When your toddler is being dragged into school (separation anxiety)

school monkey
Bringing along a familiar stuffed toy may be comforting to ease into the new school routine.

After the winter break, this suddenly was a topic on several parents’ minds. “Did your toddler refuse to enter the school?” I was asked when I saw neighbors, coworkers, and friends.

Keep at it and the toddler will get used to it: I have 2 small kids, and my 2 year old son has been attending preschool for a whole semester without a single day of crying or refusing to enter the preschool. Suddenly one day after the Christmas holidays, this changed. I was holding his hand, walking him into the school, when he suddenly starts dragging me back to the exit saying “No school! Car! Car! Mummy! Car?” trying to get me to return to our car. (As I am talking to my crying son, I see in the corner of my eye his classmate being dragged into the school by another parent.) Then I am told by teachers on that day that four of his classmates were refusing to enter the classroom. “This is likely separation anxiety after a school break”, the school teachers told us. I just kept repeating the process of carrying a crying toddler into the arms of one of the teachers. He cried for about ten minutes after the drop off. The next day, the crying started as soon as my toddler entered the school and lasted for five minutes after I left the classroom. The third day, the crying lasted for 45 seconds. We did not give him to the crying and he just accepted being dropped off in the classroom. Now he does not cry and enters the school willingly. We also made sure that during pickup, one parent was always there on time so when the classroom door opens, he immediately sees a parent. (Maybe he will think I was waiting outside the classroom the whole time.)

parent at school
For many kids, having an actual parent at the school pick up can help with separation anxiety, as the kid knows that when school is done, a beloved parent will be waiting.

Find a friend strategy: My friend mentioned her eldest of three sons always had separation anxiety (intermittent, but especially after a winter or summer break) at daycare and school. This occurred at ages 2, 3, and 5 years…her trick was finding a friend for him and approaching the same kid in the classroom every day. Then after a while, when she and her son arrived at the daycare or preschool together, they would hold hands walking in. Together, they would find that friend (classmate) together. It became something her son would look forward to every day during drop off.

school friend
Ready for preschool with smiles and backpacks. Having a friend at school helps lessens separation anxiety.

Build up anticipation for school and use distraction: My colleague has a 2.5 year old daughter who attends two different preschool programs. And this little girl loves school. After the Christmas holiday, she started throwing tantrums while entering both schools, clinging to her dad’s legs. After a few days of drama, he started this “let’s get excited to go to school” routine. He builds up anticipation about going to school. He tells her about carrying her own school bag into the classroom and enters the classroom with her, pointing out the new decorations in the classroom. He showered her with attention (direct talking and eye contact) and used distraction (pointing out classroom decorations) as a tactic. “I didn’t want to give her a free moment to start crying,” he explained. This distraction + building up anticipation for school worked for both schools! The following week she walked into both classrooms without issues.

Having older brothers go into the school happily (setting an example) may help a younger sibling with separation anxiety, as he too can be a big boy about school.

Having another caregiver do the drop off: My colleague said she stopped dropping her 5 year old son to school. Either the dad, the nanny, or a Grandparent would drop her son off to preschool now. The separation anxiety drama only happens when she (as the mother) drops off the kid.

Reward the other siblings that go to school: One day, a mother left her wailing son who refused to put on his school uniform at home (with an adult) and brought her two other kids to school (one younger, one older). When they returned home, the other two kids were showing off their treats as after school, they had passed by a bakery. The 4 year old kid that stayed home, however, did not get any treats. He watched as his younger brother and older sister munched on their treats (while the mother made sure he didn’t get any). He went to school the next day. Small kids learn quickly and if you show them that correct behavior is rewarded, that correct behavior will likely continue.


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