Separation anxiety is a reaction to the massive change that a child can experience leaving the consistency, comfort and safety of being with their parents. This can happen when children start preschool, as they are entering a new environment with unfamiliar people, routines and not knowing what is going to be expected of them.
There are many different emotions that can accompany starting preschool. In some cases, there might have been a build-up to the event, or the anticipation of starting preschool might have been overplayed, which can lead to concern about a big upcoming change.
Separation anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. In my 35 years as a preschool teacher, I have seen a lot, including variations of the following:
- needing a dozen or so good bye kisses
- following parents all the way to the gate to say good bye
- kicking and screaming
- being angry at the parents for departing.
In my experience I have found that most children will encounter separation anxiety to some degree. It is quite normal.
It may occur on the first day, a couple of weeks after starting preschool or even in the next quarter.
If your child attends preschool only one day a week, then you need to be prepared that the settling in process will take longer.
An overly anxious child
Recently, I had one child who was very anxious and had attended a few preschools (NB: this can compound the issue as it can become a learned behavior; “if I cry, I get to stay at home”).
I made a photo book of the things that interested this child at preschool, the preschool environment and the staff. I posted it to his home during the break to sustain his familiarity with preschool.
Addressing separation anxiety can take time, patience and perseverance, but more importantly it is parents and teachers working as a team.
At the end of the year I received one of my most treasured cards from this child saying how much fun he had and how I was the best teacher ever. What a turnaround!
Participate in preschool events before your child starts
Preschools almost always hold functions that the community can attend, fund raising events or carnivals. Ask the preschool if you can receive the newsletter in advance to see what is coming up; for example, art shows, Easter hat parades, graduations, end of year concerts or anniversary celebrations.
Attend the preschool orientation events as a family. Typically, these events are designed for you to bring your child along. It’s a great familiarization exercise for your child and an opportunity for both you and your child to meet the teacher and for them to meet you.
Walk past the preschool
Regularly show your child the preschool they will be attending and help them familiarize themselves with the building and playground. Stop and talk about what you can see, highlighting all the positive aspects. For example, discuss what’s in the playground and point out the fun they will have, for example on the slide.
Talk about what will happen at preschool
Familiarize your child with what will be their new routine. For example, “I will take you to preschool to play. You will have morning tea, lunch and stories.” Explain, for example, that you will pick them up before you go together to pick up their siblings from school, which is something that you might already do together.
Always say goodbye
Please, please don’t leave preschool in the morning without saying goodbye to your child. I have seen far too many upset children as a result, as their feeling of abandonment hits them.
The best thing you can do is to settle your child at an activity, hug and kiss them and then say goodbye. In the early stages it’s best to make your farewell and departure quickly.
If you come back to sneak a look through the window, you can be guaranteed that you will be spotted. This might be just when your child is beginning to be involved in an activity and it will likely unsettle them.
If you are concerned and would like to know how your child is, a quick phone call will be no problem.
Later, when your child is more settled, then you are always welcome to stay and play for a while or help out in the activities. An extra pair of hands is always appreciated.
Leave sufficient time
When your child is starting preschool, please leave plenty of time in the morning so you aren’t rushing and short of time in getting ready. This works to ensure that your arrival at preschool is calm and your child isn’t feeling your stress. It helps you to avoid rushing out the door at preschool as you are running late for work. Your child doesn’t understand the need to be on time for work and it can cause an unsettled or stressed vibe around them, which undermines their sense of security.
Don’t bring the whole family
Typically it’s best to avoid bringing the whole family along at the start of preschool, even though you feel this might be the most supportive thing to do.
All your child will see is everyone leaving together and leaving him/her left on their own wondering “What am I missing out on?”
Be happy and positive
Be positive and happy about your child going to preschool.
It’s an exciting time and should be conveyed as such.
Your anxiety and feelings can and will be picked up upon; children are extremely perceptive.
Avoid giving your child a ‘don’t’ list’; for example, “don’t wet your pants”, “don’t get paint on your clothes”, “don’t push anyone”.
This gives the child a negative feel to preschool immediately. And your child will definitely get paint on their clothes at some point.
Leave in the morning with a positive statement such as, “You will have fun today” or “Enjoy digging in the sandpit”.
Allow your child to pick their own preschool bag
Give your child a few options and help them to choose a preschool backpack that they can manage independently.
This will give your child a sense of independence, as well as ownership over starting preschool. You get to choose the preschool and they get to choose the bag.
There are a number of things you should look out for in a preschool backpack though, so please read my recommendations.
Starting preschool is an exciting time for both you and your child. Each child reacts differently to change but the secure environment of preschool will enable your child to build lifelong strategies for adapting. Working in partnership with the teachers can make this transition smooth. It will lead to preschool being an enjoyable and memorable time for all of us.