You know the situation. A crying student is clinging to a parent in the office or hallway, unwilling to let go, and the parent is soothing the child and lingering, sometimes offering to walk the child to the classroom. Elementary-age students often struggle with separations after long breaks from school, including weekends, winter break, spring break, and summer break. It’s not uncommon for your newest students to struggle with coming to the school for the first time. Today I’m breaking down tips for helping your student come to school with a positive attitude, ready to participate. At the end of this post, you’ll find a FREEBIE handout to give to parents and caregivers!
- Be proactive before Day 1. For your new students, encourage families to familiarize themselves with you, the school building, and new routines. Reach out to families before the first day of school, and arrange a time for students to visit the classroom and find their cubby, table, or desk ahead of time. Open Houses and Back to School Nights are perfect times to ease little ones; nerves. (Check out how I prep for Open Houses here: How School Counselors Can Prepare for Open Houses and Back to School Nights). If an in-person visit isn’t feasible, consider sending home a kindergarten welcome letter or tuck it into your school’s kindergarten orientation packets.
- Suggest a goodbye ritual to repeat each day. The parent might have a specific thing they say to their child each day, and saying it is a cue they are leaving. It could be something as simple as “I love you, I’m proud of you, and I know you’ll have a great day.” It could also be a physical goodbye ritual, such as a kiss on the hand or cheek. I always suggest the book The Kissing Hand* to parents to read at home with their child, which offers the idea of holding a parent’s kiss in the palm of your hand throughout the school day.
- Encourage the parent to make a quick exit. As hard or awkward as it might be to suggest, insist the goodbyes happen quickly at the car or office and not near the classroom. From what I’ve experienced, the closer the parent gets to the classroom, the harder the separation will be, and then it’s disruptive to other students and the morning routine. Encourage the parent to make a quick exit, but not sneak away. They need to say goodbye so the child doesn’t feel tricked or betrayed. This will help develop trust for the next day’s transition. Be direct, say goodbye, have a goodbye ritual, and then go. Don’t linger or watch through window.
- Focus conversation on the school day ahead, not on the parent leaving. If the child is in the main office or sidewalk and hasn’t made it to the classroom, distract him/her by telling them about the day’s schedule. Ask for a lunch choice selection, or offer another choice about whether they’d like to carry their own backpack or have you carry it. You can also try asking them to help you in some way, such as “we need to take a note to your teacher, let’s go take it to him.” Talk to them about recess and or an interesting class that day, and ask the child to show you his/her desk or cubby.
- Allow the child to carry a transition object. Offer to let the child bring a transition object to school, such as a stuffed animal, small blanket, or photo. Allow them to carry it and then tuck it into their cubby or backpack for safekeeping during the school day. You might want to talk to the parent about this ahead of time, so they can help the child choose an appropriate object (maybe not the most special thing, but something that would be okay if it were lost or damaged at school). Spell out the rules for keeping the object in a backpack or desk during the day.
- Establish a morning routine in the classroom. Knowing what to do when they arrive in the classroom will ease the transition into the school day. The teacher will have already done this, so the child should know the routine. In most cases, once the day gets started, they’ll be busy and happily distracted. Sometimes it may help to contact the parent later (when the child is not without earshot) to reassure him/her their child had a great morning after all. Along these lines, stress the importance of arriving to school on time. Once the day has started, the transition will be that much more difficult.
- Provide the child with a sense of ownership in the classroom. Assign a simple daily task where the student can be in charge, such as watering a plant, drying the sink, and making sure tissues and hand sanitizer are plentiful. (Avoid jobs like checking the weather if looking out the window at a parking lot and spotting their parent would trigger another meltdown!)
- Involve peers. Be strategic about where the student is seated, putting him/her by a friend, or a peer he/she is comfortable around. Say, “I bet (friend’s name) is waiting to play with you this morning! She’ll be so excited to see you!” Encourage the friend to greet the student.
- Involve another staff member. In more difficult situations, you may want to designate a few people (other than the classroom teacher) who might be available to meet the student at dropoff and walk him/her inside. Seeing this consistent face will help, and you also want to have a backup in case the designated staff member is not available. Also look into whether riding the bus would be an option so that the goodbyes happen sooner and the child gets in the mindset of school once on the bus.
- Consider the reason behind the separation anxiety. If there is a history of trauma, such as family illness or parent incarceration, attachment disorders or other factors, take those into consideration and work with the family to connect them with resources, which could include a referral for outside counseling or inclusion in a small group or individual counseling. It’s helpful to have a list of local resources you can use to refer families, as well as a list of helpful books. The three I suggest that specifically address separation are The Kissing Hand, The Invisible String, and What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart. If the child is complaining of physical symptoms of anxiety and medical reasons have been ruled out, help to teach the child how to recognize feelings of worry in their body and offer coping strategies for dealing with those feelings.
What are the tricks you keep up your sleeves for students experiencing separation anxiety? Share them with us in the comments below!
Let’s do this!
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