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Key Takeaways:

  • Separation anxiety is a common occurrence for children as they navigate new environments and experiences, like school.
  • Symptoms of separation anxiety related to school involve a refusal to go to school, physical symptoms, and fear that harm will come to a loved one.
  • There are many ways to help children with separation anxiety at school, including providing reassurance and ensuring the presence of other trusted adults.

The beginning of every school year is an exciting time for many children. It means getting to see their friends after a long summer break and looking forward to a fun time of learning ahead. However, not all kids might see it this way. Some children may actually dread the thought of going to school, so much so that they experience separation anxiety.

This may happen even if children aren’t going to school for the first time. New experiences away from parents or other loved ones often make kids feel anxious. While separation anxiety is a normal part of development in all children, it may be a cause for concern when it disrupts everyday life.

If you are a parent or guardian who wants to know how to help a child with separation anxiety at school, then read on to learn more.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a common childhood anxiety disorder that involves an extreme fear of separation from a parent or primary caregiver. While separation anxiety is a developmentally appropriate phenomenon [*], it becomes a disorder when the symptoms are more intense and interfere with age-appropriate behavior.

Why Does Separation Anxiety Occur in School-Aged Children?

Children may experience separation anxiety at school because it is their first time being separated from their parents or guardians. For many preschoolers, stepping into a new environment without the security of having their caregivers around can be a terrifying thought.

Separation anxiety also affects children who have gone to school before. Since they also experience the stress that comes with changing teachers, classmates, and sometimes even schools, they may also experience some level of anxiety.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in School Setting

School separation anxiety can manifest as several different symptoms in children. Here are just a few that you can look out for:

  • Refusal to go to school
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., stomach pains, headaches, etc.)
  • Clinginess
  • Expressing fear that harm will come to a loved one
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Recurring nightmares with a theme of separation
  • Fear of being alone
  • Panic or temper tantrums when separated from parents or caregivers
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Trouble answering questions in class
  • Frequent trips to the nurse
  • Problems in certain subjects
  • Not turning in homework
  • Avoiding socializing or group work

Parents and guardians can also refer to a checklist of anxiety symptoms to help them identify whether their child may have any indicators of anxiety.

The Importance of Addressing Separation Anxiety in School-Aged Children

Remember that separation anxiety is, first and foremost, a form of an anxiety disorder. Such disorders can be distressing and debilitating for school-aged children. They can also contribute to the loss of educational opportunities and cause difficulties in family and social relationships.

By addressing separation anxiety, we are helping school-aged children confront the fears that may be hindering them from making the most of their time at school. Children who can bravely navigate new experiences without letting the fear of being separated from their parents take over are more likely to be confident and build stronger brain connections [*].

How to Help a Toddler with Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off

Young toddlers are still only learning that separations are temporary. Here’s how to help your toddler during drop-offs.

Use a transitional object

Young children do not have the same concept of time as adults. As a result, the school day may feel like forever, and they may worry that their caregivers won’t come back. Part of your goodbye routine can involve sharing a transitional object with your toddler to help them understand you will be coming back at the end of the day. It can be any item that you agree on, whether it’s a stuffed toy, scarf, or a picture. Remember to let your child’s teacher know about the transitional object.

Adjust the environment

Help your toddler by adjusting the environment to make them more comfortable at drop-off. For example, you may want to arrive at the classroom earlier so your child can settle in before it gets noisy. Your toddler may also feel more comfortable if they are seated next to their teacher. Discuss options with your child’s teacher.

Always be on time

This tip applies to both pick-up and drop-off. Arriving late can often cause more separation anxiety in your child, so be sure to have enough time in the morning to get ready for school. Not rushing your child will go a long way in preventing separation anxiety from intensifying. It will also comfort your child knowing that they are on time with the rest of their classmates.

Additionally, be punctual when picking up your toddler from school. Being on time during pick-up allows your child to build their trust in you, which makes them feel more secure about drop-offs as well.

How to Help a Preschooler with Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off

Preschoolers have a better sense of time and understanding that parents and caregivers will return, but they may still have fears of being separated from you. Here’s how to help them feel at ease during drop-offs.

Develop a morning routine

Having a morning routine will give your child a sense of familiarity and comfort that will help the momentary separation feel much easier. Make a loose plan that involves preparations like packing the night before, having a meal plan for breakfast, and using tools like visual schedules and sleep hygiene worksheets to help you and your preschooler. You won’t have to think on your feet and everybody knows what to expect.

Assign your child a role

There’s nothing like assigning a child a special role to refocus their anxiety. Speak to your preschooler’s teacher and ask if there is anything your child can do to help them feel productive and special. Perhaps they can be the lunchbox organizer or care for the class pet. They can even help the teacher with simple tasks around the classroom before classmates arrive.

Have a trial run

Fear of the unknown contributes a lot to separation anxiety in children. To help comfort your child, it can be extremely helpful to do a trial run. You can visit the campus together before classes start. Schools usually have an open house where students and their caregivers can visit and get to know the place and meet teachers and other children beforehand. The first day of school can be very anxiety-inducing for many children; seeing a familiar face can reduce some of the anxiety and build feelings of security.

The Bottom Line

Separation anxiety is a normal experience that most children will go through, especially when it comes to school. By understanding why this happens and how to help, it becomes possible for parents and guardians to build their child’s sense of security and self-confidence.

Some children may have more difficulty dealing with separation anxiety problems at school than others. If this is the case for your child, do not hesitate to consult a professional for guidance.

Our collection of anxiety worksheets can provide additional coping skills to children with anxiety.

References:

  1. Feriante J, Torrico T, Bernstein B. Separation Anxiety Disorder. 26 February 2023.
  2. Tierney A & Nelson C. Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years. 25 July 2013.

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