CATHERINE ELDRIDGE, Child & Adolescent Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology.
It’s that time of year again when school carparks are now full again, 40 km/hour school zones are back and the school year starts again. The new school year may bring a range of emotions, including nerves, excitement and anticipation as senior students aim to complete their VCE and VCAL programs, year seven students begin their transition into secondary school with increased independence and responsibility for their own learning, and a new group of four and five year olds start their kindergarten and primary school programs.
Four or five year old children may have different thoughts and feelings about starting their transition into education. This could be a wave of excitement and anticipation with some five year olds wearing their school uniforms around the house a week prior to school beginning, through to nerves or even anxiety about starting their education or being away from parents or siblings for long periods of time. Not forgetting the parents: emotions may be running at an all-time high, ranging from pride and excitement for their children progressing into the next stage of their learning and development, to nerves that their children will have a positive experience in their new learning environment; or even a sense of loss in the transition into a new stage of childhood.
For some young children, the process of separating from their parents into a new environment can bring intense emotions and in some cases, some separation anxiety. These can include tears, tantrums, clingy behaviours and pleads for parents not to leave. The following tips may be helpful for families as they make this transition with their children into kindergarten and primary school education:
Acknowledge the transition for both children and parents.
A range of thoughts and feelings from excitement, nerves and fear may come and some difficulties with separation can be a common experience for many families. Help children to recognize their feelings and validate their emotions as okay, rather than dismiss their feelings. This can help young children to understand and tolerate their emotions until they pass. It is also important for parents to acknowledge their own feelings about separation. However, aim to leave school promptly after saying goodbye to your child and where possible try not to let your child seeing you very upset at goodbye time.
Use available opportunities to practice the separation process.
This may begin with brief periods of separation and building up to longer periods of time as your child’s confidence in managing separation grows.
Work together with the teacher to help your child.
Your child’s teacher may encourage you to stay for a short period of time on the first day(s) to assist your child in settling into their new environment. Be guided by the teacher to assist during this early phase.
Establish a simple drop-off and goodbye routine with your child.
Try to help your child learn a predictable routine before school. Removing the temptation for a drawn-out process of “just one more minute” may help your child to feel increased confidence in coping with the goodbye. Secret handshakes, a “one kiss, one hug” routine or other methods can help by making the goodbye process short, but individual and special, for the child. Select a “pick up spot” so your child knows where you will be waiting for them at pick up time (and as much as possible, try not to be late!).
Support their transition with a comfort object or toy.
When children are first adjusting to new environments, they may wish to take a comfort object (such as a favorite toy) to assist them in coping with this change. You will be able to use opportunities once your child is feeling more settled and comfortable in their new surroundings to phase this process out.
Give them something to remind them of you.
You may wish to provide your child with a small, non-breakable and inexpensive object of yours to keep while attending kindergarten or school. Suitable objects can be a scarf or handkerchief that they could keep in their pocket or bag. You can choose to spray the object with your perfume, cologne or deodorant to assist with your child maintaining a sensory connection with you, while you are apart. Children can take pride in keeping a part of you with them, keeping the object safe and returning the object to you at pick-up, to ease the distress in being apart from you.
Read storybooks about going to school.
You may wish to use storybooks to assist your child in calming their fears about being separated from their parents. There are many great storybooks to assist children with separation, a select few including The Invisible String by Patrice Karst or The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.
Make positive efforts to establish a positive teacher-parent relationship and use the support of your child’s teacher to settle your child into their new environment.
By doing so, your child may more quickly identify this person as safe and ease their distress. Leaving a child when they are distressed can be pretty heartbreaking for parents, so developing a positive relationship with your child’s teacher can also help to ease parent’s fears by keeping communication open between teachers and parents regarding any concerns of your child’s wellbeing, behaviour, learning or social relationships in the child’s education setting.
Some challenges with separation anxiety in a new environment can be quite normal in the initial phase, particularly for children who may have more of a ‘worry’ temperament. However, seek support from a child psychologist if it prolongs over a longer period of time.