents can read to their child. The books are a good way to open up discussion with the child about any scary emotions they may be experiencing about their new school. Any preparation can help the child not be as intimidated when it's time to go to school."
- Get the child excited about school. Have the child help shop for new school clothes or supplies. Let them pick out what they will wear. Talk about all the fun things that they may do when they are at school. “Kids will feel less anxious about school when they are looking forward to it and are a part of preparing for it,” Dr. Hoang says.
- Plan a morning routine. As the first day draws near, parents should start implementing a morning schedule. "Putting this routine into place a few days before school can give the actual first day an air of familiarity, which can put the child at ease," Dr. Hoang says. "It will also help the parent gauge how much time will be needed to get dressed, eat breakfast, and get out the door. Parents don't want the stress of feeling rushed to heighten any anxiety for them or the child."
- Create a super-special "goodbye" just for them. A hug and kiss is fine, but sometimes a little something extra can help both parents and child separate without too many tears. "Humor is always good to lighten the mood, whether it's telling a funny joke or a silly handshake," Dr. Hoang says. "Some parents whisper a word of an encouragement or let the child listen to a favorite song on the drive to school. Anything that creates feelings of security and love is good."
- Make a graceful exit. You've arrived at the classroom on the first day, introduced your child to the teacher and found her desk or cubby. As much as you'd like to stay, it's best not to linger. "Usually, teachers will keep an eye out for children who need help separating from mom or dad, and can redirect them to other activities so they can start acclimating to the classroom environment," Dr. Hoang says. "Parents can take this opportunity for a last hug and goodbye, and at that point they should leave the room without much fuss. Dragging out the goodbye just makes it tougher for everyone."
- Give the child a little something to hang onto. Parents who anticipate that their children may have some tears during the day can give them a trinket as a remembrance of mom and dad. "Write a note for their lunch box, draw a little heart or smiley face on the palm of their hand, or tuck a picture into their backpack--something small but meaningful they can draw strength from if their nerves get the best of them," Dr. Hoang says.
- Plan something special for after school. "It can be a trip to the library for new books or an ice cream outing--the promise of doing something fun may help the children separate more easily from the parent at school, knowing they have something to look forward to at the end of the day," Dr. Hoang says. "And it can be a comfort to a parent, too. Make sure whatever the plan is, it includes a lot of time to ask the child about their day."
Dr. Hoang adds that it's normal for young children to experience some nerves when going to school for the first time. However, if after a few days or so the parent notices anything that seems out of the ordinary--such as a deep fear of leaving the house, explosive tantrums or physical ailments such as a stomachache or headache--it could be a sign of a deeper issue that may require a consultation with the child's pediatrician.