In the early years of a child’s development, separation anxiety is fairly common when they’re away from their parents or caregivers, and it’s especially common at school for younger children. Humble classroom doors everywhere have borne witness to countless crying children, (understandably) distressed by their impending separation from their beloved parents. But what can teachers do to ease their students’ back-to-school separation anxiety and make those morning goodbyes more pleasant?
Experiences of Back-to-School Separation Anxiety as a Teacher
As a newly-minted teacher, I was prepared for a handful of my brand new students to shed a tear on the first day of school. After all, some of the 4- and 5-year-old children I was teaching had never experienced a learning environment outside of the home. Others were uncertain about the transition from their familiar kindergarten setting to a ‘big school’ with structure, bells, and hundreds of kids.
Most of these children were calmed with a warm smile, some soothing words, and a hearty dose of distraction. Except for one. Several weeks into the semester, I felt completely out of my depth because this little one was still highly distressed every morning when her mom brought her to the door. It was heartbreaking for all of us. Teacher training hadn’t prepared me for this! I needed to up my skills quickly to make sure my little student could feel safe and secure at school.
Thankfully, I had a wonderful school guidance officer who brought me up to speed with some great strategies. So in saying that, my first tip for teachers of students with separation anxiety is to have a chat with your school guidance officer or an experienced veteran teacher at your school because their knowledge will be invaluable.
What is Separation Anxiety?
The American Academy of Pediatrics defines separation anxiety as “the distress that children show when being separated from their primary caregivers.”
Usually rearing its ugly head in infancy around 7 or 8 months, which is when babies start to grasp the concept of object permanence (the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be seen or heard), separation anxiety can crop up when dropping a child off at daycare or even with someone familiar such as a grandparent or close friend. It can subside only to pop up again when children begin pre-K or kindergarten, making back-to-school mornings rough on students, parents, and teachers.
The good news? In young children (from infancy to around age 5), separation anxiety is considered a normal part of childhood development, and in most cases will resolve over time.
Separation anxiety in lower grade students may present as crying, tantrums, or clinginess, and these are all healthy reactions for a child to have when separating from a loved one. As teachers, it’s a good idea to have a bag of tricks to help our students settle into our classrooms so that they can have productive and enjoyable learning experiences.
How to Deal With Children With Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
With some simple strategies, parents and teachers can work together to help children overcome separation anxiety.
Be the Primary Point of Contact
Your anxious student needs to develop a sense of trust and a feeling of safety with you. Try to make sure that you, the classroom teacher, are consistently the person who greets any anxious little ones in your class. This will also help you get to know the parents and establish a routine and rhythm for the handover.
Acknowledge the Student’s Feelings
Get down to the student’s level and make eye contact, and let them know that it’s okay for them to feel upset. Remind the child that they are in a safe and secure place, with kind and caring people (children and adults).
Acknowledge the Parents’ Feelings
Try to step into the parents’ shoes for a moment, because as a mom, dad, or other caregiver, watching a child become distressed and then having to leave (often to face a day of work) is tremendously upsetting. Assure parents that you will help their child to settle in and that their little one isn’t the first to have difficulty separating from them. Build rapport with the parents, and this will help the child to develop trust with you, too.
Let Parents Know that You’ll Communicate
Sometimes parents find it very hard to leave their child while they are still crying. Reassure the parent that you’ll be in touch to update them (by email or phone call) during the break on the first day. Then establish a communication method that works for both of you moving forward (a Keep-In-Touch book or email works well).
Minimize Morning Rush
Set up a routine that is calm and quiet for the arrival process. I used to find reading a story was a great way to get the children settled before doing attendance. For older students, individual desktop reading, drawing, or writing could be a calming option. Play some gentle music to encourage students to slow down. The morning rush to get to school can, in itself, be overwhelming, and arriving at a peaceful space will be calming. Check out these routines to institute in the classroom to help with the transition.
Normalize the Feelings Associated with Separation Anxiety
As a whole class, read or view The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, and facilitate a discussion about the special people children are separated from, and the reasons why we may become separated from loved ones.
Offer the Student Options
Once the student is in the door, show them options for different types of activities they may wish to do before the morning routine commences. This will help the child to focus on the mental task of decision-making and may break them from their loop of anxious thoughts. Be sure to offer quiet or alone time as well, as some children will prefer to observe and adjust at their own pace.
Give the Student a Special Role
Offer your worried student a very special helping role, like handing out glue sticks, setting out worksheets, dusting the board, or being the “login” helper at the computers.
Create a Visual Timetable for the Student
This could be a whole-class activity or an individual task with your anxious student/s. Having a visual timetable helps students with anxiety anticipate and plan for transitions and routines throughout their day.
Older Children and Separation Anxiety
What about children who are still experiencing anxiety at the prospect of being away from their parents well into their school years? Well, while a little worry about leaving mum or dad when older is totally normal (like when they’re going on school camp), intense fear which keeps a child from experiencing and enjoying normal activities may be categorized as Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
While the signs of SAD are similar to those of separation anxiety, they are more extreme and prolonged and may include:
- Excessive tiredness due to lack of sleep/nightmares about being alone.
- Being worried when away from home or family (ie at school, care, or extra-curricular clubs).
- Anxious about the safety of a particular family member.
- Fear of becoming lost.
- Refusing to go to school.
- Fearful of being alone, even in safe environments (eg in a library aisle, in a bathroom stall).
- Frequent tummy aches, headaches, or other physical complaints.
- Excessive worry about personal safety.
- Panic resulting in temper tantrums, crying, or lashing out at times of separation from parents.
Separation Anxiety Disorder may require professional support. If you suspect that one of your students has signs of SAD, it’s important to talk to their parents and possibly refer them to your school social worker or psychologist for additional support.