It’s the same thing every morning: You’re approaching your child’s kindergarten, and the tears begin. Your five-year-old is inconsolable, complaining of a stomach ache, begging you not to make her go to school. What’s a parent to do?
One in eight children in America experiences anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety Disorder Associations of America. School drop-off is the prime time for children to exhibit symptoms of anxiety. “Children as young as 3, 4, and 5 years old at times experience distress when leaving a parent or guardian,” notes Kari Alley Melchior, a pre-K teacher at Tulsa Educare in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Periods of transition, such as the start of a new school year or changing schools, can trigger feelings of stress. And a host of factors can exacerbate school drop-off anxiety—from a bad experience at school to bullying to fear of failure, imagined dangers, or separation anxiety, among other things.
The good news is this type of childhood anxiety is common and treatable. So what signs should parents look for? How can teachers, administrators and parents help children cope?
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Difficulty sleeping, crying about school, avoiding school, and feeling sick often are tell-tale signs that your child may be suffering from school drop-off anxiety, explains Michelle Koulentes, school counselor at Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Ruth Slocum, a mental health specialist at Tulsa Educare, urges: “I encourage parents to notice if and when their child shows signs of discomfort or difficulty, especially at transition times or points of separation—drop off to a program, bedtime, even moving from one activity to another. Parents should identify these characteristics and honor them, so the child feels supported.”
As a teacher from Tulsa Educare, Melchior says, “We acknowledge and never dismiss the way children are feeling. We tell them it is OK to feel sad and help them find things to do that might help them feel better.”
HOW TO HELP
Consistency and predictability are key factors, with teachers maintaining well-articulated classroom routines and preparing for transition. Slocum adds, “We also encourage parents to be mindful of their own emotional regulation, so that they can be a calm presence for the child—an upset adult cannot keep a child calm!”
This last point is echoed by every professional consulted for this piece. Melchior says, “We encourage parents to make a quick, predictable morning routine that they can commit to. Some families enjoy reading a book together; for other families who are in more of a hurry we encourage a quick but meaningful goodbye like ‘two big hugs then it’s time for me to leave’ or an I Love You Ritual.”
Slocum adds, “Sometimes parents are tempted to sneak out, thinking that makes it easier. But we find that children struggle more with this approach. The parent is always welcome to contact the school to check on the child.”
Kelsey Horner, a parent of a daughter, who attends Tulsa Educare and experiences drop-off anxiety, shares her morning routine. “I make sure to use the same language: ‘I am leaving now. I love you, and I hope you have the best day. I will pick you up after work.’ Then I leave. I don’t turn around or make eye contact. It seems to work best,” she says.
Tyler Hamilton, a Charlotte, N.C., mom of two daughters, ages 7 and 4, says that her eldest was diagnosed with anxiety at age 4, and she is triggered by unfamiliar scenarios (i.e. attending a new school). When her daughter struggled with preschool drop-off, Hamilton created a morning routine that involved pulling over on the way to school to share a special moment with her daughter. She says that at around the six-week mark, her child started to believe school was OK.
Melchior drives home an important point: “If a parent shows confidence that the child is safe and a belief that the child ‘can handle this,’ then the child most often gains comfort from that approach.”
LEARNING TO COPE
“With some children, we suggest they carry a little reminder of home with them in their pocket to touch if they are feeling upset, and we allow family photos,”offers Gretchen Ivers, a kindergarten teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a private, co-ed pre-k through 12th-grade school in Montclair, N.J. “We also suggest they draw a picture of how they are feeling. We then write down words to acknowledge to the child that it is okay to feel sad/angry/confused when he/she leaves mom/dad.”
Koulentes advocates for teaching anxious students calming strategies that include deep breathing, tensing then releasing parts of their body to relax, doodling, saying the alphabet, singing a song in their heads, squeezing a stress ball, focusing on happy thoughts, and laying down for five-to-10 minutes. She says that if children are struggling with drop off, they have the option to start their day with the school counselor, where they can make sure they are starting the day on a positive note. “Some students will even spend a partial day in the regular classroom and partial day in my office,” she explains, “then we wean them back into full days in the classrooms.”
One of the first progressive education schools in Charlotte, Open Door School institutes an ease-in schedule for pre-k classes. The school year begins with a rotating schedule in which not all the students are in the classroom at once; then the number of students gradually increases until it’s a full class. Hamilton’s younger daughter now attends Open Door, and she benefited from this ease-in schedule, which also allows parents in the classroom and offers a lounge area where parents can wait to see how their children fare during these critical first days of school.
After discussing with other parents how much she valued this ease-in schedule, Hamilton learned that she could have created her own ease-in schedule with her older daughter at her previous school, even though it wasn’t formally offered. “I could have created a half-day schedule for her, and I could have insisted on walking her into the classroom, but I didn’t know it was an option,” she admits. And she urges other parents who have children who have been diagnosed with anxiety to do their homework and know their rights.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
Effective and consistent communication between the teachers/administration and parents/caregivers is crucial to ensuring the child is getting the care that he or she needs. “Let the teacher know the strategies you’re using, and be open to their suggestions,” Horner urges. “It is important that you and the teacher are on the same page.” Ivers agrees that maintaining consistent language between home and school is imperative for successfully dealing with this type of anxiety.
Hamilton emphasizes her number one piece of advice for other parents who are dealing with a child with school drop-off anxiety: “Listen to your gut, and don’t second guess yourself. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, talk to the administration.”
And in the event that working with your child one-on-one and collaborating with the teachers do not seem to be achieving the desired result, talk with a social worker or therapist. “When anxiety impedes a child from engaging in everyday school activities in a healthy and productive manner, we refer them to the school social worker to get additional help,” Ivers explains.
“Go see somebody so that your child has the tools to realize that school is a safe place and she’ll be ok,” says Hamilton, who sought help for her daughter from Southeast Psych, a well-respected practice in Charlotte. “Don’t stress about talking to a professional. It’s about arming your child with ways to help them to help themselves.”