There was a sudden change in our child care situation for Weston this summer and he was going to have to start preschool in the fall. I instantly felt the pit in my stomach and the lump in my throat. Weston is extremely attached to me and very reserved. We tried doing a mommy and me class last fall and he screamed and cried the whole time. He would refuse to even go into the classroom. How in the world were we going to get him to not only walk into his classroom but stay there, without me. The first step was to get him enrolled. Preschools in our area fill up very quickly and the wait lists are typically a year out. All the stars aligned and we were able to get him into the school of our choice. Step one- done!
The First Day
The first day was AWFUL, he clung to me and screamed in terror for me not to leave him. It was awful, I was worried I had scarred him and would need therapy. When I picked him up 3 hours later, he let out all his feelings in the parking lot. He had the most epic meltdown. My heart was broken! The next day was only slightly less dramatic and only one of us cried. The only thing that kept me from falling apart was that he kept telling us he wanted to go to school. I knew we’d be OK as long as we got him over the hump. How did I know? It’s not my first rodeo, my oldest, Hudson, went through some separation anxiety when he started preschool too. It was nowhere near as heartbreaking, he never cried but he was having huge meltdowns at home. I ended up emailing the director requesting to pull Hudson out of preschool. She was shocked and asked me to sleep on it. That night I dove into good old Google and researched, separation anxiety. I learned that separation anxiety is very common, normal and with the right steps it can be overcome.
Some of the steps that I learned in my research Hudson’s teacher had already implemented. I am wondering if that is why his transition into preschool was a lot smoother than Weston’s. I am going to list the steps we took, together with Weston’s teachers that helped him get over the separation anxiety hump. In retrospect, I wish I would have not waited to take action. I knew he would have a hard time and I think if we would have done these steps prior to him starting, the transition may have been smoother.
Seven Steps to Ease Separation Anxiety
- Step 1- Facilitate the child teacher bond. Ask if you can have a picture of the teacher(s) and put it up in your house at child level. We put ours on the refrigerator and looked and talked about their teacher daily. Hudson’s teacher mailed it over summer break and Weston’s teacher gave it to us on the first day of school. Tell your child that their teacher said they cannot wait to see them tomorrow or that they said they love having them in their class. Anything that will make the child feel more connected to their teacher. Assure them that their teacher will keep them safe.
- Step 2- Facilitate bonding with the other kids. Try to schedule a class play date or two, before school starts would be ideal but still just as helpful if it’s done after the fact.
- Step 3- Family Picture- both the boys’ teachers asked us to provide a family picture to display in their classroom. You can always have one laminated and attach or pack their backpack. This is very reassuring for them.
- Step 4- Instill confidence while calming their fears. Our children are very intuitive and they feed off our energy. It’s how they are programmed. Don’t dismiss their fears, validate their feelings and assure them it’s normal to feel nervous in new situations but you want them to know they are safe, their teachers will keep them safe and that mommy/daddy ALWAYS come back.
- Step 5- Facilitate them unloading all their big feelings. It’s very important for little ones to be allowed the space to let out all the big scary feelings. These feelings come out in two ways, a melt down or through laughter. Ideally, I think we’d all prefer the latter. If you can get them laughing (avoid tickling) and giggling the body will release all the tension and anxiety it is holding. The key to this is consistency. Figure out some fun games you can do in the morning or in the evenings to help unload all those feelings. However, the end of the day a good old fashion cry is a great way to reset. Meltdowns are healthy and OK.
- Step 6- Make sure you are always a few minutes early for pick up. You don’t want to magnify their fears by not seeing you at pick up time or having to wait for you after all their classmates have been picked up.
- Step 7- Recap the day and talk about what to expect the next day. Both teachers for Hudson and Weston would send pictures that they would take throughout the day and every night we’d look at them and talk about their day. I think this was paramount easing their fears and getting them excited to go back.
Most Helpful Step for Us
If you can only do one thing I would suggest step 1. I think that was the key to our success. Weston’s teacher met us at a park on a Saturday and just hung out with us while he played AND one of his little classmates happened to be at the park too! He made a new friend and started to form a bond with his new caregiver. Plus, he fed off our energy that we trusted her and knew she would help keep him safe. I know this can be a lot to ask of a teacher but perhaps you can make arrangements to meet at the school and help the teacher set up the classroom for the new year. This is what Hudson’s kinder and 1st grade teacher did. It was wonderful.
We have seen so much growth in Weston this last month. It’s amazing how much more independent he is and he’s just thriving at school. He is still a little more reserved than some of the other children but he’s having a great time and can’t wait to go back each day.
I hope you found this information helpful! Please leave me any questions or comments below.