10 Ways to Help a Student with Separation Anxiety

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
What to You Don’t Want to Be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety

What are the tricks you keep up your sleeves for students experiencing separation anxiety? Share them with us in the comments below!

I hope you have a wonderful year! You can download my FREE Separation Anxiety Parent/Caregiver Handout for your students and families here!

Let’s do this!

Ashley

*Amazon affiliate link

4 Ideas to Close Out the Year for Elementary School Counselors

It’s hard to believe, but my district finishes up with school this Thursday! (We started in July!)

My counseling office is packed up and closed out for the year, and I’ve picked up my kids’ materials (sad day!), so now we just have some fun drive-by closing celebrations and preschool graduation photos later this week. I’ve turned in my report cards and SMARTGoal data, which was a little tricky this year, not having finished the last nine weeks in person. As you plan your end of the year, here are some fun lessons and close-out activities!

1. PROMOTING PERSONAL SAFETY

Emphasizing personal safety is so important for your students, especially this summer. My best-selling Stranger Danger lesson will help students identify three types of strangers so they know which ones can be helpful and which ones to avoid.  

Another fun lesson is about Summer Safety, teaching students how to be safe during many different summer activities, from camping to swimming.

2. TRANSITIONING TO MIDDLE SCHOOL

I use these six middle school transition activities in getting my fifth graders excited and less-nervous for the transition to middle school. (Usually we would have gone for a visit by now!)

3. CELEBRATING MILESTONES

I just couldn’t resist designing these fun “Last Day of Distance Learning” photo-op signs for my kids, so I wanted to offer them to you all as well! The set includes Preschool and PreK through 12th grade “First Day of Distance Learning” and “Last Day of Distance Learning” signs. 

4. WELCOMING YOUR NEWEST STUDENTS: KINDERGARTEN ORIENTATION

If your school is putting together welcome packets or an orientation for incoming Kindergarten students, consider tucking a welcome newsletter from the school counselor into the packet or mailing so your families will know who you are and your role in the school before they arrive! Check out my EDITABLE Kindergarten Welcome Letter! (Grab the entire bundle here!). If you can, plan to attend future kindergarten orientations and back-to-school nights to introduce yourself to your new families. You can read more about planning for Open Houses and Back to School nights on my post here!

Last but not least, I just have to share my BIG NEWS!

My first children’s book is releasing THIS SUMMER with Boys Town Press on July 14, 2020!

Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle by Ashley Bartley

Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle” helps children learn the difference between tattling and reporting and will be such a fun addition to your counseling or school library. It’s already available for pre-order on Amazon* now. Boys Town Press will also be offering book companion lesson plans and activities on their website. I hope you will check it out and share it with your colleagues!

I hope you have a healthy, happy, and smooth end to your school year… what a year it has been!

*affiliate link

How School Counselors Can Prepare for Open House and Back to School Nights

Schoolwide events are excellent opportunities to connect with families to provide information about your school counseling program. It is also a great chance to provide referrals to community resources. 

Visibility

Consider where to set up to be the most accessible to families. Is it in your office? Your classroom? A table set up in a heavily-trafficked area of the building? The cafeteria? Is there a concurrent event going on, such as a book fair? Take advantage of the opportunity to gain exposure instead of using the time to complete paperwork. Visibility is key.

Information

Just like teachers, parents prefer to access information in different ways. For some, face-to-face conversations are most efficient; for others, websites, and for others, a brochure or letter about your program. If your school provides you with a webpage accessible from the main site, take advantage of it to post links to resources, your school contact information, any calendars or schedules you’d like to share, and more information about your educational background and your program. It is also a great spot to include your mission statement and your monthly newsletters. Before the start of each school year, ensure your website is updated with the most current information. 

Webpages might include: 

  • Individual counseling information and referral process
  • Group counseling information and referral process
  • Classroom guidance topics and/or schedule
  • Referral to community resources (with a disclaimer that the activity is not endorsed by your school division — check your division guidelines before posting)
  • Your background — education, training, endorsements, certifications, and any hobbies or family information you’d like to share
  • School contact information and preferred methods for reaching you at school
  • Monthly newsletters with program updates and classroom topics

It is helpful to have similar information on a handout as you speak with families and caregivers about your role in supporting students.

