You know how people always say that our kids feed off adults’ energy? Like if they scrape a knee and instead of gasping and charging over to cover it in antibiotic ointment and a bandage, we just kinda check in and see if they’re ok? The kids usually don’t panic and cry in fear if we hold it together, right? Well, that’s the energy I’m trying to channel this school year. The chill-check-in-type instead of the neurotic-first-aid-kit-in-the-fanny-pack-type ready to call 911 over a scraped elbow. But it’s extra hard to not be overly anxious this year. Surprise! A lot of us - kids and parents - are super-duper tense this autumn (thanks, global pandemic). This last year and a half with schools being remote, parents working from home, and many activities canceled, we’ve spent a lot of time with just our immediate family members in our own homes. And while that has had benefits in strengthening our familial bonds, when it comes time to part ways for a few hours this month for preschool, that separation may feel more wrought with anxiety than it would in a typical year. It’s tricky. We parents need to straddle a crevasse of reassuring our kiddos that it’s safe for them to be outside of our homes with others and away from us while simultaneously dealing with any anxiety we may be feeling about sending them off to school.
But that first day of school should be such a positive milestone for a family! And yes, some separation anxiety is perfectly normal for kiddos. But we don’t want to let the fear of being away from their parents overtake the joy and excitement that comes with the first day of school. So here are a few proactive steps you can take to lessen some of that stress and tension floating around and start the school year off on a positive foot.
- Involve your kiddo in the preparations - Feeling out of control (whether it be for our little or for us) is a big contributor to anxiety. Bring your child in on the planning and preparations to help him grasp some control of the situation. Let them choose their backpacks, lunch boxes, shop for school supplies, plan the first day of school outfits, pick snacks, etc. (Lots of preschoolers don’t need supplies, but it’s ok to throw some crayons and markers in that bag - kids *love* to have things in their backpacks.) Not only does this give them a sense of control, but it can help build excitement and offer lots of opportunities to talk about school.
- Pack something small from home - Maybe it’s a little lovey in his backpack, a sticker on her shirt, or a family photo in her cubby. Something from home (that’s not terribly distracting) can be a source of comfort for your little one if he feels insecure about being out in the world away from you. My son oddly likes to bring his Magic 8 Ball for a sense of security and home when we travel. Is this a huge pain to pack around? It is decidedly so. But go figure - it makes him feel better and wards off homesickness and anxiety.
- Read books about preschool - Reading to your little one about preschool packs a one-two punch. You get in some extra, cuddly, reading time that he might be needing as well as help him understand and process what the upcoming days with school will look like. A helpful librarian or friend with older kids can point you in the right direction, but a few suggestions are: The Night Before Preschool by Natasha Wing, Daniel Goes to School: a Daniel Tiger Book, by Becky Friedman and Jason Fruchter, The Pigeon HAS to Go to School by Mo Willems, Dinosaur vs. School by Bob Shea, Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney, and I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child.
- Validate their feelings - I remember telling my preschooler that it was ok, everyone was a little nervous the first day of school to which he replied, “But I am all the way nervous!” I think we’ve all felt that knee-jerk response of you’ll be fine/there’s nothing to worry about/you’re ok when our kiddos show fear or anxiety. But try listening first. Use phrases like, I know you’re nervous, it sounds like you’re feeling scared, or what’s worrying you? The more your child feels heard and that his emotions are respected, the more likely he will be receptive to you offering encouragement to face those fears or anxieties.
- Practice your morning routine - You know what doesn’t help anxiety? Last minute rushing around trying to get a kid to eat breakfast while you simultaneously put her hair in a ponytail while the dog barks to be let out that inevitably leads to someone knocking over a full cup of milk onto your laptop. (Trust me, I speak with some authority on this matter.) So practice that morning routine! Know what time everyone needs to be awake so they can be fed and bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed for school drop off without any scrambling…dog included. A few dry runs can work out any kinks.
- Be consistent and positive - It’s not uncommon for kids to cry the first few days of preschool. And yes, it can be gut wrenching. But remind yourself, hey, you researched this preschool and it’s a good fit for your kiddo. You trust them. So even though you may be feeling some trepidation yourself (I totally cried at those first few drop offs), it’s important to be consistent with your child’s school attendance and in your positivity. After all, most kids find preschool tons of fun! And make sure you are clear about saying your goodbyes - don’t just vanish from the classroom. (That can understandably be unnerving to a kiddo if they suddenly find themselves abandoned.) Tell your child goodbye and let him know clearly when you will pick him up in a way he understands (after lunch, right after nap, etc.) After the first few days or so, the transition to school should get easier. (Of course, some separation anxiety is perfectly normal. However, young children can also suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder that causes significant disruption to daily life. Make sure and talk with your kiddo’s pediatrician or therapist if you have concerns.)
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle for your kiddo - With the seismic change that starting school brings on, it’s important to maintain - or, ahem, start? - a healthy lifestyle for children. No, this doesn’t mean cutting red meat and walking at least 10,000 steps a day. But make sure your babes are eating healthy, regular meals, getting plenty of physical activity or play as well as quiet time, and following a consistent bed and waking time. If they have consistent stability at home, that transition to school can feel less upsetting.
Alright! So let’s get those backpacks packed, those lunch boxes loaded, and that perfect outfit laid out. Wake up with plenty of time to have a healthy breakfast and brush those teeth without rushing around. Give big hugs and kisses goodbye at the classroom door and wait until you’re back in the parking lot to give in to your tears. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed to be perfect, but proactive thoughtfulness can help ease separation anxiety on that first day of preschool.