School Drop-Off Wobbles. What Parents Can Do To Reassure Anxious Children

04/08/2013 23:03 | Updated 22 May 2015

School drop-off wobbles. What parents can do to calm childrenAlamy

On my daughter's first day of pre-school, she ran in so excited that she forgot to say goodbye. A year later, when she started reception, she skipped in with a big smile, once again oblivious to the distress that many of the other children were feeling about starting school.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the start of this term when she completely freaked out at the thought of starting Year One. On day one, she cried and clung to my leg. On day two, she complained of a tummy ache. On day three, she tried the clinging tactic again. And so it went on.

According to child psychologists, I'm far from alone. "It comes as a big shock for parents to find that many children who've had no problems with going to school in the past to suddenly wobble," says child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin.

"These parents think they have their child all sussed as this resilient, independent child and then they suddenly go off on a tangent, catching them by surprise.


It can be very stressful – leaving the parent wondering what they've done wrong and in the dark about how to deal with it because they've never had to before.


It's upsetting too. Many mornings this term, I have walked away from the school gates with a lump in my throat and I know I'm not the only one, as other mothers and I swap sympathetic glances.

But the advice is unanimous – stand firm.

"It's tempting to give in and let your child go in slightly later or even have a day off, but the first principle with any child anxiety issue is that avoidance makes things worse in the long run," says Dr Rudkin.

"Parents should have a chat with their child, explaining that it's a legal requirement to go to school, so there is no choice."

Parents also need to show a united front, not just with each other, but with the school, she says. "If Dad always leaves them at the step and Mum walks them right into the classroom, they can be left confused. And if you feel negatively about the school for any reason, it won't take long for the child to pick that up and assume there's something bad about the place."

Also important is trying to get to the root of the problem, adds Dr Rudkin. "Is it that they are leaving you or that they're going to school? They are two different things and the way to work it out is if they are equally uneasy about going to gym club or a friend's house without you. If it's school, what is it about school? A particular subject? The noise? Once you work it out, you can try and allay their fears."

In my case, the root cause appears to be as simple as the morning lining-up system. A teacher blows a whistle in the large and busy playground and everyone, parents included, have to stop what they're doing to be silent and still. A few moments later, the children are asked to quickly and quietly line up ready to walk to their classrooms.

It's a far cry from the small reception playground on the other side of the school, where morning drop offs were informal and fun – and no doubt the parents' rolling of eyes at this seemingly military operation doesn't help her to feel good about it.

"In other cases, the anxiety might be caused by the emergence of a learning difficulty that hasn't yet been identified," points out Kerry Dawson, a school attendance specialist at One Education.

"Alternatively, the child might have a sight or hearing difficulty or there might be changes at home, such as a bereavement, that is making them anxious about being away from Mum and Dad.

"Sometimes children don't want to talk about what it is and sometimes they don't know, but it's essential to keep trying to find out."

When it comes to the drop-off itself, leave calmly, cheerfully and with as little commotion as possible, says Professor Julian Elliott, educational psychologist and principal of Collingwood College at Durham University.

"Teachers of young children are experts in dealing with such problems and in 99VIRTUAL-Gallery-165228%

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