Coming out of the last several years has created quite a few ripple effects in our world as we know it. As early childhood educators and parents, one area that is notably on our minds is supporting families whose children are reluctant and resistant to separate from home to attend school.
While each new school year brings a wave of separation unease for some children, this year we are seeing a more prevalent theme that is lasting longer than usual. Many children are nervous, unsure, sad, and even scared to separate at drop-off. At the same time, many parents and caregivers are also nervous, unsure, sad and even scared at drop-off.
So, what to do if your child continues to be hesitant or tearful at drop-off well into the school year?
How Much Talk
Many times there are patterns around when young children are particularly uneasy. For example, consider a child who is resistant to the dentist. Over-preparing with talk and information can backfire, causing more worry and unease. Instead, keep the information on a “need-to-know” basis by giving them information as they need it and when it benefits them. Consider if there is too much talk about school, separation and expectations. Sometimes, less is more in helping a child through a challenging phase.
Make a Plan
It’s important to have a plan of how you’ll handle an emotional goodbye. As teachers, we’ve seen such a wide range of how children can react in the moment; clinging, crying, hiding and even physically resisting coming to school. In those instances, drop-off can feel like a full-contact sport, complete with sweating, hearts pounding, flushed faces, being disheveled and even becoming emotional ourselves. Think through what’s realistic for you, your child and your school setting. Call in the teachers who will be a part of the process to develop a reasonable plan. Be open to ideas and strategies, even those that seem new to you. Sometimes another person’s perspective can help shape a supportive plan. You know your child and teachers know child development and their program. Together you can make a plan that will very likely benefit everyone.
As best you can, keep evening and morning routines at home consistent. When children know what to expect and the routine is reliable, they are better prepared to face the bumps along the way. That means sticking with what you said would happen. Even if there are tears and intense emotions, acknowledging their feelings while also calmly explaining the routine will help your child know that you are in charge and you know they will be ok. When we react in the moment to children’s high emotions, it can send a signal that we, too, are unsure and worried. That can increase children’s stress and unease around separation.
Try for a Quick Goodbye
There is no doubt that when we remain calm and consistent, our children will be able to more easily tap into their own calming strategies when they need them. By reassuring them that school is a great place to be, we can give a quick goodbye and remind them that we will see them later. The more we prolong our goodbye, the harder it can be for our children to move past the discomfort of separating. By and large, most children settle down relatively quickly once in their school setting. Try to put on a brave, calm face, parents. Of course, reach out to your friend, village, partner once the drop-off is complete. It’s not easy! Nervous after an emotional goodbye? Email the teacher or director/office to check in on how your child is doing. Lingering or staying nearby is not ideal. Instead partner with the school to hear about how things are going after drop-off.
Trust Your Gut
With all of this said, if your child continues to be upset, despite your efforts to reassure and the school’s support, it is always a good idea to look deeper to determine what is at work. Some children do have generalized anxiety around separating, even at a young age. Others may be sending you a message about something else such as physical or emotional needs that may require additional support from a pediatrician, occupational therapist or psychologist. If your gut says something is off, trust it and look for answers with an open mind. Let’s also remember that on occasion, it is the grown-ups that can change behaviors and focus on wellness in order to best support our little ones. These are not easy times. When in doubt, reach out and seek out support.
Amy Mockbee & Emily Boucher
Founders, Work & Play ECC