A child’s first time at preschool is exciting, but like all other big transitions, it can cause of a lot of anxiety for both you and your preschooler. For many kids, the start of preschool is their first big transition, so the feeling of not knowing what to expect is especially strong, and separation anxiety is common. Here are Joyce Preschool’s top tips for soothing your child’s fears of goodbye and easing them into the transition.
Practice goodbyes before their first day. The main fear of a child’s separation anxiety is the uncertainty of when or if their parents will come back after a goodbye. You can help teach your child that you’ll always come back after a goodbye by practicing goodbyes in small ways. When your child is very young, a simple game of peekaboo shows that even if they can’t see you for a moment, you’re still there and they will see you again. As they get older, a game of hide and seek can teach them that you’ll always reunite after a brief time away. And as the first day of preschool approaches, you can start practicing consistent goodbyes by leaving them for short periods of time with family members or on playdates.
Familiarize them with their new setting. If you can, bring your child on a few visits to their future preschool and meet their new teacher before the first day. Some programs will have this built in to the new family experience: each year Joyce Preschool hosts Welcome Days where parents, preschoolers, and teachers can meet and get to know each other in the classroom. When your preschooler sees you talking to their new teacher, it lets them know that person is safe and trusted. If visiting the classroom with your preschooler isn’t an option, try taking pictures of the classroom and toys. Showing these to your preschooler can help make them excited about the space, or by calling their attention to a fun toy you don’t have at home that they can look forward to using.
Let them know what’s going on. Before your child’s first day talk to them about what will happen, and continue doing so in order to make a predictable and familiar routine. Joyce Teacher Thressa recommends talking about concrete actions that will happen that morning. For example, “First we’ll put away your backpack and lunch, then we’ll say hi to your teacher and friends, then we’ll say goodbye with a hug and a kiss and Mommy will leave for work.” Even if your child is crying or particularly upset, keep this routine consistent and resist staying longer. Do the same for letting them know when you’ll be back. When preschoolers are having a particularly hard time with separation anxiety, teachers can help too. Joyce Teachers sometimes make visual charts showing the child each step of the day before they will see their parents again. This way, when a student misses a parent they can just go to their cubby and see that all they have to do is eat lunch and have circle time before being picked up.
Bring a piece of home into your child’s classroom. A small stuffed animal, a corner of their favorite blankie, any comfort object that reminds them of you and home.
Make time for drop off. Especially early in the school year, wake them up early enough for a relaxed and unrushed morning. It is important that your child feels they have your full attention during your goodbye. If you become stressed and are running late for work, your child senses that anxiety and hurriedness and may become more anxious themselves. Don’t prolong your goodbye, but consider if it benefits your child to leave five extra minutes to do a short activity before you leave, particularly during the first few days.
Ritualize your goodbye. An expected, consistent, and customized goodbye that you share with your child can go a long way. If you can, create this goodbye before the first day: two kisses and a hug, a butterfly kiss and an ‘I love you’, a special handshake. Customize it to you and your child, considering the signs of affection that make them feel safe. Your goodbye shouldn’t be drawn out, and when the ritual is over they know it’s time for you to leave.
Stay calm. Your preschooler learns and reacts to your own emotions. Leaving your child can be emotional, but if you express anxiety and sadness your child may fear that something bad is happening. Let your child know there is nothing to worry about by making the goodbye fun and light. Try making a goofy face before you leave, or happily waving through the window. Then, if you need to, revisit their baby pictures in the car and cry for a minute! Your emotions are valid, but make sure you take care of your child’s emotional needs too.
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