Whether your little one is just starting preschool, making the transition to full-day kindergarten, or moving to a new school in the middle of the school year, back to school anxiety can cause significant stress for the entire family. From nightmares and tummy aches, to refusing to go to school and crying at school drop-off, separation anxiety and school can wreak havoc on every aspect of your child’s life, leaving you feeling helpless and desperate.
While a little bit of separation anxiety is expected the first week of school, relentless crying jags on the school playground are not for the faint of heart! The good news is that you are not alone. Back to school anxiety isn’t a new phenomenon, and thanks to the many parents who have fought before you, the internet is filled with all kinds of strategies to help parents deal with crying at school drop-off.
Here are 12 tips to help you and your little one deal with separation anxiety and school.
There are heaps of ways you can get a child excited about school. Take her shopping for a new backpack, lunch box, and school supplies, order customized labels for her gear, organize playdates with her classmates, have fun making back-to-school gifts for her new teacher, and plan a fun celebratory activity to do together after you pick her up on the first day. These distractions probably won’t keep your child from crying at school drop-off, but they will help distract her and make her feel less scared in the days and weeks leading up to the big day.
READ BOOKS TOGETHER
If you do a search online, you’ll find a ton of books designed to help lessen back to school anxiety in kids. Our favorite is The Kissing Hand, which came highly recommended by a friend whose son had a really rough time with separation anxiety and school. The book tells the story of a little raccoon named Chester who doesn’t want to go to school, and through a little family secret called ‘The Kissing Hand’, his mother finds a way to remind him of her love throughout the day. This book was a real hit with my daughter, and I recommend it to every parent who struggles with crying at school drop-off!
Back to school anxiety can sometimes stem from the unknown, particularly if your child is starting a new school or transitioning to kindergarten or elementary school and isn’t quite sure what to expect. If this sounds like your child, consider doing a few practice runs. While you won’t be able to get into her classroom before the first day, you can still run through your morning routine and drive to her school, and you may even be able to get into the playground so she can familiarize herself with her surroundings.
SPEND QUALITY TIME TOGETHER
Anxiety before school can happen for a lot of reasons, and if your child is particularly clingy after spending 2+ months lazing around at home with you during summer vacation, she may be feeling worried she won’t see you as much once the school year starts. Make it a point to pencil in some good old quality time in the days leading up to the first day of school, and create a plan together to ensure you have time to connect each day once school is underway.
RELATED: 25 SIMPLE WAYS TO SPEND QUALITY TIME WITH YOUR CHILD
This could be as simple as having an after school date at your local coffee shop every afternoon or picking out books to read together before bed each night. The point is to be very deliberate about this time so your child knows she will have your undivided attention every single day.
Mornings can be hectic at the best of times, and when you add a child who doesn’t want to go to school into the mix, it can be downright crazy. Unfortunately, very few of us understand the domino effect our actions and reactions can have on our children. When we’re rushed and short-tempered, we fail to give our kids our undivided attention at a time they so desperately need it. A much better strategy is to prepare the night before, set our alarm clocks 30+ minutes earlier, and do our best not to book appointments and meetings until at least an hour after school drop-off so we can focus on what really matters: our children.
CREATE A GOODBYE RITUAL
It’s no secret that children love consistency, and a great strategy to use to calm a child’s fears when she feels anxious about going to school is to create a goodbye ritual. This could be kissing her hand, like Mrs. Raccoon does to Chester in The Kissing Hand, creating a special handshake, listening to a favorite song in the car before saying goodbye, or sitting on the front steps of the school to talk for 5 minutes before the first bell rings. The point is to find a way to connect with your child and make her feel special before saying goodbye, and to have fun doing it!
KEEP IT SHORT
When it comes to school drop-off, everyone has their own opinion, but experience has consistently shown me that the more I linger at school drop-off, the worse it is. And every time I’ve read an article or spoken to another parent about back to school anxiety, the consensus seems to be the same: keep it short and sweet. Get down to your child’s level, complete your goodbye ritual, provide reassurances, remind her you will be back at the end of the day, and walk away. I know this sounds easier said than done, but remember that the sooner you leave, the sooner she will calm down. Teachers are very experienced with kids crying at school drop-off and have lots of tricks up their sleeves, so give them the benefit of the doubt.
As tempting as it is to linger on the playground or peak through your child’s classroom, it’s important to drop and leave, especially if your child struggles with back to school anxiety. The more your stick around, the harder it will be in the long-term to get her comfortable with school drop-off. Consider staggering drop-off with another parent and asking him/her to text you to let you know how your child is doing after you leave, and don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher to check in with you throughout the morning to let you know if she has calmed down.
PACK A COMFORT ITEM
While teachers don’t necessarily want children bringing toys from home, equipping your child with a comfort item she can keep in her bag for emergencies can be a great tool for handling school anxiety in children. Simply knowing the item is on hand can oftentimes be enough, and if your child gets really upset, you can rest assured her teacher will have a tool to calm her.
As difficult as it is to see our children crying at school drop-off, and as desperately as we want to gather them into our arms and take them home the moment back to school anxiety kicks in, it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. Children feed off of our emotions, so even if you’re feeling stressed and anxious (or tired and irritable!), maintaining a positive attitude is key to a smooth school drop-off. Smile, offer encouragement, and even if you’re late for an important meeting with your boss, keep your emotions in check.
CONSIDER AN ALTERNATE SCHEDULE
If your child is feeling really anxious about the first day of school, talk to her teacher about an alternative schedule while she settles in. For preschool kids, this could mean starting with a 30-minute session on the first day and then gradually increasing your child’s time at school in 30-minute increments over the course of a week or two while she gets comfortable with her surroundings. For older kids, the promise of a half-day on the first day of school followed by a lunch date with mom and/or dad might be all it takes to ease into a new routine.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
If your child is really struggling with separation anxiety and school, and none of the tactics above are working, it’s time to get creative. Talk to your child about her specific fears and see if you can work together to find ways to make things easier. Organize playdates with her new classmates so she creates friendships and feels more comfortable at school, consider picking her up for lunch to break up the day, and don’t be opposed to moving her to a new school if you suspect a deeper problem like bullying is making her unhappy.
If your child is debilitated by back to school anxiety and you’re worried she’ll be crying at school drop-off until she starts high school, remember that this is probably just a phase she’ll eventually grow out of. Your responsibility as a parent is to be patient, loving, and reassuring while finding ways to make the transition easier for her, and if none of these strategies work, I urge you to speak with a professional to determine if her anxiety is more serious and if further intervention would be beneficial.
‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.’
-Winnie the Pooh
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