Separation anxiety and overall homesickness are normal emotions that many children experience when heading off to their first school experience, which is typically preschool. According to Child Mind Institute, separation anxiety can be categorized as children fearing something happening to their parents while they’re at school, or apprehension of a new situation in which they don’t have immediate support from their parents and family.
Jane Mayers, director of the early childhood center at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, and Dani Ortiz, toddler teacher assistant at The Lillian and Betty Ratner School in Pepper Pike, said a lot of the fear stems from a change in routine.
“They have made that bond with their caregiver at home whether it is the parent, grandparent or nanny,” Mayers explained. “Their home is a safe place for them and changing their environment can be scary for some children. They don’t have the understanding yet to know that mom and dad will be back to get them.”
In situations where children go to the same school as their older sibling but are still nervous, Ortiz said it’s because they’re experiencing the environment in a new way. But, to soothe these feelings, she added teachers have a few options.
“It’s about helping them feel like they fit in the classroom and that they are welcomed,” she noted. “It helps them feel better. Also, if teachers know the family and even know names, it comforts them. It’s about asking them different questions and build that trust with them.”
To do that, Ortiz said the teacher she works with creates a questionnaire at the beginning of the year. They ask about the family and its dynamics, like who lives with the student, the names of their pets and their favorite activities at home.
“Just knowing those names lets the child know you’re not scary,” Ortiz stated. “It shows them that we’re here to get to know them on a more personal level. If a child is really upset, you can ask them about their feelings. It’s about opening that line of communication and giving them the words to express themselves.”
Mayers suggested teachers acknowledge how the child is feeling, make sure they feel validated and suggest they channel that energy into something productive.
“The child can make a picture to give to mom/dad when they’re picked up,” she said. “Maybe have the teacher write the words on the picture of how the child is feeling.”
Before the first day, Mayers said parents should bring their child to visit the school.
“This allows them to meet the teacher, read books about going to school and maybe meet with another child that will be in his/her class,” she stated.
Parents can also talk to their child about what they should expect from their first day, Ortiz noted.
“Just talk to them about what is going to happen and what will happen throughout the day,” she said. “I was a very anxious kid growing up, so my parents telling me and walking me through different things, it helped me. Also, getting children through the steps of what happens in a school day can help a lot.”
It doesn’t hurt if a parent is calm through the process too, as a child’s first day of preschool can be an emotional experience.
“Don’t hover over them in everything they do,” Ortiz said. “For parents, just staying back and giving the teacher that trust helps a lot. The child feeds off of that and they know then that it’s OK to be where they are and it’s OK to feel what they feel.”
Mayers said, “Reassure your child that they are going to be safe, that you will come to pick them up and that they will have fun experiences at school. We tell parents that what they’re feeling is normal, and we know they are putting their precious cargo into our hands and that we will take excellent care of their child and keep them safe.”