It’s 6am on Monday morning, the first day back to school after the long summer holidays. My kid appears at my bedside fully dressed, with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so excited!” she exclaims. “I love school!”. This is not the face of a kid who’s gone through separation anxiety at school, is it?
But, just like every other first day back at school after the holidays, my six year old suffered a last minute wobble when it came to the classroom. This is the beginning of her third year at school, so I’m now a seasoned pro at dealing with the tears. We’ve learned some things over the past couple of years though, so here I am sharing my five ways to deal with separation anxiety at school, in case this might be something you’re currently going through too.
Throughout the past two years, Frog has struggled on and off with the transition of home to school. She’ll be fine walking to school, be excited to go there, but at the last minute when it comes to stepping into the classroom she’ll panic and cry.
At times it’s been really bad and she’s had to be literally pinned back by the teacher while I unclench each of her fingers from my coat. I’m not too proud to admit those times have often seen me sniffling in the playground myself.
The thing that’s really helped us in those situations has been to listen to Frog. It’s important (for us at least) to differentiate between her being geniunely upset and worried about something in particular, and her being simply a bit nervous or hacked off that the weekend’s over.
2. Make a plan with the school
Three weeks into Year 1, when Frog was still sobbing as I left every morning, I spoke to the headteacher about it. She let me peek through the classroom window to see my daughter smiling serenely as she got on with a writing activity. It was a relief.
But while it was good to see the tears stopped when I left the room, it would have been better for them not to have started in the first place. It was such a horrible way to start the day – not just for her but for me too! I’d leave school feeling emotionally drained and would dread the moment I had to say goodbye to her.
Making a plan with the teacher really helped. We worked out that if Frog had something to do when she got to school she would be distracted from me leaving. She’s a kid who thrives on routine and knowing what’s coming next, so giving her an activity that was hers and hers alone really helped with the separation anxiety.
3. Give the child a job
As I’ve just mentioned, we’ve found that giving Frog a job to do when she arrives at school helps to distract her from me leaving. She’s often so excited to get on with the job she’ll rush off without even a backwards glance. The job could be anything from fetching the class’s fresh fruit from the school kitchen, to sharpening some pencils or (when she was at pre-school) feeding the class goldfish. It doesn’t really matter what the job is, just as long as it exists.
4. Arrive early
This is something I only really figured out at the end of the summer term and I’m kicking myself for it. Often when we’re in a rush to get to school we’ll arrive a bit flustered, and then the whole coat hanging up / book bag in the tray / ticking off snack money process will be a rushed one. By that point the classroom’s full of kids and parents all doing the same thing and it can all get a bit busy.
But if we get to school early then we have time to walk leisurely and chat, time to hang up her coat without the rush, and she’s often the first or second in the classroom. It’s amazing what a difference arriving in a calm way, to an almost empty class can make.
5. Offer rewards
In her first year of school it took almost two full terms before Frog didn’t cry when I left her in the morning. Even though I knew she actually enjoyed school when she was there, and she’d come out of school full of exciting stories about her day, it worried me that she was still getting upset when I left. So it was a big deal when she completed her first week without crying when I dropped her off. At the end of that week she got given a certificate in the whole school assembly praising her for “arriving each morning with a big smile”. She was SO proud of that certificate and still has it in her room now.
I guess, out of all of this, the most important thing is distinguishing between a kid who genuinely doesn’t want to go to school and doesn’t enjoy it while they’re there, and a child who’s simply got the last-minute wobbles when their parent is about to say goodbye. For a while I was worried that Frog hated school and that she wasn’t ready to be there full time (she’s a summer baby and one of the youngest in her year), but that just wasn’t the case.
And, you know, as with all things parent-related, chances are it’ll turn out to be “just a phase”. Worst advice in the world, I know. Sorry about that.
Have you dealt with separation anxiety at school? What helped?