23 Tips for Stopping School Drop Off Anxiety & School Refusal - (A few ideas from a Mom who has been there)
How to stop a child from crying at preschool
(My own story of dealing with separation anxiety and school anxiety - feel free to jump down to see the 23 tips, or grab it here and print it out!)
It's June as I write this, and I'm already feeling my own bouts of worry as I consider how the school year will go for my youngest son. Traditionally, we've had trouble with his school-related anxiety, and I'm hoping this year will be better.
Keep in mind, my son is 9 years old. He'll be 10 by the time school starts. So we have been dealing with this for a loooong time. I'll tell you a bit of what he's been through, what has helped, and maybe it will help you if you are dealing with the same thing.
My older children (twins, now 15) also both went through what at least felt to me like extreme school anxiety. Their school struggles were limited to preschool time, and then again it cropped up in the early elementary years. When your child is older and still struggling, it can feel even more distressing to a parent.
My youngest son, however, had such terrible anxiety that it became NOT normal. I've learned years later that he has several different anxiety disorders, and this school separation was only one manifestation of that.
For several years, I could not get him dropped off to school or any short-term babysitting time without extreme anxiety (on both our parts). Cue the traditional night-before stressing, holding on to me for dear life wailing and screaming at drop off, even pulling on my hair as a teacher pulled him off of me.
In first grade, it was so bad that every day the school counselor and the principal would be waiting in the car loop to peel him off of me. This happened for months until finally he would let me walk him to the cafeteria to meet with a friend to walk into class. This was stressful too, as we would wait and wait in agony for that friend to arrive (but I was so thankful).
In my case, it was incredibly painful, but bearable, because I knew from asking (and just waiting around the corner) that as soon as I was out of sight, he would be okay and even cheerful and happy for the majority of the rest of the day.
However, there was another little boy in my son's class with the same school anxiety issues that seemed to be even worse. I felt terribly for this mom and her son, because we were both dealing with the terrible drop off, but her son continued to be miserable throughout the day.
She would get multiple phone calls from the school that he wouldn't stop crying and have to go back to deal with it. I even saw her sneaking over to his classroom window to peek in and see how he was doing! My heart was broken for this sweet mom and her child.
Last year, I pulled my son out to homeschool for the year for way more reasons than the anxiety. (The anxiety played into it all though, no doubt). It isn't our permanent solution, but it did help him get ahead a bit with reading and math. Next year, he is going to a school that is specifically tailored to help kids with anxiety and ADHD. I'm excited about his potential!
So - I compiled this blog post as a resource for any other moms or parents out there who might find themselves in a similar situation. I hope you can find an idea or two that might work for you!
*This post contains Affiliate links, some from Amazon. I may get a teeny percent of the sale at no cost to you for clicks or purchases! See full disclosure here.
23 Tips to Stop School Drop Off Problems and Symptoms for Preschool and Separation Anxiety for School Age Kids.
Below I've put together a list of 23 ideas you might consider giving a shot when your child cries and clings at drop off. The first 14 will apply to a child of any age from very young, to middle, junior, and high school. The last night are more specific to younger children.
These are my own ideas and opinions, and things that helped me with my own children at different ages and times. I hope one of them might be helpful for you!
Tips to help school drop off anxiety for any age, including school refusal in older kids
1. Talk it out the night before.
(Don't try to avoid it). I can remember trying to avoid even talking about the next day of school in the evenings, so that my child would not go spiraling into an anxious stage. Then at some point I decided to just to meet it, head on. But with purpose. This helped a lot, because really getting into the details of the anxiety helped my son. For one, talking about it took some of the mystery and fear away for him, and two, it helped me figure out what some of the exact problems were.
2. Get the school counselor involved and ask for advice or help.
As I mentioned before, ours was a gem. (Thank you Mrs. Martin!) She gave advice, comfort, and was standing there waiting for us at the beginning of every day for so many months. On top of that, the principal at our school was also very helpful. It was nice knowing someone at the school could watch over him, and let me know if I might be needed.
3. Establish a good routine.
Routines bring comfort. It alleviates (most) surprises, and you can even roll-play how the routine will go with younger kids, all the way to sitting down to the desk. Have a well-established bedtime (evening) routine, as well as a good routine for the morning. For visual kids, make a fun routine chart to put on the wall or see for comfort.
