Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Preschool 'Bad-Bye' Blues

Thursday, I received a text from one of my closest friends:

"Got ideas on how I can get my son into school without him having a panic attack and complete meltdown?"

Unfortunately, Thursday was one of the days where we had seventeen children, and one teacher was off, at the text arrived right at the beginning of the most transition-intensive period of the day: The "wash hands/eat lunch/clean up lunch/toilet/go to sleep and do it all in 90 minutes with 17 preschoolers and only 3 teachers" period. So I didn't have a chance to answer her right away. So now I am going to answer here, where maybe other desperate moms, dads, and teachers can glean some ideas.

Every child has some difficulty being "left" somewhere while his or her parents go off into the wide world for a while. Some of them learn to deal with it sooner than others, and some cope internally, with barely a sign to us, the observing adults, that there was ever any anxiety at all. In the toddler room, we deal with children who may only have a shaky grasp of object permanence, at least at first, and might not understand that Mommy and Daddy still exist. In the toddler room, we tell the parents to say goodbye, promise to be back in a few hours, and quickly leave, screaming child or no. Eventually, the child will learn to trust his or her teachers, and to trust that Mommy and Daddy will return, as promised, every time.

Older children who maybe haven't had a lot of experience with daycare or similar situations very often have trouble separating from Mom and Dad at some point during the preschool or kindergarten experience. The same general theory applies with them as with the little ones: say goodbye like it is no big deal, say when you will return, and then leave. Screaming child or no. No "just one more hug" fifteen times in a row. No fussing about "you're fine, you're going to have fun, look! Your friend Johnny isn't sad! Why don't you go play with him?" Most teachers deal with goodbyes all the time. We know that it's hard on both parent and child, honest. It's hard for us and for your child's classmates, too! In preschool, children take social cues from one another way more than they do in the toddler age group, and they pay attention to how their peers are feeling and behaving.

It doesn't always happen on the first day, or in the first week. Sometimes, a child has "bad-bye" days sporadically for years and is fine the rest of the time.

Here are some tips from our classroom and from my background as a special needs educator that might be helpful if you've got a child who acts out at drop-off time, whatever the reason.

Speaking of reasons, it's important to suss out why your preschooler is anxious or upset about school
(For the sake of argument, I am referring to children who can have a conversation, usually somewhere after the second birthday and older, as preschoolers; I will refer to wherever-it-is you're leaving your child as "school" but the same applies for daycare... You get it, right?). Sometimes, it's anxiety over the unknown, particularly if your child is the type who has to know what is going to happen before it happens. Sometimes, the pressure of being expected to follow new rules and talk to new people and take instructions from some overly-friendly stranger is just too much to handle. Sometimes, the other kids make things too chaotic and overstimulating for comfort. Sometimes, Mom or Dad's over-the-top fussing is reinforcing to the child. Sometimes, tummies don't have enough food in them, there wasn't enough sleep had the night before, or a child is just not feeling well. Sometimes, children just don't feel like having a school day. Just like sometimes, adults just don't feel like having a work day.

Some of these reasons we, the adults, can address. Others, we cannot address directly.

