Separation Anxiety and School

We all have to face that big day:  our little one’s first day of school.  Some kids are ready to jump out of the nest – some are glued to mommy’s knee.  Either way, it is often a heart-wrenching, gut-turning moment for most of us.  My boy, who is a pretty adventurous, independent spirit, definitely needed me to stand close by for a while.  And secretly, I was glad!!  I had the honor of being guided through this experience by Mary Hartzell, a longtime early childhood educator whose approach acknowledges the toll of this experience, often more for the parent than child.  Her ideas really helped us during this transition, so I wanted to share them with you all.  If you’re struggling right now, I hope this will help you gain more understanding on both sides of the equation.  You’ll be so proud of your little one (and yourself) soon!  – Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC

Starting School – Who Feels More Anxiety About Separation, Parent or Child?

by Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.

For children and parents, September often brings change.  It’s a time of transitions.  Children are starting new schools or going off to nursery school for the first time.  Excitement increases, and along with it, separation anxiety. Not just on the part of the child but for the parent as well.  Particularly for the one who has been the major caregiver, most often the Mother.

Separation usually brings up conflictual feelings, and parents need to be aware of and deal with their own emotions first in order to help their child deal with their feelings.  Our own first separation experience often determines how we will respond to our child.  Try to remember what your first day at school felt like.  If it feels frightening, remember your child does not need to have your experience.  She will have her own and you can help to make it successful.

First be aware that your child will have ambivalent feelings and your job is to listen to and reflect back her feelings.  Mirroring a child’s feelings helps her understand what is happening to her.  “It’s a little scary starting school.  You want to go because it looks like fun, but you wish you could be with Mom too.”  Although she wants to grow up, she still wants to make sure she is your little girl.  At each step, nursery school through college, your child is moving towards independence and being away from the safety of the family.

Know that your child wants and needs to make these steps towards independence successfully.  He wants to feel good about his own ability to handle things.  Separation is a gradual process.  Each move towards autonomy can trigger fears of the unknown and a sense of loss over what is left behind.

A parent’s job is to help a child master the separation experiences, by acknowledging the anxieties while encouraging and supporting the autonomous behavior.  This can be difficult because a parent must give up some of their own “need to be needed.”

Separation requires an ability to establish trust – trust in the process of growth.  Trust in other people with whom our child spends time, and trust in our child to handle new situations with guidance and support.

Establishing a safe and trusting relationship with a teacher is especially important for young children.  They need to know that someone will take care of them, and who that someone is. Express your confidence in the school you have chosen.  Make a visit to school and take pictures of the teachers and environment so your child can remember and talk about school while at home.  Remember your job is not to ask lots of questions, but to reflect and listen.  Asking too many questions indicates your own anxiety which can get transferred to the child. If Mom is worried then maybe there is something to worry about.

Visit the school with your child so he can explore the environment and in the safety of your presence.  Be sure to let a young child know that you are only visiting, that you will stay with him and leave together.

Plan to stay the first day.  You are the anchor, so stay in one place.  Your child can come and go from you and know exactly where to find you.  Bring a book or something to occupy your attention.  Your child will experience this gentle separation of your attention while still being able to come to you whenever necessary.

Your job is not to make sure your child has a “good time” and participates in all the activities.  Let her warm up to things at her own pace.  She may not get fully involved until after you leave.

You may need to stay with her for several days, each day leaving for a longer period of time, so she can build up the experience of your leaving and returning.  But,  when there is some comfort level with the teacher you’ll want to give your child a vote of confidence, test the waters and leave.  Otherwise your ambivalence will translate into confusion and anxiety for the child, and separation becomes more difficult.

Establish a transition routine that your child creates with you.  “How would you like to say goodbye?  Do you want to give me a kiss and a hug, or wave goodbye from the door?”  “I know sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye.  What kind of goodbye would feel best for you?”  When it’s time to leave, don’t linger, it only makes a child more anxious, because he is anticipating your departure.

Let your child know that it is okay for him to be sad or mad.  And the teacher will take good care of him while you are away.  If a child needs to cry to express his sadness,  that’s okay, too.  It is hard on the parent, but if the child takes comfort from the teacher and recovers quickly, it’s an appropriate way for a young child to express sadness at separation, and doesn’t mean that you or he has failed.  Encourage the teacher to make a home visit if the school doesn’t routinely do it.  A 15 minute home visit from the teacher can make a significant difference in a child’s sense of safety at school.

Be sure to talk about and deal with your own separation anxiety with someone who can listen to you.  Then you will have enough separation yourself to help your child with her feelings.

Transitions are a time of growth.  It is not helpful to falsely “protect” your child from new developmentally-appropriate experiences that might not be comfortable at first.  The competence that comes from mastery is something that each child experiences for herself.  With loving guidance you can support a child through a new, albeit difficult experience, to a greater sense of her own self as a competent, lovable person.

Mary Hartzell is M.Ed., Director of The First Presbyterian Nursery School in Los Angeles.  She is also a Parent Educator and Child Development Specialist, with a private practice in Santa Monica.

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Re-post from September 2010

Posted in: Expert Advice, Happiness, Emotions, School