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How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School

Separation anxiety affects every child differently. Help the children in your childcare center feel secure with these tips.

How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School

How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School

Many toddlers and preschoolers are used to spending every minute of the day with their family. When it comes time for young children to enroll in childcare programs and preschools, they may struggle with separation anxiety, which can make the transition difficult and stressful.

Try these tips to help children transition into your early childhood education program with less stress for them, their parents, and yourself.

Father holding young child's hand.


What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is feeling nervous about being separated from a loved one or caregiver. 

Around seven months old, infants develop object permanence and understand that their parents don’t disappear when they leave the room.

By the time they are 18 months old, young toddlers begin to wonder where their parents are and why they have gone away. This new awareness can cause separation anxiety. 

You can help children in your childcare center cope with their separation anxiety by encouraging them to create a nurturing bond with an educator, helping them regulate their emotions, and reminding them that their parents or caregivers will return for them each day.​

Separation anxiety in toddlers (12 months to three years)

Toddlers experiencing separation anxiety may cling to their parents during drop-offs, refuse to take naps, or cry and yell when their parents leave. Other signs of separation anxiety in toddlers may include resisting attention or support from teachers or caregivers and throwing a tantrum.

How teachers can help toddlers ease their separation anxiety

Teachers play a critical role in supporting toddlers with separation anxiety at childcare centers. Creating a welcoming environment and building positive relationships with children is key in making them feel secure and confident in their new surroundings. By establishing a predictable routine from day one and working closely with parents and other caregivers, teachers can help ease the transition into childcare and support toddlers as they navigate this important milestone. 

1. Invite families to visit your center before the first day

New places can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for toddlers. You can help them feel more comfortable in your center by inviting families to an orientation event before the first day.

An orientation helps new families become familiar with your center. At your orientation, spend time getting to know the children. Share what they can expect when they attend your center and show them that your center is a fun, inviting place with adults who care about them.

Invite the children to participate in fun activities that separate them from their parents for short periods. These activities may help them feel less anxious about being in your center and away from their parents on the first day.

Separation anxiety affects parents as well as their children. During your orientation, acknowledge parents' feelings about enrolling their child in a childcare program. Answer any questions they may have about your program, procedures, and health and safety policies to help ease their anxiety.

Let families know that they will have access to daily reports sharing pertinent information about their child's day. To strengthen the family-teacher relationship, you can download our free toddler daily sheet to record the children's daily activities, providing families a window into their child's day. 

Download our free toddler daily report template here!

2. ​​​​Greet each child and parent during drop-off

Every morning, greet each child and their parents during drop-off. Tell the children and their parents about the day's activities for a few minutes.

Create "goodbye and hello" routines that children and their parents can participate in during drop-off and pick-up. Routines like short songs or dances will help children transition from their time with their parents to their time with teachers. 

3. Acknowledge the child’s feelings

Take a moment to let the child know you understand how they feel. Tell them how they’re feeling is completely normal and that many children are nervous about being away from their family in a new environment. Reassure them that you understand their feelings and that it’ll get better.

4. Let children bring in a comfort item

Items that remind children of their home can help them self-soothe and relieve their anxiety. Allow children to bring comfort items like a blanket or stuffed animal. 

5. Pair children up at the start of class

Each morning, allow children to pick their partner for the day or choose for them. Give them some time to talk to their partner and build a bit of comfort with them. Encourage the pairs to engage with each other and incorporate some partner activities throughout the day.

6. Create a family photo wall

Ask parents to bring a photo of their family to display in your center. Hang the photos where the children can see them easily. Seeing their family members' familiar faces may help children feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar childcare setting.

You can use the photo wall to prompt children to talk about their family members and to remind them that their parents will return at the end of the day.

Separation anxiety in preschoolers (three years to five years)

Preschoolers with separation anxiety may engage in similar behaviors as toddlers (i.e., crying, clinging to family, and throwing a tantrum). Other signs of separation anxiety in preschoolers may include regressing in potty training and other skills and refusing to take naps. 

How teachers can help preschoolers ease their separation anxiety

Preschoolers benefit from all the strategies shared to ease anxieties in toddlers. However, since they are older, they could also learn additional coping skills that allow them to take charge of their feelings and learn to become independent in self-regulation during challenging separations. Teachers can help preschoolers with separation anxiety by teaching them calming strategies when they feel anxious.

1. Encourage children to practice breathing exercises

Breathing exercises reduce stress and anxiety, lower the heart rate, relax the body, and increase the body's oxygen levels. Guide preschoolers through simple breathing activities after drop-off each day to help them calm down and alleviate their separation anxiety.

