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Making Morning Good-byes Easier

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My husband still gets weak in the knees when we reminisce about dropping our young son off at school. Our little guy would stand at the window and wave with one hand and blow kisses with the other—often with tears in his eyes. It was hard on all of us, and it went on for years.

So I’m not sure I can describe myself as an ‘expert parent’ at separating from my son in his early years, but as a teacher I’ve learned some helpful tips for successfully saying good bye to your little one when the transition is difficult.

Parents and teachers often expect that a child may struggle on the first day or two of school, but then assume that the separation will be easier. The truth is, though, that’s not always the case. It’s normal for a child to experience difficulty with saying good bye to a parent for well past the first days of school. My son struggled for quite a while. What helped him was creating consistent routines that he could rely on to make the painful good byes more manageable.

Here are some tips and strategies to help you and your child have more peaceful transitions in the mornings:

  • Talk through the separation process with your child before you get to school. Let your child know that you are confident she’ll have a successful start to the day and explain how you’ll say good bye. Describe where you’ll be dropping her off and that when it’s time for you to go, you’ll give her a big hug and then go. Being clear about the plan will help alleviate anxiety. Be firm when talking about the plan and be careful not to get bogged down in negotiations.
  • I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t believe that once it’s time to say good bye, it’s important for parents to just go. Say good bye to your child and leave. It’s so tempting for parents to turn around and go back to the child if she cries, but that not only prolongs the problem but reinforces the crying behavior. Almost invariably, children stop crying pretty quickly, and teachers are there to comfort them when they’re upset. By leaving your child after you say good bye, you are sending the message to your child that you are confident she’ll be ok. Conveying that confidence is the first step to your child making courageous separations each morning.
  • Remember that your child is aware of and sensitive to how you’re feeling so if you’re anxious or upset about the transition, she’s probably going to feel that way too. Be aware of how you’re feeling about your child’s transition and do your best to talk about it with others when your child is out of earshot. Convey optimism and positivity when you’re with your child.
  • Before getting to school, let your child know the plan for the end of the day so she knows exactly what to expect and when she’ll see you again. Be sure to keep your promise.
  • For children (like my son) who have a bit more difficulty separating, try giving your child something to keep for the day, such as your scarf or your key chain (keep the keys!) that she associates with you and will remind her of you and your promise that you’ll see her to retrieve it at the end of the day.
  • Try using a “waving window” where your child can stand and wave good bye to you as you leave the school building.
  • Ask the teacher if there’s time for your child to draw a picture or write a note for you during the day.
  • If your child has on-going trouble separating from you, try having another adult (such as another parent) do the drop off. This is often a very successful solution and is in no way reflective of the quality of either parents’ relationship with the child. Sometimes just changing up the routine does the trick!

There’s no question that separations at the start of the school year are not always easy. And it’s not even easy to predict who is going to have difficulty and who is going to transition well. Sometimes there’s even a honeymoon period for a child and the difficult period of separation doesn’t start for a few days or weeks into the school year—just when everyone thinks everything is going well. Remember that a young child’s perception of the beginning of the school year can be quite different from an adult’s. Sometimes a child can enjoy the “first day of school” and then be surprised by having to go back the next day or the next week or even after the first vacation—not realizing that school isn’t a onetime event! Conveying optimism and confidence in your child’s success at school is a great way to support her positive transition on those bittersweet early days.

And just in case you were wondering, my son is almost twenty and no longer has any difficulty making transitions to school. He just started his second year of college out of state with no problems at all. It does get easier!

–Anna Casey has worked with children and parents for over 25 years as an educator of young children, an admissions officer, a blogger, and a parenting coach. She lives in Denver with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. Her son attends college in Massachusetts. You can read more from Anna at anna-casey.com.

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