By Michelle Lurie, Psy.D., ABPdN.
What is Back-to-School Anxiety? The prospect of returning to school after the summer break is both exciting and anxiety-provoking for our children. Even for those children who have attended camp, returning to the classroom setting, having a new teacher, and being surrounded by some unfamiliar faces can create anything from “butterflies in the tummy” to downright panic. Children may tell their parents that they feel nauseous or have a headache or may exaggerate minor physical complaints as an excuse not to go to school. Others may crumble to the floor crying “don’t leave me here!” Whether this is your child’s first school experience or a new phase, these early morning meltdowns are draining for everyone involved. However, allowing your child to stay home only worsens the symptoms over time, and getting your child back into school as quickly as possible is important. It is essential to develop a good “drop off routine.” Children thrive on the predictability of rituals and routines. Just as a good bedtime ritual helps you to enforce parting until morning, a consistent drop-off routine will help you part for a day at preschool. Both parents and teachers can work together to help your child make this transition.
What can you do to help your child?
- Let your child know that he or she is not alone and that other children have similar experiences. Did you have any separation fears as a child? Share with your child how you were able to overcome these fears.
- Remove uncertainty by describing the specifics of what your child might expect at school.
- Have your child visit the new classroom and meet with the teacher ahead of time.
- If possible, schedule play dates with new classmates ahead of time or early in the school year.
- Explain that each day will be easier and the anxiety will decrease with time and familiarity.
- The week before school starts, get your child back into a predictable routine of bedtimes and mealtimes that are consistent with the school routine.
- Allow your child to take an appropriate “transitional object” such as a small and unobtrusive soft toy to school for comfort, security, and familiarity. A family photo in his or her cubby might do the trick.
- Your “drop off” routine could be as simple as helping your child hang up his coat, reading a book in the reading corner, and then waving goodbye at the door. Or you could decide to watch your child color a picture and take it with you when you depart. Have realistic expectations: a drop-off routine will not always keep your child from crying, especially at first. Some children cry for days before they adjust and they may need the teacher’s reassuring arms to help when you leave.
- Remain calm and matter of fact when saying goodbye to your child.
- Don’t hover and linger in the classroom and avoid “check-in visits” when your child is in school.
- Helping children with separation is a large part of a preschool teacher’s job. Often the teacher is more effective at calming down your child after the dreaded goodbye has passed. But ask her to let you know if she is consistently unable to calm your child.
What can the teacher do to help your child?
- Encourage the parent to bring the child to school a little early in the morning to have time to adapt and separate from the parent.
- Have an organized and predictable routine.
- Prepare the child in advance for what to expect and remove surprises and unknowns.
- Try and reduce anxiety-provoking experiences in the classroom and excessive expectations.
- Create a warm and accepting classroom environment by modeling acceptance and tolerance and preventing teasing.
Separation fears are usually outgrown by age 5 or 6. Therefore, if your child exhibits developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from loved ones, he or she may be experiencing a Separation Anxiety Disorder. This might be characterized by excessive distress when separation from home or loved ones occurs or is anticipated, excessive worry about losing, or about possible harm to loved ones, persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without being near a loved one, repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation, and repeated complaints of physical symptoms when separation from loved ones occurs or is anticipated. Separation Anxiety Disorder usually begins between the ages of 7 and 11. If your child’s separation fears persist, it is important to seek consultation with a qualified mental health professional.