Scavenger Hunt/Passport Activity

While Back to School Night is an important chance for students to meet their teachers, it is also a great opportunity for families to get to know the specialists around the school. Consider creating a scavenger hunt students can pick up on their way into the building to complete after their classroom tour. Provide each specialist with a stamp or sticker to put on the “passport” the student must complete in order to redeem for a prize (small snack or other reward). If the students are already visiting the gymnasium, art studio, music room, and library, advocate for your program by including your name, “School Counselor,” and location on the passport. Create an inviting space to meet families — an attractive display set up in the foyer of the school, your warm and inviting office to host students, or your classroom space, if you have one and it is somewhat ready. While my office is usually almost-ready by Back to School night, parents may not know where to find me, so a small table in the foyer attracts significantly more traffic.

Information to Display and Share

I post infographics to display information about my program. I include information about:

Tangibles

Consider drawing more traffic to your table with a small basket of giveaways — candy, stickers, stress balls, etc. For a budget-friendly option, cutting up an inexpensive pool noodle can make 72 stress rings. I found that a serrated knife works better than scissors for cutting the pool noodles. I keep a pile of sticker pages for student to stick onto their scavenger hunt pages, and I also placed a fun spinner and conversation cubes on the table for students and young siblings to play with as we talked. 

School events and family programs are a great way to connect with your families throughout the year and advocate for your program. Consider hosting a family event of your own, including a breakfast event during the school day! (I have created flyers for all sorts of breakfast events here and here!)

What are some of your favorite ways to connect with families?

10 Tasks Elementary School Counselors Can Do to Prepare for Back to School

And just like that, we’re in Back to School season! In my district, we returned in July, and now that I’m back, I’ve been working steadily through my to-do list to prepare my school counseling program not only for the first day of school, but also for Open House (before school starts), the first semester, and the entire year. Laying a strong, organized foundation now will help things flow more easily as situations arise throughout the year.

