How to Help Your Child With Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

In this article I’ll cover separation anxiety at school drop-off in younger children at elementary school / primary school.

As a child psychologist I advise parents on this area regularly in my clinic, and I will talk you through my 7 key strategies.

You don’t need to do all of them at once! Just choose one or two strategies to focus on, and you will be likely to see improvement.

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. You are their “safe base”, and naturally they will feel a bit unsure about leaving you at times.

Older children may also typically have symptoms of separation anxiety in new environments.

Typically, within a short while of leaving you, if your child feels safe in their new environment (such as the classroom) they won’t be distressed any more and will be able to enjoy their day.

We’re going to look at what to do when this doesn’t happen. We will also look at what you can do when your child’s distress at leaving you is very severe or prolonged.

little boy with other children writing at school

How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School

Here are my top 7 key strategies from more than 20 years as a child psychologist (and 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.

How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School

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.

parent child separation anxiety: little boy and mum

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.

little boy packing his school bag

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.

YouTube video

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.

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.
child anxious at school drop-off

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 goodbye 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.

little girl happy in nature holding leaves

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.
two school children holding hands

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.

Outsmart Anxiety online parent course

Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off: What If Your Child Refuses to Go In?

If your child cannot or will not go into school because of their anxiety, know that you are not alone.

There are 3 crucial principles to follow, to help your child:

  1. Build close, positive communication with the school.
  2. Increase nurture at school and home.
  3. Increase flexibility at school and home.
School Refusal and Separation Anxiety at Drop-Off: Tips for Parents

You will find more detailed information about these principles in my article on what to do if your child is too anxious to go to school. You will also find lots of practical support and advice there.

Case Study: 6 Year Old Separation Anxiety at School

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.

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 again.

School Separation Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

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.

little boy getting in car for school anxious

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.

little girl writing with pencil and paper at a desk

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.

close up of little boy going to school

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 though, 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.

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.

a group of school children in a line playing bells

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.

How to Help Your Child With Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off: My Final Thoughts and Summary

I hope you have found my recommended strategies and the case example helpful.

Don’t forget that some separation anxiety at school is normal, especially in young children.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, review the strategies I have suggested and just pick one to focus on at a time. The key is to maintain regular and positive communication with your child’s school and work together on finding ways to help your child feel less anxious at school.

Good luck!

Books About Separation Anxiety (For You and Your Child)

For Children:

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

For Parents:

Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal by Linda Engler

The Highly Sensitive Parent by Elaine N Aron

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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.

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