I have always loved this time of the year. The transition from the tranquil summer holidays to the anxious anticipation of the first weeks is over and the new school year is in full swing. Most children by now have begun to settle happily into their new classes and we are all back into the predictable school routine.
However, at around this time in term, I am regularly approached by parents who have primary aged children. They seek advice on the same topic. The conversation goes something like this: "I don't understand it. He/she was absolutely fine going into school the first few weeks but now saying goodbye is extremely stressful. I am literally at my wits end, what can I do?"
Having a distressed start to the day for both parent and child is a horrible experience. But the good news is that with some thought and preparation, this can usually be turned around quite quickly. So what can you do to help?
To start - and this one is sometimes the toughest to do - try not to blame yourself. Parenting can be wonderful but it can also be the hardest job in the world. So please try and put any guilt aside. Step back and use your energies to reflect on what is really going on here.
For some children, especially the littlest ones, after the initial excitement of starting school, it can suddenly click that 'this is it every day'. This can be a big shift from their previous experience of (probably) part-time educational settings.
School can be exciting but tiredness can also play a central part in emotions going a little haywire. This might sound obvious but prioritise rest and recuperation time even for older children. It can be easy to slip out of routine. Be mindful of regular bedtimes in these early weeks, including weekends where possible.
Whilst after school activities may sound like a fun option, my advice would be to generally avoid them during that first term in school, and certainly for younger children or those who tire more easily. Instead, ease your child in gently.
Your child may naturally also miss you - see you are doing a good job! This too is totally normal. Bearing this in mind, wherever possible, ensure that you prioritise some special time together during the week. Also, try not to overschedule the time you can share. Just relaxing at home on a Saturday morning, for example, without too many other distractions is sometimes what is called for.
A small but effective way to help ease the separation and transition into school can be to offer something special for your child's pocket. I quite often suggest this to parents and it can work really well. I often employ this strategy at home with my own primary-aged children on days when they need that extra bit of love. A box of cheap and interesting paper cupcake toppers (with the cocktail stick part snapped off) are well suited for this job. My two enjoy rummaging around to find a little animal or shape to keep them company during their day at school.
Sometimes making something tiny like a heart made of silver foil can be perfect. It really doesn't matter what you give, it is more about the significance of having something from home to remind them of how much they are loved. This gives a feeling of security. By the way, you don't want any extra anxiety about something precious being lost so small items which can be easily replaced fit the bill.
A drawing or a message in a lunch box from time to time can also be an easy way for your child to feel that special closeness with you during the day. I often use post-its but you can also purchase lunchtime note made for this exact purpose which are fun for special occasions.
If you have tried the above suggestions and your child is still struggling in the morning, I would think about how you can prepare your child for the morning transition. Let's face it, change can be difficult sometimes even as an adult.
For some children who may not yet have the insight or emotional vocabulary to explain their feelings, transitions and change (such as different environments, varied carers and people picking them up, new sounds and even different smells) can contribute to feeling worried about saying goodbye.
One suggestion to try could be a simple weekly planner which is presented in a visual A3 format with pictures or the names of who is taking and picking them up each day. Providing this to stick up on the wall and going through this with your child each evening so they know the routine in advance can be helpful. This is especially true if you have complex child care arrangements with different people taking in on different days. Even for children who do not seem anxious, enabling them to understand their own schedule can be empowering.
Of course, there may be unforeseen changes of plan and I would mention this to your child too. However say that you will tell them of any changes as soon as you can and see this through. Even preparing your child for inconsistency is better than not preparing them at all.
On a side note, if there are any siblings at home of a similar age, it could be helpful for them to have a weekly planner too. This is because it is important that the planner is positioned as something to enjoy rather than feeding into any difficulties that might exist. Again, remind your child (or in time, get them to remind you) of the expected routine in the morning but do keep it short and sweet.
One other very important aspect to consider is, could the difficulty be less around saying goodbye and more about feeling anxious about stepping into the social space of the playground? A clue to working out the answer to this one may be to hear about how your child experiences break-times. In a low key way, find out what they do. Is this a time they enjoy or do they often say they feel lonely or spend time alone?
For children who have special needs such as Autism, or for children who have a shyer disposition, entering into a wide open playground can be a scary and stressful prospect. If you suspect this could be the case for your child, then you will need to get your child's school on board too to help. More on how to approach this in my next blog post.
Obviously if anxieties persist and you are worried, you may wish to speak with your child's school to see what support they can offer and also seek help from your GP. Gaining expert support to help you and your child sooner rather than later can be invaluable.