We all want our kids to come home from school chattering happily about their day, but that doesn’t always happen. Separation can feel very different and very real for children, especially at the start of a school year when they are taking on so many new challenges.

Among the list of things that children need to adapt to, count on these to pile on pressure:

  • It can feel really hard following classroom rules
  • Getting to know a roomful of children can be daunting
  • Days can feel long
  • Even the best teacher can’t offer constant emotional connection
  • They may have separation anxiety
  • Some children may dislike transitions or find them difficult to cope with

Going to school can feel like a big separation, even when a child is enthusiastic about it. That distance can be hard for a child to describe. “Young children under stress won’t be able to articulate what they are feeling, but they will be able to give you signals with their behavior when things aren’t going well,” says Hand in Hand Parenting’s Heidi Russell.

Her son would happily talk about the start of school in the days leading up to it, but he also became more clingy at bedtime. Heidi saw that this was his way of saying he needed a little more attention than usual to feel safe and secure.

How does school stress play out? Because children have a harder time accessing the language they might need to tell you something is wrong, look out for signs that stress has set in.

During the first few weeks, you might notice some of these early signs:

  • Can’t maintain eye contact
  • Doesn’t want to be touched
  • Shows inflexible, uncooperative behavior
  • Not open to choice or change—kids want things done in specific ways even when given a choice
  • Attention stuck on playthings, and they might not want to interact with others
  • They may not include other children in play, or they may choose to play with just a certain child or children
  • They may want you closer than normal or become clingy
  • Listlessness or becoming unfocused on tasks and/or play
  • Holding onto a comfort item
  • Stuck in repetitive play or activities

Why does distance matter?

School means distance away from the people a child loves most, and this can be tough on our little ones. Their connection to us feels broken. The region of our brain that detects safety and connection, the limbic system, senses this break and moves into protection mode.

“It’s like a big internal alarm goes off, emotions and fears can flood their brain in that moment and temporarily shut down the capacity to reason and cooperate,” says Marilupe de la Calle at Hand in Hand Parenting. This gives way first to the early warning signs listed above, which are then often followed by tears and tantrums.

One-on-one time boosts trust

During times of transition, it really helps to meet your child where they are. A daily session of time spent together in play is a great way to do this. Set a clock for five or 10 minutes and tell your child that you are free to do whatever they’d like with them during this Special Time. Simply follow their lead.

Rein in any criticism of their choice and fight the urge to direct things. The limbic section of their brain can calm as it picks up on these regular safe play sessions. And, since play is a child’s language, they may actually express more about what’s going on with them than if you had just asked through what they choose to play, or how they play.

Make time to listen

If there’s any time you can bank on some extra crying or tantrums, it’s around the start of school. Because tears are a great way to relieve the stress your child is feeling, allow yourself extra time to listen as these troubles come tumbling out.

Give your child ample time and support to let these feelings go. If your child fights you every step of the way in the mornings, try getting up 10 minutes early. If they need extra stories and snuggles at night, factor in an earlier bedtime routine until they are feeling more secure.

Up the fun levels

Laughter goes a long way in helping a child bust through stress, helping him feel safe and secure. Make things as playful as possible from the start.

If he needs help dressing, try putting some items on the wrong way to get some giggles. Or give her bowl of cereal a personality and have it talk to her. Or race your kids out to the car. After school, pillow fights, chase games or hide and seek can be a fun and playful way to reconnect.