You walk your kindergartener to her classroom, and all around you are children who give their parents hasty goodbye hugs and quickly become absorbed in their morning work. Your daughter, however, bursts into tears and clings to you when you try to leave the classroom. She jumps up from her desk and attempts to run after you down the hall. You are mortified, fighting back your own tears, feeling totally powerless and like any action you take is the wrong one.
If you have a child with separation anxiety issues, you know this feeling. If you don’t, believe me—it is a horribly sinking one. I spent a good chunk of my daughter Rosalie’s s first semester of school stressed out, calling and e-mailing friends, and scouring websites for advice on how to cope with this issue. I even briefly considered homeschooling despite the fact that my husband and I both work full time and that doing so would have required a seismic shift in our lives.
For a while, we tried waiting out her anxiety with a pretty hands off approach—just being positive about school and trying to reassure her that she would adjust. We read The Little Engine that Could and encouraged her to visualize herself as the little engine doing something hard and conquering her fears. I even made her an “I think I can” bead bracelet. Still, she remained sad and anxious about going to school.
One of the hardest things about this experience was that we could tell that her little brain was experiencing such strong emotions, but she didn’t yet know how to articulate them or cope with them. While it seemed that most of her classmates were blissfully embracing kindergarten, she was internalizing all the fears of this new journey and holding them inside. When we tried talking to her about what was wrong, she could clam up; when we took her to meet with the school guidance counselor, she cowered in her chair and refused to talk.
After this went on for many weeks, my husband and I knew it was time to get serious about finding a solution to the school drop off drama. Since Rosalie had a much more difficult time when I dropped her off, Peter and I adjusted our schedules so he could take her to school four days a week.
Then we sat down with Rosalie’s teacher and the guidance counselor to map out a step-by-step plan to try to ease her anxiety. What we came up with was a token reward system. We would have three wooden tokens at home to hand out the same way every day: she would get one when she woke up without tears, she would get another if she got out of the house without tears, and she would receive the third if she survived the drop off transition without tears. Then, her teacher would have three more tokens she could earn throughout the day for good behavior/no tears. When she filled her token board, she could pick something out of the classroom “treasure box.”
It was slow going, but Rosalie was receptive to this method. Establishing this daily routine and finding a reward system that bridged the gap between home and school was essential to her success. She received praise for small victories which allowed her to build confidence and take pride in earning a bigger reward for doing something that was truly difficult for her. Gradually, we backed off the tokens as she made the transformation from nervous kindergarten neophyte to seasoned schoolgirl.
Rosalie now has one month of first grade under her belt and is doing well. While we do encounter the occasional speed bump, she is an excellent student, and I think she now truly enjoys school. It’s very important for her to stick with the same routine—dad drops her off four days a week, and I get one day a week. On my day, there are still a few tears, but she is generally able to recover quickly and move on with her day.
Every now and then, I still come across a stray wooden token stuck in the couch cushions or under my daughter’s bed. With a sense of great relief, I can now toss them in the trash, thankful to have found a solution to the worst of Rosalie’s separation anxiety and grateful to have it in our rearview mirror.
Has your older child experienced similar anxieties? What worked for them and for you?