In this article I’ll cover separation anxiety at school drop-off in younger children at elementary school / primary school.
If you have a teen or pre-teen with separation anxiety, take a look at my colleague Hayley Vaughan-Smith’s article written for parents of older kids called Separation Anxiety in Teenagers.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when your child becomes distressed at being separated from you.
It’s normal for children to show separation anxiety in early childhood.
Older children may also typically have symptoms of separation anxiety in new environments.
Separation anxiety typically starts around 9-12 months of age.
At this point, a baby realises who their main caregivers are. They can tell the difference between those people and strangers.
They start to show a preference for their primary caregiver over strangers.
Separation anxiety only becomes a problem when it increases in severity or it doesn’t get better with time.
Here’s a case example of a child whose separation anxiety has become a problem:
Case Study: Angelica
Six year-old Angelica has had severe separation anxiety since her first day of school.
The first time her mum tried to leave her at school drop off, she screamed and had a meltdown so severe that nobody could comfort her. Her mum Janette had to stay for the morning.
This took several weeks to improve.
Eventually Angelica got to know her teacher. Her mother developed a goodbye ritual which Angelica was more comfortable with.
They would get to school a few minutes early so it was quieter, talk to Angelica’s teacher about the day ahead, and then Angelica and her mother did a kissing hand ritual before the teacher took Angelica inside.
This goodbye routine helped Janette manage her own anxiety.
Although Angelica still cried she would usually recover and be able to join in with the normal activities of the class within ten minutes.
The start of the next new school year coincided with the birth of a new sibling for Angelica. Angelica also had a new teacher who was more strict.
Despite the good-bye ritual, Angelica has begun to refuse to go into school at drop-off time.
Some days the teacher and teaching assistant can successfully peel Angelica away from Janette directly from the car.
On bad days, Janette can’t even get Angelica in the car.
How Much Should I Be Concerned About My Child’s Separation Anxiety?
The timing of separation anxiety and recent events are important in considering how concerned you should be.
For example, if your child has experienced a recent house move, divorce/separation, bereavement or any other traumatic event, separation anxiety is to be expected.
In fact, it would be unusual for your child not to experience separation anxiety. Their world has been shaken up and they need extra comfort and security. Your are their source of comfort and security, so naturally they want to stay near you.
The good news is that normally this passes within a few days or weeks. Your child’s feelings settle and they begin to feel more secure.
How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School
Here are my top 7 tips from more than 20 years as a child psychologist (and nearly 18 years of being a mother)!
Having the right coping strategies can make the difference between feeling in control and feeling out of control when it comes to separation anxiety at school drop-off, and ongoing separation anxiety at school.
It’s so important that you can contain the situation for your child and help them feel safe.
1. Separation Anxiety at School Drop Off: Start With Empathy
It can be mystifying, frustrating and stressful when your child has separation anxiety at school drop off.
You know they will be safe.
You tell them a hundred times.
You take extra time to give them cuddles and reassurance.
But it’s important to understand that your child cannot rationalise. Their brain has not yet developed enough that the rational part can take control of the emotion centre of the brain.
Deep in their core, they don’t feel safe, and they need an adult to contain their fear.
Your child’s separation anxiety might occur despite having a nurturing teacher. School just isn’t home. It’s more challenging. A new place (or relatively new place) with new situations to cope with every day, and new classmates or social situations to navigate.
So my top tip here is to empathise with your child’s fears or your child’s anxiety, rather than getting caught up in the details.
Perhaps you feel like your child should be able to do go in without distress because all the other children can, your older child didn’t have school anxiety, or because they went in the other day without any problems.
Forget all of that.
Focus on meeting your child in the here and now. Your child is scared and needs help.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
2. Develop a Calm Morning Routine
“Mornings” and “calm” don’t often go together when it comes to children and school. But you can buck this trend by carefully planning a new routine.
However, if you are stressed, your child will be stressed. They look to you to, their trusted adult, to judge how they should feel.
So the first step is: plan plan plan! Even if you are not a planner, make a loose plan. What can you do the night before? Perhaps:
- Ensure your child’s school clothes are washed/ironed.
- Lay the clothes out.
- Prepare your child’s packed lunch.
- Decide what breakfast will be and check you have the correct items.
A visual schedule such as a colourful poster on the wall will help both you and your child.
You will not have to think on your feet.
Everybody will be clear about expectations.
Take a look at this video from Mrs. D’s Corner.
3. Ensure School Is A Safe Place
You need to feel confident that your child’s school is a safe place where they are nurtured. Their emotional needs must be met.
What does this mean?
It means there must be nurturing adults within the setting who can tune in to your child’s specific emotional needs and meet those needs.
Let’s go through an example using our previous case study, Angelica.
You may remember that Angelica has just started a new school year. She has a new sibling. She has begun to refuse to go into school.
Angelica’s teaching assistant Mrs Murray has noticed that she is an anxious student who needs a little bit more nurture than other children.
She has a stuffed animal called Monty, the class mascot, and she asks Angelica to be Monty’s “special person”, taking care of him.
Mrs Murray sits close to Angelica during the morning lessons and reassures her with a genuine smile when Angelica shows hesitancy over new things.