Belly breathing is an easy breathing exercise for young children. To practice belly breathing with your children:

  • Instruct the children to sit upright or lay on their backs.
  • Have them breathe normally with one hand on their bellies and the other on their chests.
  • Ask them to pay attention to their breathing. How does their breathing feel? Which hand moves more as they breathe? Is the hand on their belly moving up and down?
  • Have them breathe in for four seconds until they feel their chest fill with air, and the air travels down to their belly.
  • Have the children hold their breath for four seconds.
  • Have them exhale slowly. If they find it difficult to exhale slowly, have them try exhaling through a straw or pursed lips to slow down their exhale.
  • Have the children continue breathing this way until they feel relaxed.
  • Ask the children how their bodies feel. Ask them if they notice a difference between how they felt before the breathing exercise and how they feel after.

2. Create a calming area with stuffed animals and art supplies

In addition to the activity centers in your preschool, create a calming center with coloring pages, crayons, paper/envelopes, play dough, and stuffed animals. Encourage children to create pictures and sculptures, or write letters (with teacher support to write the words as needed) to give to their parents at the end of the day.

A child doing arts and crafts coloring with a crayon.


3. Stick to a routine

Teaching the children your preschool's daily schedule will help them feel more secure. Post a visual schedule in your center where the children can easily see it. Associate an image with each activity for the day so the children can understand the order of events.

Ask parents when they plan to pick up their children and use the daily schedule to help the children understand when their parents will arrive. For example, if a parent intends to pick up their child at 12:30 pm, you can show a child the schedule and tell them that their parents will return for them after lunchtime but before nap time.

A planned pick-up time and daily visual schedule can help children feel less anxious about whether their parents will return for them.

4. Explain how to recognize feelings of anxiety

Describe to your class what anxiety is and what it feels like. Let them know it’s a normal feeling that we all experience when we’re feeling uncertain or experiencing situations that may be unfamiliar, strange, or scary. Talk about what it can feel like and how it may come with symptoms like upset stomach, sweating, mind racing, inability to focus, or heart pounding. Remind them to check in with themselves and identify when they might be experiencing anxiety.

5. Read reassuring books about separation to the children

There are many children's books that you can read to the children in your preschool to teach them about separation anxiety, including: 

6. Give each child a special role

Giving children something to be responsible for is not only great for their overall development, but it can also soothe their anxiety by creating a different focus for the day. Assign classroom jobs or small tasks to each child as a way to promote responsibility and foster community in your classroom. These tasks can be things like handing out certain supplies, choosing a book for story time, or clearing the board.

Separation anxiety tips for parents

Easing a child’s separation anxiety can take some time. Creating a positive environment in the classroom can help provide comfort, but there are also strategies that families can use at home to reinforce a smooth transition into child care. As an added support for your families, offer the following tips:

Let staff know in advance

Before your child starts school, look for signs that they may potentially experience separation anxiety. If it seems likely that they will, then let the staff know beforehand. This prepares them to handle the transition with extra care and do what they can to soothe the child while you’re away.

Create a routine

A child experiencing separation anxiety may be afraid of the changes around them and feel a lot of instability. A familiar schedule or routine can help ease their fears because they’ll learn what to expect. Find a few parts of the day you can plan to do every time you take your child to preschool. It may be the food they eat for breakfast, a song you listen to on the way, or a special handshake at drop-off.

Remain positive and upbeat

It can be difficult to see your child so distressed when they’re going through separation anxiety. Remember that being separated from you and experiencing school is great for their development and independence, so you don’t have anything to feel guilty about. For your goodbye at drop-off, have a happy and excited attitude with them. If they’re crying or yelling, use calming language to soothe them instead of emotionally reacting to them. Seeing you sad or upset too could increase their distress. If you stay calm and upbeat about the day, it encourages them to do the same.

Don’t introduce reasons to worry

Whether your child is experiencing separation anxiety or not, be mindful of how you talk about the situation. Communicating to them that going to preschool is brave or asking them if they’re scared or worried reinforces the idea that separating from you is a big deal. Instead, speak about going to preschool as a normal activity many families do daily. 

Make a proper exit

When it comes time to say goodbye to your child, don’t linger or sneak out. Establish a goodbye routine whether it’s a hug and a kiss or a secret handshake, and then leave. This helps set the expectation that goodbye means goodbye and you will return to pick them up later. Resist the temptation to stay too long. Your child may take even longer to calm down after you leave, and if they’re crying to get you to stay, they may get the message that these behaviors are the way to prevent you from leaving. On the other hand, quickly sneaking out when they aren’t looking could damage their trust in you and potentially increase their separation anxiety. 

Help the children in your center overcome their separation anxiety

Separation anxiety affects every child differently. You can help the toddlers and preschoolers in your center feel secure after drop-off by giving them individual attention, helping them calm themselves, and comforting them with items and photos from home.

Remember to validate the children's feelings. Let them know that you understand how they feel and that it’s okay for them to be sad. Reassure them that they are safe and their parents will return for them.

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