5 (PLUS!) Quick Tips to Ease Preschool Separation Anxiety
Dear Dr. Deb,
My 3 1/2-year-old just started preschool, and she is having a very tough time separating from me. She whines and complains on the ride in to school that she doesn’t want to go, and then clings to my leg and cries at drop-off. I have talked to the teacher who says this is normal, and that she is fine after I leave, but I dread taking her in the morning! I have asked my daughter why she doesn’t want to go, and she says because she wants to stay with me. She’s only there for three hours in the morning! Is there anything I can do to help her feel less anxious about going to preschool? I don’t want to pull her out as I feel that the social atmosphere is good for her, but am not sure if I am doing the right thing. Could you please help?
What your daughter is experiencing is a very normal and natural part of a child’s development and how a child comes to master ‘individuation’, or separation from you. Becoming an independent person (as opposed to ‘Mommy’s little baby’) is a gradual process that begins very early on (around 3- 6 months) when infants realize they are their own independent beings. It carries on through their first school experiences such as preschool when anxiety surrounding separation is extremely common.
The fact that your daughter’s teacher says she is fine after you leave bodes well. It is unlikely her anxiety is persisting past your ‘goodbye’ which is good news! It is possible that at least some of her tears is because she finds the ritual of saying goodbye difficult. It is also possible that some of her anxiety is because she senses your angst (which is natural, of course!), and that once you leave she is free to focus on other things!
Here are a few tips to help your daughter (and you!) ease into her first preschool experience successfully:
- Make the separation more gradual: As this is your child’s first preschool experience, for her everything is new, unfamiliar, and unpredictable, which can be scary for a 3-year-old! Here are some ideas to gradually ease your child into her new environment: 1) Ask your child’s teacher if it would be ok for you to stay for the first 5 – 15 minutes of class for the first few days. If she agrees, let your child know ahead of time that you can only stay for a brief while, and tell her in advance what your goodbye routine will look like, so there are no surprises. For example, “Mommy will give you a 2 minute warning, a 1 minute warning, then Mommy will say it’s time to go, give you a hug and a kiss and say goodbye”. While you are in the classroom, try to get her into a fun activity that she enjoys. Then, when it’s time to say goodbye, stick to your routine without delay, especially if your child whines or cries. Staying an extra 5 minutes as a result of your child’s whining will prolong the tears.
- Be a good role model: While you are in the class, get active and play with the toys and try to help her interact with the other kids. If it is circle time, participate! Help your child to get involved in something she likes, and integrate and explore the classroom. Confidence in the classroom is contagious, and your child will be more inclined to model your enthusiasm and carefree attitude.
- Never sneak out…even if your child appears busy or engaged. Although you may avoid a tearful goodbye, your child may not trust you next time, and may lack confidence in separations in future.
- Try not to get anxious yourself. Although you may be feeling those feelings inside, being tense or anxious yourself communicates to your child that you are not sure they can cope with this challenge. Children sense this feeling in their parents exceedingly well, and can lose self-confidence pretty quickly as a result.
- Be reassuring, but be brief! When your child whines or cries that she doesn’t want to go to school, respond with brief statements of understanding, reassurance, and a big hug! But don’t dwell on their reactions. Focusing too much on their whining and crying can actually serve to reinforce their behavior, and make it more frequent!
Most often these strategies will yield results over a few weeks. If, however, after a month or so your child is still experiencing significant anxiety, it may be time for a conference with your child’s teacher and/or preschool director to see if a change in setting, teacher, or simply affording them a few more months at home would be best.
BASED ON REQUESTS BY SEVERAL PARENTS, HERE ARE A FEW ADDITIONAL TIPS FOR CHILDREN WHO ARE JUST BEGINNING PRESCHOOL, ON HOW TO NAVIGATE SEPARATION ANXIETY:
- Make a Preschool Story Book I did this with my daughter when she was 3 years old and about to enter preschool for the first time. Like I discussed above, helping your child learn the routine of the classroom is helpful, however at this age, pictures are often a more effective way of teaching children a routine or sequence. Draw the activities of the class with your child on plain paper. Everything from saying goodbye to Mommy, to art time, to snack time, to circle time, etc… page by page. Of course, end the book with a reunion with Mommy! Don’t worry about it being too elaborate, 3 – 6 pages will do. Read the book with your child several times in the weeks leading up to preschool so that you can talk about preschool, answer any questions, and engender a feeling of excitement and positive attitude towards starting preschool.
- Get your child some exciting new preschool supplies This need not be costly, yet having your child get his or her own backpack, lunch box, pencil case or pretty much anything he/she is excited about, and saving it for the start of preschool can get things off on the right foot. Even supercool princess undies count! Something that helps instill a healthy sense of positive anticipation, independence, and ultimately self-confidence can be a great way to get your child excited about going to school.
- For children who are very reticent about going to preschool, give them a special job Who doesn’t like to feel special and unique. For some kids, going to preschool and participating in activities can be a bit overwhelming. They may need more time to hang out for a while to observe the activities and their peers before they jump in. Ask your child’s teacher if for the first week or two, your child can be given special tasks to complete in the classroom in lieu of participating in activities they don’t feel ready for. For example, if your child is shying away from circle time, can they help the assistant set out art supplies? If your child does not want to jump into art, can they help the teacher collect projects from other kids and put them aside to try? This activity can help build self-confidence and self-esteem, while making them more comfortable in their preschool environment.
- Take a special item to school Most teachers are quite happy for children to bring a special stuffed animal or toy from home that makes them feel more comfortable and familiar in the classroom. A special blanket, teddy bear, or even Mommy’s sweater or picture can be a great comfort in an unfamiliar place.
- Consider a transitional or parent participation program If after a few months your child still seems very distressed in the preschool environment, it is possible that he/she is not ready for preschool. Look around in your community for a parent participation and/or transitional program which allows you to come and participate with your child, and/or slowly, gradually transition yourself out of the classroom. This is a great option for children to get that extra security and stability they need before they are able to be fully independent at preschool.