Throughout the school day Mrs Murray checks in with Angelica, and at the end of the day they talk through what has been difficult and what has been okay, before going outside together to find Janette.
Within a week, Angelica’s separation anxiety at school drop-off has all but disappeared, as she now feels safe at school.
4. Adapt the Environment
Talk to your child’s school about what can be adapted in the school environment to help your child feel safe. Here are some examples:
- 7 year old Emily is allowed to arrive in the classroom five minutes before her classmates so she can settle in before the room becomes noisy.
- 6 year old Jaden is moved to sit right next to his teacher so she can read his body language and support him if he feels anxious.
- 8 year old Spencer goes to the nurture room each morning where a member of staff talks through exactly what will be happening today.
5. Use a Transitional Object to Reduce Separation Anxiety
Young children don’t have a good concept of time. The school day can feel like forever and they may – for whatever reason – worry that you won’t come back.
As part of your good-bye routine, you can share something with your child that they keep as a reminder of you. This is called a transitional object.
The transitional object helps your child to understand that you will be coming back at the end of the day. It can be any special item that you agree on, from a hair band to a scarf or a picture.
However, it’s a good idea to let your child’s teacher know about the transitional object and ensure it has been approved.
6. Have Your Child Assigned a Special Role
There’s nothing like having a special job to re-focus anxious kids. Speak to the teacher. What could your child do in the mornings to help them feel special? Here are some ideas:
- Lunch box organiser.
- Register monitor (taking the register to the school office).
- Caring for the class pet.
- Helping another child with a special need.
7. Look After Yourself
You can’t support your child if you do not feel regulated yourself.
In the moment, you may feel desperate.
Before you do anything else, take a long, slow, deep breath.
Make sure the breath goes all the way into your belly.
Then focus on the outbreath.
Make sure it is just as long as the in-breath – ideally longer, and at least 5 seconds.
There are many other physical actions which will help calm your nervous system, which you can read about in my article called 5 Quick Tips for Staying Calm With Your Child.
From a wider perspective, if your child is having a hard time you need to make sure you are looking after yourself with good self-care so that you can best support them.
Learn about lifestyle and mental health. Focus on basics such as getting enough sleep, eating regular nutritious meals, and having social contact with someone who is supportive.
What Are the Signs That a Child Has Severe Separation Anxiety?
Some separation anxiety is very typical for preschool drop-off, and young children up to the age of 5 or 6.
If your child is severely distressed for many days or weeks and doesn’t recover after a few minutes once in school, it’s a sign that your child may need some additional support.
Try the strategies above first. If nothing changes you may need support from an educational psychologist or clinical psychologist.
If your child still has separation anxiety aged 8, this might be a sign that you need to get some professional support.
Most children have largely overcome separation anxiety by this age.
Remember thought, that every child is different, and there may be good reasons – like traumatic events or neurodevelopmental differences – why your child doesn’t feel secure without you yet.
Chat with your child’s doctor. They may refer you to a paediatrician or therapist for further support.
What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder is a name given to separation anxiety that is considered more intense or prolonged than would be expected at the child’s age.
In particular, separation anxiety disorder may be diagnosed if it is interfering significantly with school or home life. Read more about the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder in this article.
Your child may have an anxious attachment. To find out more about anxious attachment styles and how to support your child, read my colleague Hayley Vaughan-Smith’s article: How to Deal With Anxious Attachment.
School Refusal Tips for Parents
If your child cannot or will not go into school because of their anxiety, know that you are not alone. There are 3 crucial things you need to do, to help your child:
- Build close, positive communication with the school.
- Increase nurture at school and home.
- Increase flexibility at school and home.
Should I Force My Anxious Child to Attend School?
If your child develops longstanding anxiety about attending school, forcing them may affect your relationship negatively.
More importantly, their anxiety may go unsupported and may become more severe.
It’s a delicate balance, because avoiding school can also make the anxiety worse.
The best thing to do is develop positive communication with your child’s school and follow the advice in this article to help your child gradually feel safer to go to school.
Also, take a look at my article: When Your Child Feels Too Anxious To Go To School.
If My 5 Year Old is Crying at School Drop Off, Should I Be Concerned?
Separation anxiety in young children is normal and often occurs during school drop-off. If your child’s distress is severe, persists for many days, and they don’t recover quickly, you may need additional support.
Traumatic events can trigger separation anxiety, and your child’s feelings should settle within a few days or weeks. Talk to your child’s teacher and ensure they have a thorough understanding of what’s going on for your child. If severe anxiety continues, seek support from an educational or clinical psychologist.
Should I Be Worried About My 8 year Old Child’s Separation Anxiety at School Drop Off?
While some degree of separation anxiety in 8 year-olds is common, heightened and persistent distress in a child this age might warrant increased concern. Factors like the severity of the anxiety, its impact on your child’s daily life and learning, and any recent significant events such as a move, divorce, or loss should be taken into account.
Open communication with your child’s teacher and seeking guidance from educational or clinical psychologists can be valuable steps in addressing and managing the situation effectively.
Books About Separation Anxiety (For You and Your Child)
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
The Kissing Hand (The Kissing Hand Series) by Audrey Penn & Ruth Harper
Meet Me at the Moon by Gianna Marino
Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal by Linda Engler
The Highly Sensitive Parent by Elaine N Aron
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.