Is your daily preschool drop-off becoming a struggle filled with tears? Does your child experience separation anxiety at drop-off?
Follow these simple guidelines and make it a positive experience that doesn’t traumatize you or your child.
There is so much advice out there about the correct way to handle a separation. Do you follow the advice to drop and go or stay as long as your child needs you?
This article was originally based solely on my experience as a teacher, however, I have updated it quite a bit since discovering parenting expert Janet Lansbury’s website, books and podcasts, which have completely transformed my own relationship with my child.
Her respectful discipline approach (based on the RIE principles) is all about acknowledging and allowing children to express their feelings while being a confident, unruffled leader and setting clear boundaries.
The most important factor, which she mentions several times in her podcast Easing Our Children’s Transition to School, is the parent’s confidence and approach when dropping off a child. I couldn’t agree more.
Here are some of Janet’s tips to help you make preschool drop-off a happy transition.
Choose the School Carefully
Before you can send your child off to school with confidence, you must be happy with the decision you’ve made.
The first step is to choose a school you feel comfortable with and that you have spent enough time at. You need to have a sense of what kind of environment it is and if it aligns with your values.
Is it a happy place? Is the discipline respectful? Do you agree with the educational philosophy? Is it a place you’d like to leave your child at and would you trust the teachers and staff?
If you don’t feel 100% sure your child won’t either.
Here are some helpful tips on choosing a preschool.
Believe in Your Decision
The process of separating is more about you than your child.
Once you feel comfortable with the school you’ve chosen, you need to feel confident that you’re making the right decision to send your child, even though it may be tough at first.
Struggling to separate is normal for some children and not necessarily a sign that you’ve made the wrong choice.
Your attitude and readiness will make a big difference in how the transition goes. You have to be brave.
Having doubts, not feeling your child is ready or feeling uncomfortable will make it hard for you to say goodbye and separate happily.
Believe in Your Child
Part of the RIE approach is believing that your children are fully capable of doing things and understanding situations.
It’s not enough to just believe you’re making a good decision, it’s also important to believe that your child is capable of separating.
As long as you handle it well and with respect, trust that your child will come to the party.
Meet the Teacher beforehand
Ideally, children should see their new school and meet their teacher before the first day.
Some schools have an orientation day or can set up a time where you and your child can come and visit the school and play a bit.
It’s a lot easier to set expectations for the first days of school if your child knows who and what you are talking about and has had a positive interaction there before.
Prepare Your Child
This is the crucial part and is usually where parents try to paint a pretty picture of “it’ll be so fun” and “you’ll make so many friends”, trying to sell an experience.
If you come across as trying to persuade them that they’ll like it, they will probably wonder what’s wrong with the place.
Following the RIE approach, rather be direct and honest and tell the facts.
Tell your child that you’ve chosen this school and that you’ll be dropping him/her off in the mornings and be back at pick-up time.
Give as many details as you can such as what activities they usually offer at school, the jungle gyms on the playground, that there’ll be a snack time and a bathroom routine, and that you’ll return after storytime.
This way the story you tell them will play itself out and come true. Your child will trust that you’ve told them the truth – instead of telling them how to feel and how happy they’ll be.
You can even tell your child that he or she may feel a little sad and that you’d like to know how they feel.
Just be mindful not to set an expectation that it’ll be difficult.
Separate Confidently and Mind Your Language
In order for your child to feel confident, you have to be comfortable and convinced when saying goodbye.
You have told your child the truth and what to expect and you feel happy with your choice to leave them, although you understand that it may be difficult.
Saying something like “I love you. See you after storytime.” is a lot more reassuring than “Don’t worry my darling. Before you know it mommy will be back to fetch you. I won’t be gone for very long (not even true). Everything is going to be ok. If you miss me, just hold onto this bracelet of mine.”
All your child hears is:
- School isn’t a safe place
- I will be safe again when mom or dad comes back to fetch me
- My mom is nervous about leaving me here
Tell your child that everything will be ok and you will have them wondering if something is supposed to go wrong.
Some children may separate easily, others may cry or not want to stay. It’s important to reassure and validate their feelings.
“You aren’t happy that I’m leaving you. I see that. I promise I will be back after storytime and then you can tell me all about your day at school.“
Don’t Expect it to be Seamless
Don’t expect the separation to be effortless and easy every day. It’s normal to have ups and downs.
I found that some children cried from the first day, some separated easily and others started crying a few days in, perhaps when they realized it was a permanent arrangement.
The most important thing is that you remain calm and stick with your decision while validating their feelings.
It may be a good idea to fetch your child earlier in the first few days so they learn to trust that you will return when you say you will. A few hours may feel long if it’s the first time going to school.
Also, the first few days after each holiday can feel a bit wobbly too.
Avoid a Daily Struggle
The problem comes in when every day becomes a struggle, not just the first few. It’s time then to evaluate if you are really doing the drop-off in a confident way or if you still feel uneasy.
Having a long, drawn-out daily struggle to separate is not helpful at all for a child.
Again, be mindful of the messages you’re giving. I have had parents say things to me like “She won’t let go. I’m afraid I won’t be getting out of here today. I need to stay longer because she is very emotional today.“
It doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Let School be Your Child’s Territory
This is my own personal tip as I’ve found that once children are settled and no longer struggling to separate, they begin to enjoy their independent space.
School is your child’s place of “work” and play. It’s where they find their own friends, develop a relationship with their teacher and have an experience that is uniquely theirs.
Talk about school to your child as if it is their territory. Tell them about your day and what you plan to do at work or at home and ask about their plans for their day. Make them understand they are in control of their own experiences.
If you want to alleviate some fears and tears at drop-off time, be the model that your child learns from. The number one factor in having a positive drop-off experience is for YOU to be positive.
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