Useful techniques to assist with separation anxiety.

Coping with a distressed child at school drop-off can be stressful.

I’ve taught children for a long time, I’ve seen children cry on their first day of school and as their teacher, I took them under my wing, sat them close to me and gave them the care and attention they needed to settle. I also supported their parents who often needed reassuring too. Most times their child did calm soon after they had left.

When my own little guy started school, he was keen, he was capable, he was confident, but when it came time to say goodbye, he was also sad. His first day was filled with excitement and anticipation, so off he went without any trouble. He bonded with his teacher and first term sailed by.

By the time second term came, after 2 weeks holiday with full time Mummy again and a change of teacher to boot, we encountered difficulties. As the days passed the realisation that this was his new reality, regular days without his Mummy, he became more distressed at school drop offs. 

I never felt comfortable with the approach of him sobbing, being restrained and me being rushed out the door. That’s not how I parent and the feeling that I had abandoned him in that distraught state didn’t serve either of us well. I did it once and never allowed the peeling of him off my leg again. Leaving him sobbing with someone he barely knew left me feeling sick to the stomach and I returned to the car crying myself!


School didn't feel safe.

School didn’t feel safe.

Teary goodbyes are not easy for anyone! Sobbing goodbyes are traumatic!

So, I have been there! I have been on both sides of that tearful goodbye! As the teacher and as the parent! In fact as a sensitive child myself, I even remember the feelings from the child’s perspective too!

I now realise that although, a child does stop crying once the parent leaves, the feelings the child had don’t just evaporate with those tears. To say, he’s fine as soon as the parent leaves, dismisses the emotions and sends the message to the child to suppress the emotion.

Now, we don’t want the child to linger with sadness either, but acknowledging the sadness it is the first step to overcome it. Ignoring it or distracting them, are both fairly ineffective.

So what can you do?

young girl smiling


Every child will cope with school drop-offs differently, just as every parent differs. You know your child better than ANYONE else and you know best how to help them.

These are some ideas, you might like to try if you think they would suit both you and your child. When you ease the separation anxiety, drop offs may become easier for you both.

Prepare them: “Honey, when we get to your classroom this morning, I’ll read you a story then kiss you and then we’ll say goodbye. Then you can go and play with your friends on the mat.”

Acknowledge the feeling: “I can tell you’re finding the goodbye difficult, I feel sad saying goodbye to you too!”

Teach strategies to cope: “Saying goodbye is hard, but we can do it! When I feel sad about saying goodbye, I try to think about something that will make me smile. What makes us both smile? We can come up with a 3 things together.” “You’re right, that did make me smile. I feel calmer now.”

Offer coping mechanisms: A small toy in their bag for comfort may be helpful. We sprayed a handkerchief with my perfume so he could smell it if he needed and he carried a special stone in his pocket so he could feel it when he wanted to.

Goodbye routine: We devised our (his) own goodbye routine. Once he had finished his morning classroom activity, he would start the routine. It was an elaborate ritual of a kiss on each palm of the hand for me and then for him, then we would lay a kiss on each other’s forehead and then a hug. Once we had completed our ritual he would say goodbye. There were times when we would attempt to shorten it, but to him it was a non negotiable that must be completed in the exact sequence! This consistency became his security, because he was so familiar with it.

Positive reinforcement: This does NOT mean rewards or bribery… It is encouragement in the form of “You were nervous, but you used your strategies and managed to say goodbye calmly today, and had a wonderful morning playing with your friends”.

Establishing a consistent routine helps to provide security.

Remember, you know your child best! Is this separation anxiety or is there more to it? Sometimes your child may simply just not like going to school, they may even develop school anxiety. What if you have tried different strategies, spoken to the teacher and things still aren’t improving.

This was the case for me with my little guy …

So, I listened to my child’s needs and I did what was best for my child. I am his advocate! His well-being is paramount.

This particular setting just wasn’t the right fit for my child. Different strokes for different folks. We changed schools and he is happy, calm and content again!

And school drop offs are a breeze now!

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