The fantasy goes something like this: Your young child wakes early and bounds down the stairs to breakfast, unable to contain her excitement about going to school.
You can barely get a word in as she insists you’re actually punishing her by making her eat breakfast and brush her teeth instead of heading off to school right now.
She sings a happy song as you make your way to the car. Once at school, you’re lucky if you get a wave, let alone a kiss goodbye, as she skips off to start the first day.
Reality can be quite different. The first day was torture, incessant crying accompanied by pleas of “don’t make me go” and “don’t leave me.” The second day wasn’t much better, and now it’s a week into the school year and you still need pliers to pry your weeping child’s fingers off your own each morning.
Don’t despair – and don’t give up. This, too, shall pass. The key is to establish a routine, provide reassurance and give it time.
Routines can reduce anxiety and provide predictability – and preschoolers crave predictability. For example, a regular bedtime routine that includes brushing teeth and reading with a caregiver can help a child gradually relax.
Establishing a routine can also provide reassurance for your child. Maybe it’s a secret handshake or comforting words you utter each morning. For us, it was “kissing hands,” based on the book, “The Kissing Hand,” by Audrey Penn. We were introduced to it when my now-9th grader was entering kindergarten.
It is the story of a young raccoon who would like to stay home with his mother rather than go to school. Chester Raccoon’s mom shares with him the secret of the “Kissing Hand.” She kisses his palm and tells him that whenever he feels lonely at school, he can press his palm to his cheek and “that very kiss will jump to your face and fill you with toasty warm thoughts.”
At the request of our daughter’s teacher, we – along with other kindergarten parents – decorated paper cutout hands with colorful hearts and smiley faces and I-love-yous to hang in our daughter’s cubby and fill her with “toasty warm thoughts” when she missed us.
We fell into our own “Kissing Hand” routine after reading the story, one that continued for many months after my daughter was well-adjusted to the separation that came with school. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been away from us before. She had been in home daycare for several years, but kindergarten was different. School began just a handful of days after we moved to our new house in a new state. Somehow, the kissing hand routine provided comfort for us both as we adjusted to new places, new routines and new friends.
Whether your child continues to struggle with separation or just has the occasional bad day, it’s important to maintain a routine. If you continue to have concerns, talk to your child’s teacher. Trust their experience – they have likely dealt with countless crying children. Preschool/kindergarten teachers are masters of distraction, and probably a short while after you said goodbye your child was having fun in some fun activity.
If your child continues to struggle – and even if they don’t – consider setting up a play date with a classmate, or suggest meeting at the playground with several classmates and their moms/dads/caregivers. Establishing friendships will make your child feel more at ease and help him look forward to going to school.
Beware of regression. It’s a challenge for some children to return to the school routine after an extended time away, such as a school break week. Be prepared for a few tears, but continue to follow your routine. They’ll be back on track in no time.
The good news is this: Rarely do we read about high school students whose fingers need to be pried off their parents’ hands with pliers.
Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. A mom to two teen-age daughters and an 8-year-old son, she still occasionally feels the need to use “Kissing Hands” when saying goodbye.