As a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in the Back to School frenzy of school supplies, uniforms, carpools and classroom assignments as we prepare our children for the first day of school. But without the emotional support he or she needs, your child may not be prepared to make the transition from home to school.
Whether your child is returning back to school from the summer break or experiencing his first day of school, he or she may feel anxious about the experience. While many children typically experience back to school jitters, some suffer from a more serious emotional state known as separation anxiety. “It’s normal that some children have difficulty with the first day of school because it’s a new experience but if it lasts more than a day or two, you need to address it,” explains Annette Mont, a certified child therapist who has counseled many families on this issue. “Children are curious and when they come to a new situation they want to explore. A child who clings to his mother instead of investigating his new environment and enjoying the experience has a problem and often that problem is the parent.”

If your child dreads the idea of going to school, cries, throws tantrums, seems depressed or physically ill, he or she may be experiencing separation anxiety and you the parent could be root of the problem as well as the solution. Separation anxiety is defined as an unhealthy or debilitating attachment between parent and child that renders the child unable to cope without the presence of his or her parent. It can also work in reverse where the parent is suffering from a debilitating inability to separate from the child.

Educator and Montessori School Director Shelia Linville has seen separation anxiety in parents as well children and remembers one case where the mom was the source and solution. “ Every morning, I greeted the carpool line,” explains Linville of Lake Mary Montessori Academy,” and there was this one three year old girl named Jessica and each day her mom would pull up in the arrival line crying as she dropped off her daughter. Jessica would also cry. After several days, I asked Jessica why she was crying as I held her hand and walked her into our class. Her response was, ‘Ms Linville, I’m supposed to cry because Mommy cries and that’s what mommies and children do when they come to school.’  I called her mother and explained that Jessica was crying to please her mother. The mother felt bad but understood it was she who set the expectations.  The next morning, all was new- mom was happy and waving and Jessica was smiling as she bounded from the car and ran to greet her classmates.  No more tissues were needed!”

Parents are often surprised to learn that separation anxiety can strike at any point during the school year, regardless of whether a child experienced a smooth start. “Parents should understand that separation anxiety can happen at various points during your child’s education,” explains Linville, who presents parenting workshops on the topic of transitioning children from home to school. “Separation anxiety can occur after any break in a child’s regular routine. For instance, after the child has been sick for several days and at home nurtured by mom, or after a holiday break or vacation. Some children experience these emotions at the end of the school year because they feel sad about leaving their friends. “

In her child and family therapy practice, Mont found that parents unwittingly foster separation anxiety by thinking of their child as an extension of themselves. “There are some parents who are wonderful when the child is an infant because he is very dependent. When the child moves out into the world, the parent has a difficult time sharing the child with the world. These parents often fear being abandoned by their children.”

What Spells a Successful Start to the School Year?

The start of school is an emotional experience that requires more than logistical planning. Don’t wait until the night before school starts to make it part of your child’s thought process or address your child’s concerns.  Preparing your child for a successful transition from home to school is a process that requires your time, energy and attention. Mont encourages parents to practice being apart from their child with opportunities such as playdates in other homes. “Gradually, leave the child for a half hour then progress to an hour. If a child is secure that mommy is coming back, they’ll be fine. If a child is crying because they are afraid mommy is not coming back, it’s from a negative experience they’ve had that needs to be addressed.”

If your child expresses concern or feels nervous about the first day of school, there are several ways to help your child get used to the idea. To find out how your child feels about going to school, Mont suggests role-playing. “As the parent, play the part of the teacher and ask your child ‘What do you think will happen when you are in school?’ then exchange roles and let your child take the lead as the teacher. It’s important to allow the child to direct the role playing so you see what he is thinking and can correct misconceptions. Have the child draw pictures of how he or she envisions school. Set up school in the house and play school with homework, books and recess.”

Because children pick up on the emotional cues of parents, it’s important as the parent, to get excited about the first day of school. A nervous parent can project these feelings onto his or her child making the transition or return to school a negative experience. “The best advice I can give families is to prepare their child for the first day with enthusiasm. Even if you are nervous about the impending event, reassure your child that he or she will be happy at school and that other children share your child’s feelings of apprehension,” explains Linville. “Communicate to your child that it’s OK to be apart from you.”

School visits and orientations are effective ways to familiarize your child with the idea of going to school, alleviate his or her concerns and get the child excited about school. “Prepare the child by walking him through his day. Tour the classroom, meet the teachers, learn where the bathroom is located, where students put their lunches etc. Also practice with your child saying his teacher’s names,” advises Linville, who hosts an annual Back To School Night and Come Meet Your Teacher Day at Lake Mary Montessori Academy. Linville says that establishing a relationship with the child’s teacher helps ease a parent’s anxiety and communicates to the child that the teacher is someone he can feel safe and at ease with away from home. If the parent likes the teacher, often these positive feelings are reflected in the child’s relationship with his instructor.