  1. REFLECTION AND DATA REVIEW: In the back of my counselor planner, I keep a few running lists for reflection. What worked well over the past year? What are my goals for this year? Knowing my goals will help me with program and curriculum planning. Reviewing last year’s data, end-of-year student surveys, printing a needs assessment to give to teachers, and reviewing my 5th graders’ exit interviews are great ways to collect information for program planning each year. I also revisit my school counseling mission statement each year.
  2. CREATING A FUNCTIONAL AND INVITING COUNSELING SPACE: Summer workdays are a great time to set up your counseling space so that you can hit the ground running when the teachers return. In my district, teachers and counselors are required to work 3 summer workdays before the official teacher workweek, so I use this time to ready my space so that it is both functional for me and inviting/comfortable for students. This is when I design and hang my bulletin boards, unpack all my counseling gear, prep resources that need to be laminated, organize books and materials (themed tubs and books by color), and set up my desk. I use a variety of tried-and-true, functional resources I’ve purchased on TPT and also some I’ve created that double as colorful decor. I’ve used a variety of seating through the years, from beanbag chairs to plush spots on the floor, to papasan chairs, but a round table is always a must for my groups. I also like to keep my desk in a place where it’s not between me and my student.
  3. ORGANIZING A DOCUMENTATION SYSTEM: Before I begin working with students, I set up my database so that I am ready to document my services, whether direct or indirect. I have always used NoteCounselor to log my time. The creator, Mandy Chambers, is actually a school counselor in my town! Being able to quickly generate reports on my daily/monthly/yearly time expenditures has helped me advocate for my program. I also use it to document the date and time of my meetings with students, whether in the classroom, group counseling, or individual counseling sessions. (I actually use an older version of NoteCounselor through Microsoft Access, but there is a newer web version as well.) Each year I begin a new password-protected database and upload the names of every student in my caseload before the school year begins. (I can always add new students as they come.)
  4. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Inevitably, your district will have professional development meetings and opportunities during your first few days back. Use this time to keep an open mind about how to implement these ideas into your program. I’m excited to be implementing Responsive Classroom this year! At the same time, consider opportunities for professional development offered in your state and on a national level, from your local and state counseling chapters, to ASCA. Going to conferences keeps your program current and an added bonus — you can collect points toward recertification for your license. I appreciate the hours I can also count toward my national board certification. I look forward to these conferences to network and collaborate with counselors from all over my state each year! It’s also a nice change-of-pace from my day-to-day routine and gives me just a tiny break from my 3 precious little boys at home.
  5. SMALL TASKS: Schedule time to complete small tasks, from looking over any duties, committees, and specific assignments you have, to completing health modules, signing up for trainings (Mandt, Mental Health First Aid, etc.), or other tasks to keep your license current and fulfill your commitments as an educator. I update my website with current information and resources.
  6. SCHEDULE: I rely heavily on my school counselor planner to manage my personal and professional schedules. As soon as I have access, I transfer important dates into my planner: all committee meetings , all faculty meetings, all scheduled spirit days, and my own events (such as Veterans Day luncheon, Career Day, and Donuts with Grownups). My school uses a shared Google calendar so that everything is available and there are no surprises. This is also the time I look over the specialist schedule, as I am in the rotation teaching academic, career, and emotional/social lessons. Some years I am in the rotation, and some years I am out, but either way I make sure I have time in the classroom to educate my students about my program, the role of a school counselor, and preventative skills and strategies.
  7. PREPPING FOR BACK TO SCHOOL AND/OR OPEN HOUSE: School-wide events are a great time to advocate for your program and be visible to your students and families. My school creates a theme each year for Open House, when students arrive to meet their teachers and complete a scavenger hunt to meet the specialists. I always make sure I am included on the scavenger hunt and am listed using the correct title of “School Counselor.” This year, I am setting up a booth in our main foyer to meet as many families as possible! I’ve created a fun bulletin board and am using a spinner and conversation cubes to keep it engaging for students. I also have a New Student Welcome Letter I update and print for all parents outlining my counseling program and mission statement. Advocacy is key!
  8. BUDGET: Throughout the year in the back of my planner, I keep a running wishlist of resources I’m interested in purchasing for my program. In May, I place an order through my school and beginning in July, I can purchase additional resources, so this list is helpful to know how to best budget my counselor allotments. Consider where you might have a budget to spend, whether it is provided by your school, district, or PTO/PTA. Once you know your budget, prioritize the resources you need the most, from books to games to curriculum. In the past, I’ve written grants and even attended a summer-long class to acquire additional resources and technology for my classroom.
  9. ORGANIZING YOUR SCHOOL COUNSELOR RESOURCES: Full disclosure — I color-code *most* of my books. I started this with my kids’ bookcases at home and absolutely loved the look of it. But I also organize very specific counseling books by theme into labeled resource tubs, such as Grief & Loss, Family Changes, and Anxiety & Worry. I have a basket of fidgets I keep on my table, any water/sensory toys stay out on my windowsill, and art supplies are usually put away until needed.
  10. CURRICULUM PLANNING: Using the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, I map out my curriculum for the year. I do this before teachers return so that I can dedicate my undivided attention to the task. Then I begin to focus on my first several lessons for each of the grade levels I teach, beginning with an initial lesson about the role of a school counselor and how they can reach out for help. I also use this time to establish classroom routines, expectations, and we do fun icebreakers! My lessons are currently 45 minutes, once every 12 days in a rotation. I make sure that my class rosters are printed and ready with medical notes and other needs listed so that I can keep track of my classes and student attendance and so that I can work on learning their names from Day 1!

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but I find having these tasks completed before the first day of school frees me up to remain visible those first few days, checking in on new students and greeting students as they arrive instead of scrambling in my office prepping for whatever the day may bring. I can connect more readily with teachers while also feeling prepared for my classroom lessons and crises that will inevitably arise.

Oh, and a good cup of coffee also goes a long way, too! 😉

What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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