She may throw herself to the ground in the classic kicking-and-screaming tantrum at preschool drop-off. He may sit quietly, avoiding any sort of interaction with anyone in preschool class. She may cry — loudly or quietly (or a combination of the two) when you even mention the word “preschool”. He may begin whining the moment he wakes up. Separation anxiety looks different from child to child, and it can even look different from day to day at preschool for the same child.
For a parent, it can hurt to watch your child be so unhappy, and even fearful of going to preschool. These behaviors can also be incredibly frustrating, no matter how much you love your child or how sad you feel for him or her. Fortunately, you and your child’s preschool teachers can help your little preschooler cope with separation anxiety through a variety of methods.
Understanding Preschool Separation Anxiety
First, it’s important to understand what separation anxiety is, and what it is not. Separation anxiety is not intentional bad behavior. Your child isn’t being naughty, defiant, or rude on purpose. Separation anxiety is a very real fear associated with being separated from a parent or other loved one while your child is at preschool. Your child responds to that fear by throwing tantrums, acting out, withdrawing, and more. It’s important to recognize the behaviors for what they are — a result of a fear — so you can maintain patience as you work through the anxiety.
Separation anxiety can happen at any time during the preschool year, but common times are at the beginning of the year or after an extended break. Adjusting to a new routine, friends, teachers, and environment can throw children off for a while. Each child responds differently, and it can even take several weeks for your child to adjust to a new preschool routine or environment.
What Can Preschool Teachers Do?
The best preschools will staff teachers who can identify separation anxiety like the professionally trained staff at Little Academy of Humble. These preschool teachers will be understanding and take extra time to help your child cope with these feelings. Some teachers are better than others at helping kids transition through separation anxieties, and your local preschool should ensure these are the teachers who watch for and help your child. The preschool should also communicate clearly with you about how things are going, and provide suggestions to you for making the transition easier. You should also feel comfortable speaking openly about your concerns about your child’s separation anxiety.
Validate the Preschooler’s Feelings
Your preschool child is experiencing very real feelings that seem out of control to him or her. Your child needs a preschool teacher who will understand and validate these feelings. It doesn’t help when a preschool teacher tells a child it’s time to stop crying. It doesn’t help when a teacher says something like, “This is a fun preschool, so you shouldn’t feel sad!” And it only hurts when a teacher says something like, “You’re a big kid! No more crying!” Make sure your preschool teacher doesn’t say things like this to your child at drop-off.
Instead, your preschool teacher should acknowledge your child’s feelings and provide reassurance. Saying something like, “You look like you’re sad. Are you worried because your mom is leaving?” will help your child feel understood. That then opens trust so the preschool teacher can explain what will happen next.
Visual Schedule for Preschool
Knowing what to expect at preschool helps children feel more in control and secure. If your child’s preschool doesn’t have a visual schedule posted yet, ask them if they’ll consider putting one where your child can see it. Clear pictures that represent each activity at preschool help children to quickly see what’s happening next.
Call or Text
Separation anxiety is hard on the parents too! Leaving your child in distress is heartbreaking. You need some reassurance as well. Ask the preschool teacher or director to be in contact with you later in the day to let you know how your child is doing. Many children experience a tough separation at preschool drop-off, only to move on happily a short time later. It will put your mind at ease if you know your child eventually adjusted once you left. Let your local preschool know if you’re okay receiving updates via text or a phone call.
What Can Preschool Parents Do?
While your local preschool will ultimately shoulder the task of helping your child adjust while at preschool, there is much you can do prior to preschool to help your child’s transition. Realize this will be difficult for your whole family, but try to keep the perspective that it won’t last forever and that your child will come out stronger in the end.
Don’t Sneak Away
It seems to make sense. Get your child focused on something he enjoys, and then sneak away so he won’t remember he already misses you, right?
Actually, this is incredibly counterproductive. Your child will eventually realize you’re gone, and will be confused. The tantrums/withdrawing/crying could start up all over again. And he’ll struggle even more the next day and the next, knowing you could disappear at any minute. It’s far better to say goodbye and let your child see you walk away. As much as it will hurt, your preschooler will at least know what’s going on.
Only Promise What You Can Deliver
Don’t say you’ll sit outside the whole day if you’re not going to do it. Don’t promise you’ll swoop back in as soon as your child starts to miss you again at preschool. In short, don’t make promises you can’t keep. A placated child right now doesn’t equal a secure child all day.
Follow a Routine For Preschool
Keep your morning and drop-off routine the same each day of preschool. When your child knows what’s coming next, her or she can mentally and emotionally prepare for it. This also helps your child feel in control as he or she gets ready for the next step in the day. New factors will arise throughout the year, but try not to add anything to your routine while your child is still adjusting to preschool.
Developing your own good-bye ritual can be very effective for the drop-off as well. Come up with a special handshake, hug, or code word to use in the same way each day of preschool.
Practice reflecting. Listen to what your child says, and repeat it back to him or her. Say, “I hear you saying you feel worried” instead of, “You’re worried.” This helps your child feel like you’re listening, which helps your child feel more validated and capable of moving forward.
Bring Your Child to the Preschool Before it Begins
If your local preschool offers an open house before the school year begins, take advantage of it. Otherwise, ask for a time that you can bring your child to the preschool before the first day. Let your child see the playground, the different preschool classes, the toys, and more. Introduce your child to the teachers, and maintain a positive attitude throughout your visit.
Accept Your Own Feelings
You know what? You’re going through a lot during this time too, and that’s okay. Don’t push your own feelings aside. If you’re feeling guilty, sad, frustrated, or something else, talk it out with your spouse or friend. Plan something calming to do or meet up with a family member or friend after the first preschool drop-off. Separation anxiety is normal, and you and your child will come out of this much stronger.
Little Academy of Humble helps children get through the tough transitions of preschool in a fun and welcoming atmosphere. Give us a call at (281) 459-3378, or contact us online.