Ask an Expert : 4 Ways to Help Pre-schoolers Cope with Separation Anxiety

The first days at pre-school not only can be met with great excitement and joy, but also with full of tears, screams and outbursts. This might be due to the changes in the child’s daily routine can be rather scary for the little ones and their worried parents.


Why do Children Experience Separation Anxiety?

Children become emotionally distressed when the trusted caring adult leave them. They might also be uncertain about the things or situations that they are not familiar with.  Naturally, they are hesitant to let go that feeling of familiarity and security.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of development. But why do children feel this way?

Scientifically, a child’s cognitive understanding has not been established.  Thus, they lack the ability to understand that theie parents’ absence is only temporary.

Their main source of anxiety comes from the fear of unknown.

Due to the overwhelming number of unfamiliar faces of the new teachers and schoolmates, coupled with the new environment, it is no wonder the children are fearful and wary of these “strangers”.

Kiddiwinkie Schoolhouse Inquiry Based Learning

Will all Children Outgrow Separation Anxiety?

The good news?

All children will outgrow separation anxiety eventually,

However, similar feelings may return for short periods of time, especially after a period of absence.

As every child is unique, there is no set time frame for when separation anxiety appears or disappears. Parents must be prepared for regression, because it may even take a few months for a child’s anxiety to dissipate.

All in all, separation anxiety decreases as children grow older because of maturation and cognitive understanding.


Helping a Child Cope with Separation Anxiety

While separation anxiety is inevitable, here’s how you can lessen, or even avoid the tears and tantrums.

1. Avoid parental ambivalence

As parents, it is understandable that you would be worried about your child’s transition to a new pre-school. After all, it is not easy to trust a  group of “strangers” with your little one.

However, be mindful that children can sense their parents’ emotions. So, when you are hesitant, your child will feel unsafe and wary of the teachers and educarers in pre-school.

As you say goodbye, be mindful of your body language. Although you might be feeling sad and anxious, you ultimately want your child to feel safe and secure in this new environment. Stand up straight and smile at your little one to model a cheerful goodbye!

Kiddiwinkie Schoolhouse Sandplay Fun

2. Create a sense of familiarity and excitement

Parents are encouraged visit the pre-school two weeks before the enrolment date together with your child.

During your visit, point out the new and exciting features of the school.  This way, your child can picture a scenario of himself having fun there. The excitement and happy thoughts of attending school will give him something to look forward to, rather than be fearful of, when the time comes to start school.

At home, encourage your child to share about the day’s experiences at school. Listen closely, and offer words of praise and encouragement for his participation in class.

The familiarity helps the child to settle down with less fuss. By doing so, he (and you!) will be more accustomed to the new environment, as well as his new teachers and schoolmates.


Familiar Item low res 1

3. Create a goodbye ritual

Prior to the first day, creating a special ritual can ease some of the anxiety about the final goodbye. Consider a special act (a handshake, a hug or a high five), and tuck an attachment object into the child’s bag before dropping your child off each day.

The experience, and sight of a familiar and comforting object will alleviate their anxiety as it is an extension of the warmth and comfort of home.

In addition, a short note reminding your child that Mummy and Daddy love him, and will see him at home after school reassures your child that the separation is only temporary.


4. Be supportive and send positive signals

Should it be your child’s first experience entering pre-school, be sure to spend special time with the pre-schooler.

Remember to allow your child to express his anxiety with emotional outbursts and tears.  Acknowledging your child’s feelings normalises his worries and can help him feel safe and understood.


About the Expert: Ms Nancy Lee-Wong, MEd

As an a RIE-Pikler inspired practitioner, Nancy emphasises on the importance of freedom of movement, especially for infants and young toddlers, in order to promote learning through exploration.

Nancy started her career more than 35 years ago in the Early Childhood Care and Education industry as an Assistant Teacher, before progressing on as a Centre Director, and subsequently, a freelance consultant and resource person to many childcare and pre-school centres, advising centre leaders on management, organisation and pedagogical matters.

She is an accredited SPARK/QA consultant with ECDA, WDA-ECDA accredited trainer/lecturer and practicum supervisor for Pre-school and Early Years Care & Education specialising in ECCE Pedagogical Leadership & Management, Pre-school Education and Early Years Educare.