As the long days of summer come to an end, families are getting their little ones ready to go back to school. But, times of transition can spark a little separation anxiety in kids and you might find yourself Googling, "how to help a child with anxiety about school." The entire family might even experience a little fear, anxiety or sadness with all of these changes. After all, change is never easy.
However, it's important to remember that separation anxiety is a normal part of child development, especially in times of change. Some anxiety about starting school is to be expected—in fact, it's one of the few things that remains the same despite the changes we've all faced since 2020.
It's important to remember that a positive partnership between you and your child's school can greatly support the transition and ease anxiety. Communicating regularly about your child with their teacher allows for children and families to feel connected to one another and builds trust.
So, as you prepare to drop off your child at school, try these strategies to help your child, and you, cope with separation anxiety.
1. Visit the school together
Even if the usual orientation process at your child's school has gone through some changes since 2020, you can still walk or drive together to the school building and talk about the playground, the entrance and where the classrooms are. Getting both of you familiar with their new environment will help to ease the anxiety of the unknown. Plus, it just might get your child excited to attend.
2. Involve your child in the process
This is especially crucial if they're transitioning schools. They might be anxious about starting the school year at a new school or program, and if they have some sense of control in the change, this may ease their worries. A great way to facilitate involvement is to let your child choose their back to school items like a backpack, lunch box, water bottle and pencil case.
3. Address your own anxiety
Talk with your spouse, a friend or a current parent at the school your child is attending to get a feel for what to expect. And, feel free to speak with teachers at the school and other parents in your child's classroom so you're able to become more familiar with the new place.
4. Understand the process of dropping off and picking up
Drop-off and pick-up can be a bit stressful since there are new processes to get used to. Ask ahead of time to see if there are any specifics to it—where do parents gather to pick up their little ones? Do you need a name tag for your car? Get everything set up so you're ready to go on the first day.
5. Involve your child in establishing routines and stick to them
It's important to stick to a daily routine, prior to the start of the school year, so that children know that even though there may be some changes, they will know what to expect.
Try things like: picking outfits for school the night before, helping to pack snacks or lunch and setting a bedtime and wake up routine. It might take a little time to get into a good routine that works for everyone, but collaborating with your child will simplify the process.
6. Discuss what your child's day at school may look like
Most of the time, kids are a little nervous because they're not sure what to expect. Grab their rubric or syllabus and walk them through what might happen each day. Highlight the fun times, like play time outdoors or music class.
7. Validate your child's concerns
Changes are scary, and while children are resilient, you should still validate that their anxiety is real. Model for them that you have some of those feelings as well, share with them stories where you had to go through changes (at work, in a new role, etc.). Make them feel heard.
8. Read books
A good book about first day jitters can help your little one feel better (and hopefully fall asleep faster!) the night before. Check out some of our favorites below.
During morning drop off:
- Inform your child that you will not be staying in the classroom and you will return.
- Remain calm and confident.
- Praise your child for their efforts.
- Be one of the first parents to drop-off.
- Develop a special goodbye routine, such as a special handshake, wave or high-five.
At the end of the day:
- Be one of the first to pick-up.
- Review classroom work or pictures together.
- Talk about their day and be specific ("Did you use the slide today?" "Tell me, what did you enjoy during art time today?").
- Reciprocate by talking about your day and experiences, too.
A version of this post was published August 21, 2019. It has been updated.