4. Create incentives for making it through school.
Whether using an incentive chart, or just something to look forward to at the end of a successful school day, a lot of kids are incentive-driven. It doesn't have to be candy! Think of things your child loves and tailor it to something that will motivate.
**Check out this video (below) that gives some great visual tips on how to help school drop off anxiety!
Is your child being bullied at school? Are they embarrased about their reading level? Are they sitting across from a kid who keeps kicking them? Having trouble with eyesight? Does the teacher put them on the spot? It can be SO many things, or maybe several small things. If you can become a detective, and figure out what these things are, you'll possibly be able to tackle the underlying problem.
6. Help your child make friends at school.
For littler ones, you can arrange playdates. I always tell my kids that really all you need in life is one good friend. Then you can tackle the world together! Having more than one friend is icing on the cake. If your child is odd, quirky, or has behavioral issues, maybe ask the teacher to help you think of one or a few kids who might be a good fit. Then you can befriend that kid's parent and try to establish a friendship.
For older kids, make your home a FUN PLACE. Make sure there is lots of food and a welcoming atmosphere. Help your kids find an activity (even better if it's a school activity) they can join, and then focus on those kids to build a social safety net.
7. Make them go. Be very choosy and deliberate about allowing mental health days.
Even when it gets really hard, you question yourself, and you feel terrible about it, you need to stick to your guns, and make your child face hard things. If you don't, you are setting up your child to not be able to tackle life problems with grit later on in life.
That being said, it's right to make decisions FOR your child that are for their safety and best interest. If school is not safe, make a move. I'd take my child out in a heartbeat if it became an unsafe place. And you may decide to homeschool or virtual school for many various reasons. (I did that! And it helped us. (Edit to add: it wasn't for lack of safety).
When I say "make them go", I mean - in general, don't create a pattern of staying home based on emotions and just not wanting to go, no matter the tears and wailing. And if you have an older child who won't go, or who frequently skips, you'll need to tackle underlying problems first perhaps.
8. Help your child get a good full night of sleep the day before.
This advice speaks for itself. If your child doesn't get all the sleep he needs, he won't be able to do well at school. And the morning will start off cranky, irritable, and wrong. Make sure your child eats a good breakfast too, with protein.
9. Do not allow video games in the morning, or an hour before bed the night before.
My boys love video games too. And it's hard to regulate, I know. But video games can bring lack of sleep and a wrong mindset to start the day. So regulate you must. I say no video gaming at all in the morning. Morning is the time for refreshing and renewal, becoming prepared for the day ahead.
10. Seek help for continued, prolong anxiety.
You might suspect that the anxiety your child is experiencing is above the norm. It can't hurt to just ask your pediatrician for help in this area and possibly get a referral to a good psychologist, or therapist.
11. Get to school a little bit early to adjust. (Take baby steps)
I had to get to the school early with my youngest. It helped him to sit with me in the parking lot for about 10 minutes just to gather his wits about him, before I dropped him off. He did eventually make it to the bus, but it took us a lot of time to build up to that.
All kids benefit from getting the lay of the land before the school year starts, too. Make SURE you go to that meet the teacher night if it's available. If your child is older, help her know the layout of her classes before the year begins. Walk it with her, or have her walk it with a friend so she feels ready.
12. If your child has ADHD or any other behavioral or developmental disorders, view the anxiety through that lens as you decide what to do.
My son has ADHD. For him, this means that in quite a few ways, he is behind by several years. This includes academically, emotionally, and socially. So when I am able to keep that and mind and teach to him where he is in his growth, I have more success in the way I help him tackle areas he needs to grow in. So if your child has a diagnosis of some kind, keep that in mind as you help him with school anxiety issues.
13. Don't ask about various "imagined" scenarios when you ask your child why he is worried. (In other words don't ask leading questions.)
I debated including this one, or how to put into the right terms. What I mean is, don't feed scary ideas in to your child's imagination to give her more to stew on, or worry about. For instance don't say, "Did that mean teacher make you stand up to answer questions?", or anything leading.(Never say something like this anyway! You and your child's teacher are hopefully collaborative partners) But you DO need to get to the bottom of the problem. So you may need to ask specific questions to figure that out. Just be wise in how you ask for more details.
14. Be on time to pick up your child. Talk about the bad and the good about the school day he just had. Ask specific questions about particular parts of his day.
