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Back-to-School Separation Anxiety

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Q: My 3-year-old son just started preschool. He was in a home day care prior to this. He's okay until we get to the classroom. Then he grabs my leg and cries. It's really hard to see this every day. Is there something I can say to him or do prior to arriving at the school? I want this transition to go as smoothly as possible.

Q: My son is 3 1/2 years old. My husband and I decided to enroll him in preschool, but he does not want to stay there. He grabs my leg for dear life and screams terribly for me not to let him stay alone. If I stay with him, he is fine. What should I do?

Q: Our 5-year-old son is having a terrible time adjusting to kindergarten. We spent two hours the day before school letting him explore the classroom and meet the teacher. The next day, he was anxious to go to school, but he fell apart when we left. We visited for lunch as promised, but this just started the crying again. When his dad dropped him off the next day, he was a bit better, but he still cried on and off throughout the day. I've talked with him about his apprehensions, but his answer is always that he wants me with him or he just wants to be at home. I have been advised to bring him to school and not come back until pick-up time. Is this really the best thing to do? It seems like throwing a child into the pool and letting him figure out how to swim. I would appreciate your input.

Q: We have a 6-year-old son who just started first grade. His first week was fine, but the second week has been terrible. He kicked and screamed and cried all the way to school. We tried different things, but nothing seemed to work. We even changed teachers at his request. We would gladly appreciate any advice from you.

A: I am hoping that seeing four of the many questions I have received about separating at the start of the school year will help to reassure these parents and others that their children's reactions are normal, common, and deserving of respect, as are the adults' feelings. Every child separates at a different rate, in his or her own way. There is nothing weaker or stronger about one or another. Young children are understandably caught between the urge for independence and the need to be safe. They want to be big; they want to go to school, to play with new toys and with new friends, but it takes time to be comfortable away from their safety nets. And why shouldn't it? Whether they are away from home for the first time or returning, whether they are in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade, they are wrestling with the same normal conflicts. If we trust them and trust ourselves, we can help them to ease the transition and conquer the fear.

You can begin by making the separation gradual, letting the child take as much time as he needs to be comfortable in the new environment. That means one parent or other adult who is very close to the child stays in the classroom until it is clear that child is ready to try brief separations. There should be no sneaking out. Make a very specific agreement when the time comes to leave the room, such as, "How about if I come back right after snack?" Good-bye rituals often help at that point, such as a special hug and wave through the window. Keeping something meaningful from home in the cubbie can help too. Pick a school that respects the needs of young children and parents — or work toward helping the staff at your school see the benefits of this developmentally appropriate way of managing separation issues.

About the Author

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.

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