Things to do to help smooth out that good-bye transition:
  • Establish a comfortable night-before-school routine. You may find it helpful to pick out tomorrow's clothes together, or pack lunch/snack together, and get your child thinking about his school day in the calm, comfortable environment of home. This is your opportunity to talk him through any of the fears or anxieties he might express (without dismissing them! Your child's fears, no matter how trivial or absurd they seem from an adult point of view, are very real to him; hard as it is, you need to take them seriously). If a particular worry comes up, you can make a plan together to address it: "I know you are worried about zipping your coat up at outside time. It's still kind of tricky for you, isn't it? What do you think you could do if you need some help?" 
  • Make sure your child is well-rested. I know, I know, this one is easier said than done. On average, children between 1 and 3 years need 10 to 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Children 3 to about 12 years need 10 to 12 hours of sleep. Depending on your routine, some of this sleep may happen with a midday nap, especially for toddlers and preschoolers; at our centre, the preschoolers lie down for naptime between noon and 12:30, most are asleep by 12:45, and they all sleep about 1.75 to 2 hours. That means they need to get another 8 to 10 hours of sleep at home. Hard to contemplate when you have to get out the door at 7:30am, get home at 6pm, and need time for supper, bedtime routines, and spending time together (not to mention the separation-anxiety-driven bedtime battle!), but that's the reality of working full time and having your child in a full-day care program. There's more schedule flexibility to a half-day program routine, as you could let your child have a "rest"/nap before an afternoon class or after a morning class.
  • Try not to stress out over breakfast. It's hard to eat a good meal when you're nervous. Being nervous makes your tummy feel funny. Offer some nutritious choices for breakfast, remind your child that if she's hungry later there will be snack at school/her lunch is available at lunch time/whatever the case may be, and leave it at that. If she eats breakfast, great! If not, try offering a banana or some apple slices on the way to school, in case she changes her mind, and maybe give the teacher a heads-up about the non-breakfast (it makes a HUGE difference with some kids!) and leave it at that. Kids this young tend to balance out their caloric intake over the course of a day naturally. As long as breakfast-skipping doesn't become habitual, it won't hurt to let it happen a few times. It's more important to avoid making breakfast into a power struggle.
  • Make a one-one-one-one rule for yourself. One hug, I love you. One kiss, I will be back when school is all done. One hug, good-bye. One wave on your way out, if necessary, either through the door or through a window if the school's setup and schedule allows. Then flee out of your child's sight and cry if you have to. This is possibly the hardest part of separation for parents. Please, resist the temptation to give in to pleas for "just one more minute" or "just one more hug"; this is the reason schools adopt a policy asking parents NOT to stay when dropping students off. It may feel like you're meeting your child's need by doing this, but really you're validating his anxiety. By reacting like it's something that requires your comforting presence, you're telling him there really is something to be afraid of. Also, as with any tantrum, he might just be pushing your buttons to prove that he's still in charge. 
  • Be honest about when you are coming back. Please, please please, for the love of your child's trusting heart, never succumb to the "bait and switch" tactic: "Oh, I'll just wait until he's involved in something and slip out before he notices" seems to work, but that's because you don't have to deal with the terror your child feels when he realises you've vanished. Nor do you have to calm his frantic screaming and pounding on the classroom door to try to get to you. Similarly, do not tell your child you will "be right back" or be back "in a few minutes" unless you will actually be right back in a few minutes (and to a preschooler, three minutes is a few minutes). It is not fun for a teacher to explain to a distraught child that her parent actively lied to her. Instead, you could say "It's time for me to go now. I will be back in three hours to pick you up." Or, "I'll see you when school is over/when I'm all done work/later this afternoon." Make it clear that time will pass before your return. 
  • Use visual reminders to support your promise to return. If your child's school will allow it, and if you consistently pick your child up at the same time each day, this may be a useful tool for your child to manage his or her own anxiety: Get a wallet-sized photograph of yourself. Go to a photo booth if you have to! On the back of the photo, draw (or print out and paste) an analogue clock showing the time at which you will pick up your child. Laminate the photo or wrap it in clear packing tape for durability. Let your child keep this tool in his or her pocket to pull out for reassurance. Point out the clock in your child's classroom, so there is a reference to compare the "pick-up" clock to. Your child will be empowered by this, as he or she will not have to keep asking teachers "how long until my mommy/daddy is going to be here?" As long as the pocket card doesn't become distracting, most teachers should be fine with it.
  • Find out your child's school routine and talk through it. When kids come up to me, watery-eyed, telling me they miss their mommies, I talk them through what's left of our day. "I know you miss your mommy. Mommy's at work. We'll see her when she's all done. Right now, we're going to sleep (these miss-my-mommy chats often happen right at nap time), and then we'll wake up, put the beds away, and go outside/to the gym/whatever. Then we'll have a snack and a meeting, and play a little while longer, and then Mommy will be here." Sometimes, the kids talk me through the routine after I give them the "right now" step. A little cuddle, and away we go. You can talk through your child's school routine on the way to school or during your evening-before routine. "When you get to school, you will have free play, and then circle time. After circle comes centres, and then snack time." etc., until... "and then I will be there to pick you up! And we'll (go to the library, go home for lunch/supper, pick up your sister from out-of-school care, whatever you plan to do after school)!"
  • Tell your child what you will be doing during school time. Some kids need to have a constant inventory of what their loved ones are doing. "Daddy is at work. Mommy is going to a meeting while you are in school. Big brother is at his school. The dogs are at home in the back yard." Some kids need to know they're not missing out on anything more exciting than school, too! Especially if you've got another child who has preschool on different days/times. Maybe school time is gym time for you, and whichever child doesn't have school that day gets to chill out in the gym's daycare (oh no, that is not a very specific, possibly personalised suggestion at all, noooooo...). 
  • Trust the teachers. These people to whom you are entrusting your child have dealt with the bad-bye blues over and over again. Talk to them about what will make the transition smoother for your child and what will work with the routine of the classroom. In our class, we allow a few of the children to show their treasures to their friends before sending the treasures back with mom or dad (toys from home aren't allowed, except naptime loveys and sharing Fridays!). A few of the children need an extra hug from a teacher once mom or dad is out the door. One or two of them need a reminder from a teacher that even though they are sad to say goodbye, the time until mom or dad returns goes by faster if you find something fun to do. One family wrote "Mommy loves you" on the sole of their son's left shoe, and "Daddy loves you" on the right shoe, and regularly leaves little love notes in his lunch box. One of our newest preschoolers has a small blankie that she carries with her in the morning. It's usually forgotten in the dolly bed by meeting time, resurfaces for her snuggling pleasure at naptime, and gets rescued into her cubby when the beds are put away, until it's retrieved when Mommy picks her up at the end of the day. One of the boys (one of the oldest, now! How did that happen!!!) asks me to read him a story when he's really missing his parents. Another goes straight for the art centre to draw a picture for his mommy if he's having trouble getting into the swing of things. We will figure out what works best for your child; we just need you to let us do it! It's not ideal if we have to pry your screaming child out of your arms as you give her eighteen more kisses and hugs and apologise for leaving her, or if we have to tell her that you tricked her and snuck out, or that you lied about being back in a minute. Talk to us, and we can figure out together what will work best for your child!
Every child has the bad-bye blues once in a while. If your child expresses anxiety or fear, address the specific fear. But most important of all, build on the trusting relationship that already exists between you and your child. Make sure he or she knows that you will always come back, no matter what. And hang in there! In most cases, the preschool bad-bye blues don't last. They might come and go, but they're usually resolved by the end of kindergarten.

Feel free to share your transition tips in the comments here: I know there are a number of experienced parents and teachers among my (five) readers!

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