If your child is experiencing anxiety, being late pick him up is setting up trouble for the next day. You need to be a trustworthy source of support for your kiddo. Be there ready to help your child transition back to home from school. Make it a relaxing process, something you both look forward to.
How to stop a child from crying at preschool drop off
(Or, how to help make a more positive school drop off experience for your little one!)
15. Speak with a positive tone at drop off, and keep your own emotions in check.
Small children definitely pick up from adults how exactly they should be feeling and responding to situations. I know from experience that if you have a child who is crying, wailing, and pushing all your heart buttons, that you are ALSO in emotional distress. But for the sake of your little one, control yourself. Be strong, upbeat and cheerful. And then when you go back to your car you can cry your heart out and call your husband, mom, or best friend to let it all out (yep, I did this so many times!)
16. Send your child to school with a picture of the family to put in their locker or notebook.
This REALLY helped my son. We went to Meet the Teacher night armed and prepared. We brought a few pictures of the family, cousins, and our dog with scotch tape. We asked his new teacher for permission to put them in his new locker and she let him. It really, really helped for him to see our faces in his locker at school. You could probably do this at a desk, in a backpack or folder too!
17. Find a classmate or older neighborhood friend who will meet them at school and walk them in all the way to their class.
Another thing that really, really helped was finding safe people at school. The older girl down the street in our neighborhood was so very helpful. She would take him by the hand and walk him all the way to his desk from outside. That way, I was out of the picture, but yet he was still with someone he felt very safe with for the initial drop off.
18. DON'T LINGER. And on the other hand, don't sneak off, either.
I used to see parents hugging, talking to their child, and generally prolonging the goodbye, and I just thought, "STOP!" If that parent would just leave, the child could move on, but the parent kept on "making sure" the child was okay. Don't do this! Get outta dodge, man! If it makes you feel better, go wait around the corner until you feel like you can go. But if you linger, you are really making it so much worse. Drop and run, mama! That is what your kid needs.
But - don't sneak off. I know it might work short-term, but it's a terrible solution because you are causing distrust in your child. You need to build up trust, not break it down. It's an easy, quick win, but it's not a good idea.
19. Read children's books that center around school drop off anxiety and encourage going to school.
Reading books about what is worrying your child, be it going to school or other types of anxiety, can also be helpful. Many times a character in a story going through the same problem will resonate with your child, and when the character's situation resolves in the story (going to school and having fun), your child might feel a little less fearful.
On this note, reading to your child a lot increases their likelihood of doing well in school. And if your child is doing well in school, she may not be as anxious about attending. (Tip: One way of reading aloud to your kid frequently is through audiobooks!)
20. Choose fun videos to watch at home that center around school anxiety and will cheer your child on to go to school.
This idea is the same as that of a good book - watching other people or "characters" go through school anxiety may help your child feel like she is not alone in her feelings.
Take advantage of the time your child spends on a tablet or phone to watch a few of these!
21. If possible, choose a school that emphasizes play.
You may not have any control over this, but if you do, choose a school that views playtime as developmentally appropriate for young children, and does not put academic rigor over playtime.
Playtime has been shown to ease anxiety and be academically better for children according to this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.
If you cannot move to a school that values play, perhaps you can influence your own school! Join the PTA, meet the principal, and advocate for play-based learning.
22. Stay in close contact with your child's teacher.
Your child is spending a significant amount of time with his teacher at school. So, it stands to reason that if you are going to have a great school year, you are going to need to connect!
I know this is hard for the busy, or the introverted parent. But it is worth your while. You will have the perfect partner to help you if you have a child who experiences school anxiety. So don't neglect this relationship.
Show your support to your child's teacher and find ways to be helpful and engage to make the year a great one.
23. See if anyone else take your child to school for drop off to help alleviate the emotions.
Some days, my husband would take my son to drop off at school. And the anxiety just wouldn't be as high on those days. I think a lot of times the Mom can be a trigger for the anxiety, because the child wants to feel the comfort and emotion coming from Mom.
So, if you have a spouse, grandparent, aunt or uncle, etc. who would be able to take your child to school, it might be a good idea to mix it up a bit. This might ease the anxiety at the school entrance and make future days even better.
Separation Anxiety and School Refusal in Older Kids
As your child grows older, school anxiety and school refusal can become a major problem and if it grows and isn't dealt with, can really impact the life of your child and your family's lives.
