Coping With Anxiety Around Starting School

Summer’s end is nearing! Both you and your kids may be anticipating a new school year, with new teachers and classrooms, or perhaps starting school for the very first time.

The transition to preschool can be filled with excitement and challenge. This new adventure brings opportunity for wonder, investigation, exploration, and discovery; it brings new friendships and other meaningful relationships that will be a large part of your child’s learning.

But along with all of these wonderful opportunities for growth, comes the challenge of transition and separation. Separating from a parent is a part of healthy development, but is often accompanied with tears and anxiety. As a parent, you must trust that the tears are not indicative of whether your child is ready to separate, but simply a result of the unknown being uncomfortable. You have been your child’s secure-base for his whole life, the loving figure that he could always count on to help him feel calm. This transition to new surroundings, relationships, and limits is an adjustment that might take some time.

The good news is that there is a lot we can do as parents to ease the transition. Preparing yourself to both tolerate and validate your child’s emotions, knowing this is part of the experience he must go through, and then anchoring your child in what he can control is essential. There is so much in your child’s life that is not in his control, and yet he is driven to be autonomous and independent.

Here are some helpful tips that will give your child the control that helps him move through this challenge:

  • The separation process begins at the car. It is important that you do not carry your child into school, as it will make the goodbye more difficult. To access his own independence (and make the transition smoother) have your child carry his own lunchbox and walk instead of being carried.
  • Connect your child to the environment and teachers. When you walk into school, it is time to shift from directly engaging with your child to engaging him in what is offered at school. For example say, “Wow, look at the choices for today!” or “Let’s show Jessica what you found!”
  • Develop a goodbye routine. This helps your child know what to expect and, in turn, feel safer and in control. Involve your child in creating the goodbye routine to help foster a sense of control over the situation. For example, “How would you like to say goodbye? Read a book, wave at the window, blow kisses?” Reassure at the end the goodbye plan that you will return after school. It also helpful to detail your schedule for the day – “After circle-time, it will be time for Mommy to say goodbye. Mommy will go to the market, and then Mommy will be back after lunch.”
  • Create a picture book to tell your child the plan. Making a picture book to usher your child through the transition is super valuable! We created a Twigtale book just for this situation. It is easy for all time-strapped parents to create.
  • Keep a family photo in his school cubby. Or put a photo of you in his pocket to look at during the day. A home visit from a teacher and play-dates with new classmates can also be helpful.

If your child is saying he doesn’t want to go to school, remember to tolerate his feelings, reflect them, and then connect them to something he can control. For example, “I know you don’t want to go to school today. I wonder if Sophia will be there?” Or, “I wonder what you will be building today?” And, “What would you like in your lunch?”

Ultimately, this is a process that is essential to your child’s development and will be met with varied responses; but all children will go through it at some level. Some children may not cry at school, but may be having increased tantrums at home, or night-wakings, or bedwetting. This is all a normal part of the process. Just know that eventually your child will develop acceptance and confidence in this exciting experience. Your child will adapt to his new environment and he will trust that you DO always come back!