How I Managed My Child’s School Drop Off Anxiety (and Meltdowns!)

Separation AnxietyI’ve been a professional nanny for as long as I can remember. I’ve managed first day of school drop-offs with children I’ve been caring for since birth with no problems. In fact, none of the children I have ever cared for shed a tear during any school drop off. Ever.

And I thought it was something I did.

As my youngest daughter prepared to start preschool, she was as excited as a kid in a candy store. Really!

Her first day of school, she was up at 5 am and put her backpack on before she was even dressed. She bugged me to leave for school every moment from 5:01 on, until we finally left three hours and 19 minutes later at 8:20.

She talked about school all the way there. She walked into school with a proud smile. She even scolded me NOT to help her put her jacket or backpack on the hook.

“I’ll do it myself”, she said sternly.

Then it was time to say goodbye.

And I quickly learned that when the other children I cared for did not cry, scream or throw a fit on their first day of school, it wasn’t because of something I did.

My daughter and I, we read the same stories about starting school as I did with my charges. We did the same role-plays about what to do if you have to go to the bathroom while in school. We practiced the same readiness skills and even shopped at the same stores for backpacks and lunch boxes.

None of that mattered. My baby simply wanted me.

So while what I did to prepare her for her first day without me made no difference, how I handled her separation anxiety did.

First, I did what was best for my child. While the preferred method for getting a kicking and screaming child into the classroom was to peel her from her mother, after we tried that method once, we did it my way. My child is capable. My child has coping skills. My child can do this! And that is exactly what I told her. During drop-off number #2, she was in a full blown meltdown (the kind I have never seen her have until now). I took her aside, got down to her level, looked her square in the face and told her “YOU can do THIS!” I picked up my pompoms and I cheered her into that classroom. I encouraged her to open the door and go in, on her own. I encouraged her to go play with a friend. I let her know I believed in her.  The tears stopped, she opened the door and she smiled. Then I cried tears of relief as I walked to the car.

Second, we came up with a good-bye routine together. I proposed that instead of crying, we come up with a more fun way to say goodbye. She suggested we do the high-five, low-five, fist bump with a hand explosion that her father recently taught her. Drop off #3, it worked! The tears were replaced with our goodbye fist bump.  

Third, we kept things consistent. Consistency breeds familiarity which breeds security. We get out of bed the same time each morning (no, not 5AM!), eat breakfast the same time, leave for school the same time, enter school the same door, hang up our coat the same way, drop-off our lunch box in the same space and do our fist bump in the same place. So far, so good. Drop off #4 was a success!

While every child will handle school drop-offs differently, if your child experiences separation anxiety, do what you know to be best for your child, come up with a good-bye routine together and keep things consistent. If you do, you’ll ease the anxiety of both of you and school drop-offs will be a success.