If your child’s school doesn’t offer an orientation event, consider hosting a meet and greet party or playdate with parents and new classmates. Make back to school an event. Shop for school supplies and uniforms together. Above all, encourage your child that he or she will be fine without you and that school will be fun.

When the first day of school arrives, if your child is uneasy about being apart from you, Mont suggests sending your picture or something that has your smell, so your child feels as if you are with them and feels secure. Send love notes in his or her lunch box and pictures of the family.  Smile with encouraging words as you drop off your child and reassure him. “Don’t linger peeking through the windows, your child will sense your anxiousness,” Linville advises. “ Just as soon as your child gets settled in, seeing you peer in the window can start her crying again. Parents should be loving but decisive about leaving their child at school. If your child is having difficulty with you leaving, tell her you love her but walk away if the teacher needs to assist her into the classroom.”

A positive start to the day also affects your child’s attitude towards school. It’s important to establish a happy, peaceful morning routine that isn’t stressful for the parent and child. “Play peaceful music in the car, turn off your cell phone…completely focus on the children until after the car pool line so your child doesn’t need inappropriate attention, which can be misread as being nervous about school, advises Linville.

If your child is unhappy at school or having difficulty with the experience of being apart from you, don’t dwell on those feelings or overreact.  Encourage her by saying “I know at school you are happy and safe.” Don’t pressure your child to make friends but rather ask her what was fun about school. Never, never cry when you drop off your child. Even if your child is excited about school, your reactions will turn it into a negative experience.

How Can Educators Help?

But for all the preparation at home, educators also play an important role in making the transition from home to school a pleasant experience. “Educators can create a warm and friendly atmosphere for the children by playing name games, singing familiar songs, reading stories that reflect the theme of the first day of school or a story about how much mommy loves them, suggests Linville. “Encouraging playground games such as duck-duck goose and London bridge help to create friendships and a sense of community for the children, which is very important to the transition process. “

Regardless of whether the child is a Kindergartner or older elementary age student, Linville says that the focus of the first school day should be on the emotional and social development of the children as individuals in a community of friends and learners.

The Source and Solution of Separation Anxiety:

One of the parenting challenges in today’s world is the ability to strike a balance between protecting your child from harm’s way without being overprotective. It’s hard to ignore headlines of child kidnappings and other crimes involving children but parents who dwell on these things unconsciously transfer that anxiety to their own children. “Some parents behave in such a way that says to the child, ‘You need me to be safe in the world’,” explains Mont.  “Smart parenting means keeping your child safe without making the child feel he or she is unsafe without you. For example, if you’re concerned about your child spending the night away from home, ask your child to invite the friend for a sleepover instead without saying ‘ You can’t sleep over because I’ll worry about your safety’,”

Mont says that a constant message of fear can have serious effects on a child’s development. Children may suffer from feelings of inadequacy, phobias or depression. They may be teased by kids in school for being a mommy’s boy or crybaby because of an intense attachment to the parent.

“I had a case where the parents said to the child that the world is not safe without them. They didn’t let the child go on school trips or down the block to visit friends. As this child grew older, he began acting out in extreme ways because of his feelings of inadequacy,” says Mont.

It’s important to help your child develop a sense of independence and self-confidence. Empower children by giving them choices and letting them make decisions. “ Parents who don’t do this are saying to the child ‘Mommy needs to be there and you can’t get along without her.’ You have to give children a sense of empowerment so that they are capable of making choices. If a child is incapable of making choices how can he or she leave your side?” explains Mont.

For Kindergartners, that first day of school marks a proud advance towards independence and entry into the big kids world while older students are simply excited to return to school and reunite with old friends. It’s typical for children to be anxious those first few days. But if you make school a part of your child’s thought process in advance, talk with your child about his or her feelings and concerns, and familiarize him with the new teacher and classmates, those Back to School jitters are soon forgotten.

Annette Mont is a Certified Child Therapist MSW and holds a Masters in Counseling. She offers a parenting workshop on a variety of topics including coping with separation anxiety.

Sheila Linville is the Director of Lake Mary Montessori Academy and holds a BA from Centenary College,  a M.A.T. from Rollins College and her American Montessori Society pre-primary teaching credentials.

Side Bars:

Back to School Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t
•    Support your child’s anxious feelings
•    Talk to her teacher about her feelings
•    Pressure her to make friends. Instead ask her what was fun about school
•    Dwell on your child’s negative feelings or over react
•    Cry when you drop off the child
•    Linger and peek into the classroom windows

Do
•    Smile and reassure your child when you take her to school
•    Walk away if the teacher needs to assist her into the classroom
•    Send love notes in her lunch box and pictures of her family
•    Get to know other moms
•    Set up playdates with classmates
•    Establish a peaceful, happy morning routine

Tips for Making School Part of the Thought Process:
•    Role play school with your child
•    Read books about school
•    Visit the school, attend orientation and meet the teacher
•    Shop together for Back to School clothes and supplies
•    Host a playdate or orientation party
•    Empower your child with choices to learn independence