School-Related Separation Anxiety: An Expert Weighs In

Picture this: you take your child to his/her first day of pre-school or kindergarten, and s/he sobs and begs you not to leave him/her there. You feel a crushing pang of guilt. It’s devastating for both of you, but it’s normal. Most children experience some degree of anxiety when being taken to their first day of preschool or kindergarten. It’s likely their first day away from mom, dad, or nanny, and they are being thrust into an unfamiliar environment in which they will not have many or any familiar faces. It’s scary. In this article, we will tell you how you can identify and deal with school-related separation anxiety. We will also discuss how you can tell the difference between jitters and serious anxiety.

How can you identify school-related separation anxiety?

As you prepare your little one for his/her first day of preschool or kindergarten, look for these behavioral clues.

  • Does s/he act excited or reluctant about going to school?
  • Does s/he talk about the fun and excitement of meeting new friends and learning new things . . . or does s/he sit unusually quietly or
    talk about concerns regarding the unfamiliar or the unknown?
  • Does s/he cry or act withdrawn, sad, or angry?
  • Is s/he exhibiting unusual clinginess?
  • Does s/he attempt to negotiate or manipulate you into not taking him/her to preschool or kindergarten?
  • Does s/he revert to behaviors typical of younger children, behaviors that s/he outgrew years ago (i.e., bedwetting or thumb sucking)?

How can you deal with school-related separation anxiety?

In the month or two leading up to your child’s first day of preschool or kindergarten, there are a number of things you can do to ease his/her transition to school life and minimize his/her separation anxiety.

Let your child know what to expect

Happy Children EatingGive your child a thorough understanding of what to expect from preschool or kindergarten. For example, you may say, “You know how we have a routine in our house, right? Well, school has a routine too. We’ll get you to school at about 8:00 each morning. You’ll walk right to your classroom. You’ll have an assigned desk to sit in, and you can store all your stuff in it. Your teacher says each day will begin with a few stretches . . . like easy exercise. Once your stretches are done, you and your classmates will go to your desks, and your teacher will start telling you all kinds of great stuff. Throughout the day, you’ll have breaks for play, snacks, and other fun activities. You and your classmates will get to sing together, draw, color, and make artsy kinds of things. Since you already know a bunch of your classmates, you will be able to spend your school day with your new friends. Oh, and you’ll have lunch at the school . . . that will happen over the noon hour. I’m told that lunch is in the gymnasium, which apparently also is the ‘cafeteria’. They set up big, long tables in the gym, and you and your friends can sit with each other and chat while you’re eating lunch. At about 3:15 p.m., your school day will be done, so I’ll pick you up, and we’ll go home. What do you think about that? Does it all make sense to you, or do you have any questions that I can answer to help you understand what your usual school day will be like?”

More tips to deal with your child’s separation anxiety

  • Always be positive about school. Project calm. Validate how your child may be feeling, but find the silver lining in each cloud. For example, you may say, “School is great! You will be making so many new friends, learning a lot of great things, and having tons of fun! I know you feel frightened because it’s new and unfamiliar to you. I felt that way too when I was your age. But, you know what? It will pass, and you will get comfortable soon enough. I promise.”
  • Attend school programs and mixers to get your child familiarized with the environment, teacher(s), and classmates.
  • Host several small parties for your child and his/her classmates. This helps them get comfortable with each other before the big day.
  • Speak often with your child about the benefits of going to school. Include spending time with new friends that may last a lifetime, learning new things that will help him/her understand the world around him/her, getting all kinds of new things to have and play with (pencil boxes, backpacks, etc.), and getting to finger paint (or some other typical school activity that your child enjoys but that you typically don’t allow in your home).
  • Ask your child questions about what s/he is most looking forward to about preschool or kindergarten, what s/he has concerns about, and how you can help.
  • Have practice separations by taking your child to a caregiver that you trust and is unfamiliar to your child. Start with short periods of separation and gradually increase the practice separations. For example, your first and second practice separations may be for one hour each. Your third and fourth separations may be for two hours each. All practice separations should begin shortly after your child has awakened from a nap and has been fed. This is because sleepiness and hunger can exacerbate separation anxiety.
  • On your child’s first few months of preschool or kindergarten, there are a number of things you can do to ease his/her transition to school life and minimize his/her separation anxiety.
  • Ensure that your child is properly rested and nourished as you send him/her off to school each day.
  • Leave little notes of love and reassurance tucked in places that your child will find throughout the school day. A small note bearing the words, “I love you” may be tucked in his coat pocket. A sticky note emblazoned with the words, “You make me so proud” may be stuck to his/her homework from the night before.
  • Praise your child for being a “big boy” or “big girl” (i.e., old enough to be in school) and brave (i..e., embracing the new experiences of school).
  • Create a just-between-you-and-me goodbye ritual . . . some set of behaviors or a gesture that lets your child know that you love him/her, everything will be ok, and you will be back to retrieve
    him/her when the school day is done. For example, your goodbye ritual may be blowing a kiss to your child as s/he gets out of the car to walk into the school building, a few loving statements (“I love ya’, kiddo! See you at 3:15 p.m.!”), or a humorous statement to start the school day off on a funny note (“So, your dad said you plan to be the teacher instead of a student today! Waaaaait a minute! Where’s your neck tie? Your regular teacher always wears a tie! Shall I give you one of my socks that you can use as a tie? No????? *wink* Ok, then, have a great day!”)

Do not let your child’s separation anxiety keep you from separating from him/her in a timely manner each school morning. If you linger out of guilt or a need to console, you will prolong his/her
separation anxiety.

As your child transitions to life in school, try to keep all else in his/her world the same as usual for him/her. If your child must contend with more than one transition concurrently, the concurrent
transitions will be more difficult for your child.

How can you tell the difference between jitters and serious anxiety?

Separation anxiety is normal in children; separation anxiety disorder is not. Both have similar symptoms, but separation anxiety disorder symptoms are often more intense and more prolonged. If the symptoms of separation anxiety are intense enough to interfere with your child’s normal activities (i.e., getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, or socializing with friends), make your child feel physically ill, and last for more than a month, your child likely has separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is beyond the scope of this article. You are encouraged to speak with your child’s pediatrician if you suspect that your child may have separation anxiety disorder.

Most children experience some degree of anxiety when being taken to their first day of preschool or kindergarten. As scary as this experience may be for your child, by following the tips above, you can identify and deal with school-related separation anxiety and be able to distinguish the difference between jitters and serious anxiety.

Candi Wingate

Candi Wingate

Candi Wingate is the President at Care4Hire. Calling on her experiences as a nanny, Candi Wingate started, a child-care referral service. She later expanded the idea to start for elder care, pet sitters, and other caregivers. Follow her on Twitter.




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Latest update: November 20, 2016
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