Tuesday, October 20, 2015


A few days before school started, Ava and I sat down at our kitchen table with a bead set. On strings, we strung a rainbow of beads: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, flanked by white beads for clouds.
"Let's make best friend necklaces. That way when I'm at preschool, you can touch yours and think of me. And I'll touch mine when I miss you."

Ava was so excited to start preschool. She had longingly watched her brother go for the past four years and was excited to have a teacher and a classroom. The first day, she had her outfit picked out, and trotted off with out a tear or a look back.
"Good bye! I love you! See you later!"
I had been nervous. Although she's super outgoing and friendly now, as a baby and toddler, she had been painfully shy, terrified to be away from my husband and me. I was worried that some of that would resurface starting a full day preschool program. Even as she's grown in personality, she's always been a homebody. But she had a great first day! In fact, she had a great first week! She couldn't wait to get back on Monday! And Monday-also fantastic!

And then, things weren't so awesome anymore.
It started with a note from the teacher (her teacher writes notes to the parents everyday about how the day went). It mentioned that she was missing her mama and had been a little sad at school that day. And this continued. And then she was crying everyday at school. She wouldn't play with friends. She started crying at drop off and the relief on her face when I picked her up in the afternoons was obvious. She started crying at night at dinner, knowing she had to go back. She'd cry herself to sleep every night and all through breakfast in the morning.
"Mama, I just miss you SO MUCH at school." her little voice would say, choked with tears.
She was utterly miserable and I was heartbroken.
Slowly, over about a two week period, we were able to help her through her separation anxiety.  Here's what worked for us:
1. Talking about feelings and going over the day in words. Her teacher would work on this with her at school by reminding her that she was at school to learn and play with friends and that it was okay to feel a little sad at first. At home, we would remind her about how mama always came back to get her. We would talk about the fun things at school and about her sad feelings and how it was alright to feel sad and nervous.
2.Communication with her teacher. We are so so so lucky that she has a fantastic teacher. She was great at communicating with us how the day had gone, what we needed to work on, and she kept her expectations of Ava clear and kind. She spent part of circle time talking about their "job" at school, and encouraging Ava to play with friends-even assigning a buddy to her to help comfort her.

3 & 4. Asking for help. I'm a problem solver; asking for help does not come easy to me. But I was at a loss with how to help my child, and I knew my thoughts of taking her out of school and quitting my (brand new) job to do homeschool preschool were unreasonable. So I talked to one of best friends, who was not only a preschool teacher for years, but also a shy child herself. She had some solid great advice, along with a very firm stance that Ava WOULD be okay and get over her separation anxiety. I needed to hear that. She also introduced us to this video:

 This video seriously changed things around. I told Ava that one of her Auntie's had sent her a video that she thought might help her feel better about school. When she watched it she stopped crying and a huge look of relief came over her face. She looked at me and said, "Oh Mama, Auntie understands just how I feel." We've watched this video every single school morning since.

5. We had to have a loving, but firm talk about school. There came a point where we just had to sit down with her and firmly say, "You are in preschool now. Mama or Daddy is ALWAYS there to pick you up. Your teacher cares about you and wants to help you, and your new friends want to play with you. We want you to go to school and do the best you can today." We told her that we would walk her in, get her settled, and give ONE extra kiss and then we had to say goodbye. I don't think sneaking out is ever a good idea when leaving a child, but a prolonged good bye is almost equally bad. A quick loving goodbye was really essential.

6. A sticker chart. And finally, we did a ten day sticker chart. For everyday she didn't cry, she put up a sticker. At the end of ten days she got to pick out a little prize. The first couple stickers were hit or miss, but once she got into her groove, that sticker chart and the idea of a prize really helped motivate her. And at the end of the ten no cry days, we haven't had any tears since.

What didn't work:
1. Books about separation. When she first started getting upset, I pulled out our trusty copy of "The Kissing Hand". I thought that the story of the little raccoon would help her. She loved the story, but for all the wrong reasons. She would focus on the illustration of the raccoon crying about being away from home. "I know just how he feels." she would say. I also tried "Llama Llama Misses Mama." The story basically was her school day, from being sad at drop off to crying in front of everyone. She burst into tears just hearing the story.

2. Walking to school. We live close to the school, so for the first few days we walked. But once we left our home block, the walk became an anxiety ridden trek. Every step was hard, tears would fall, all the kids we walk with would repeatedly (sweetly!) ask her if she was okay, which she WAS NOT, and by the time we got to school she was in full blow melt down mode. Dylan has continued to walk with his group of friends, but I started driving Ava and it made a big difference. She gets a few extra quiet minutes at home with me, and the car ride is time to herself. By the time we get to school she's ready to see her teacher and start her day.

3. Play dates after school. We live in a very old fashioned neighborhood: all the kids play together outside until the street lights come on-literally. Kids are in and out of each others homes all the time. Ava is friends with a couple little girls on our street. But afterschool, even now where she is happy at school most days, she needs quiet time. She needs that time after school for family and at home. And I'm happy to give that to her. We save playdates for the weekends.

Separation anxiety with your child is hard stuff, but the number one thing you can do? Shake it off. Know that it will pass, know that you are doing the best you can, and that your little one (and you!)will be okay.


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