Below I've included a video I found for you on YouTube that may help, or give you some ideas. (Produced by IWK Health Care & led by Cheryl Gilbert MacLeod, PhD.)
She talks a lot about what school refusal looks like, and up until the first 24-25 minutes, mostly she speaks to what it can look like (obvious and not obvious), as well as what the consequences could be. In the remaining section of the video (it's about 45 minutes long), she gives some tips, strategies, and plans for dealing with school refusal and anxieties.
If you have an older child who chronically has school anxiety issues, this may well be worth your time to watch. It can even be helpful for those with younger kids to pick up a few tips.
Separation anxiety strategies for teachers
Coming from the point of view of a teacher, and from the parent of a child with extreme separation anxiety, here are a few things that I think could be very helpful for teachers of children with anxiety:
- Print out this list of 23 tips for school anxiety struggles and give it to parents at parent-teacher night.
- Understand the stress this puts parents under and be a calming presence to the parent as well.
- Be prepared in the morning, so that you can put a little extra energy into helping kids with school stress at drop off.
- Give the child snuggles and TLC to ease him into the day.
- Some parents don't know what to do (for example, lingering at good-bye). Take a gentle but firm stance and help the goodbye go more quickly. Help distract the child so the parent can go.
- If the parent is willing, go ahead and "peel" the child off if need be. Let the parent make a quick exit.
- For persistent anxiety, provide the parent with additional resources (school counselor, ideas for drop off, maybe an older helper to assist with the transition at the front door of the school instead of the classroom door).
- Text or call the parent a time or two through the day to let them know the child is doing well. (Pics are a bonus!)
- At Meet the Teacher night, send home a poem for the night before the first day of school similar to these ones found on Pinterest. Include in a baggie the magic "fairy dust" a child can put under their pillow for a good night's sleep.
VIDEO: Meltdowns before school got you down?
Take a look at this funny lady in the car line as she drops off her own child. Just something to make you laugh - we are all in this together! 🙂
Books you may like to help with meltdowns before school.
Here are a few book picks with high Amazon ratings I grabbed for you to read for more ideas:
I hope these give you some ideas for helping your child happier about school drop off!
Don't forget to grab your copy of 23 ideas to help with these school anxieties. Just CLICK HERE to get it and I'll zip it over to you!
Table of Contents
- How to stop a child from crying at preschool
- 23 Tips to Stop School Drop Off Problems and Symptoms for Preschool and Separation Anxiety for School Age Kids.
- Tips to help school drop off anxiety for any age, including school refusal in older kids
- 1. Talk it out the night before.
- 2. Get the school counselor involved and ask for advice or help.
- 3. Establish a good routine.
- 4. Create incentives for making it through school.
- 5. Get to the bottom of WHY they are anxious. Deal with the problem.
- 6. Help your child make friends at school.
- 7. Make them go. Be very choosy and deliberate about allowing mental health days.
- 8. Help your child get a good full night of sleep the day before.
- 9. Do not allow video games in the morning, or an hour before bed the night before.
- 10. Seek help for continued, prolong anxiety.
- 11. Get to school a little bit early to adjust. (Take baby steps)
- 12. If your child has ADHD or any other behavioral or developmental disorders, view the anxiety through that lens as you decide what to do.
- 13. Don't ask about various "imagined" scenarios when you ask your child why he is worried. (In other words don't ask leading questions.)
- 14. Be on time to pick up your child. Talk about the bad and the good about the school day he just had. Ask specific questions about particular parts of his day.
- How to stop a child from crying at preschool drop off
- 15. Speak with a positive tone at drop off, and keep your own emotions in check.
- 16. Send your child to school with a picture of the family to put in their locker or notebook.
- 17. Find a classmate or older neighborhood friend who will meet them at school and walk them in all the way to their class.
- 18. DON'T LINGER. And on the other hand, don't sneak off, either.
- 19. Read children's books that center around school drop off anxiety and encourage going to school.
- 20. Choose fun videos to watch at home that center around school anxiety and will cheer your child on to go to school.
- 21. If possible, choose a school that emphasizes play.
- 22. Stay in close contact with your child's teacher.
- 23. See if anyone else take your child to school for drop off to help alleviate the emotions.
- Separation Anxiety and School Refusal in Older Kids
- Separation anxiety strategies for teachers
- VIDEO: Meltdowns before school got you down?
- Books you may like to help with meltdowns before school.
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