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Don’t Leave Me

Welcome to preschool! For the first newsletter, we traditionally re-print a “start of school” newsletter article that Janie Brooks and Courtney Aldrich wrote a few years ago that continues to be relevant. The article addresses separation anxiety – that phenomenon that breaks moms’ hearts, comes and goes without warning, and keeps the teacher from becoming too complacent. Even if the topic doesn’t apply to your child now, some of these ideas are very useful. You’ll want to file this away for future reference! – Claire

“Don’t Leave Me!”
Courtney Aldrich and Janie Brooks

Well . . . here’s the play . . . a comedy, I think. I’ll set the stage . . . There you are, standing confidently at the brink of freedom, that illusive gateway separating your child’s school from two and a half hours of blissful, uninterrupted, solitary grocery shopping. Fortified and strengthened by a momentary glance toward the childless world beyond the classroom door, you assume a staunch, rigid, and unrelenting position, bracing your legs and arms as you prepare for eminent combat with a worthy opponent; an opponent determined to undermine your escape. Your enemy . . . a twenty-eight pound miniature three year old war machine, programmed to utilize every conceivable line of defense in order to win the Battle of Wills. He’ll stop at nothing. No tactic is beneath him. His power unyielding. He won’t let you leave. It’s his mission. Negotiating skills have failed you as have your efforts at persuasion. Even bribery and trickery aren’t working. You beg and plead but to no avail. (It’s hard to imagine that this is the same pint sized kid who triumphantly marched into your bedroom with a pre-dawn proclamation announcing that he had successfully made “poo-poo” in the toilet. He dragged you from your comfy bed and insisted that you come take a look. All this before you and your spouse had a chance to coat your sensitive stomachs with morning coffee. Is this really the same individual who sat quietly and cheerfully at the breakfast table methodically spooning Cheerios into his smiling face while singing Barney’s favorite, “I Love You, You Love Me” song? Na . . . couldn’t be.) Back to the scene . . . Perhaps there’s a chance that you could secretly retreat and escape without being noticed. The school’s loaded with pleasant distractions: toys, lovable classmates, a science table, plenty of purple play dough, and a resourceful teacher who, for reasons beyond me, always appears stuck in “Jollyland”. Now’s your chance . . . just quietly sneak away. This just might work.
Then suddenly, from across the room you hear daunting screams and freeze as you helplessly watch this kamikaze soldier charge toward you and latch on to your vulnerable leg. At this point, you’re wondering if Target will stand behind the manufacturer’s guarantee promising a ruggedly constructed durable zipper. You’re positive that at any moment your zipper will give way, your pants will come crashing down (settling around your ankles) and reveal, to the captivated wide-eyed audience, mesmerized by this saga, the naked truth and white flag of surrender.
Sound somewhat familiar? . . . I encourage you to read on.
Children’s separation anxiety is no laughing matter. In fact, it is serious business. It needs to be addressed promptly, compassionately, firmly, and consistently. Some children have a more difficult time separating than others, or some may have been fine last year and are now having difficulties this year. All of these anxieties are normal, common and understandable. Children can be so torn between wanting to be independent and explore and wanting to be safe with home and family. I remember being confused when my own daughter started having separation anxiety in January of her Kindergarten year, after two “anxiety –free” years of preschool and a smooth transition to Kindergarten. It helps to know that this is a developmental stage, and is largely based upon a child’s personality and temperament. As stressful as it can be on you as a parent, don’t fret, the separation issues do not mean that your child is not ready for preschool. In fact, preschool might just be the perfect setting to work through some of those anxieties!
Just so you know what to expect, children having adjustment problems may exhibit the following behaviors:
• Revert to earlier stages of development such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
• Cry about going to school or not wanting to stay without a parent
• Become more physically aggressive
• Withdraw from people or situations
• Complain about school, classmates, or teachers
• Become defiant and argumentative
• Attempt to manipulate and control parents by whining, pleading, and generally tugging on their “emotional apron strings”.
What follows are some helpful ideas and suggestions for parents who are faced with children who do not want them to leave:
• As a parent, analyze your own feelings about leaving your child. Children pick up on parents’ insecurities quickly.
• Talk to your child about what to expect. Some children may automatically resist something they do not understand, so talk about going to preschool, what they will do there, who will be there, etc
• Find out who the assist parents are for that day, so your child knows which adults will be staying in the classroom with the teacher.
• Talk to school personnel to discern whether there is something particularly disturbing or frightening to your child at school. Work as a team to develop realistic objectives.
• If necessary, the separation can be gradual. There is no hard and fast rule that says you must leave after gathering time and come back after recess. If the separation is particularly difficult, work with your child on a plan where you will leave just for short periods of time to run an “errand”, gradually building up the amount of time you are gone (for example, leave just during snack on one day, during snack and story time the next, from free play through story time the next, and so on).
• Make sure to tell your child you are leaving. Sneaking in and out will only cause more anxiety for your child and teach her not to trust you or take her eyes off of you the next time.
• Tell your child in specific, concrete terms when you will be back and be prompt. It is easier for the child to understand that you will be back during story time (concrete) than “in two hours” or “after school” (abstract).
• Establish a ritual for saying goodbye and stick to it (for example, hug – kiss – hug and then leave). If you prolong the goodbye, or let your child see that you are wavering, your child will sense your vulnerability and become more persistent about not letting you go easily.
• Let your child bring a “lovey” or something special from home to school.
• Promise your child that you will phone the preschool later in the day to check in and see how he or she is doing (and follow through).
• Plan a special treat together following school.
• Help your child establish friendships by inviting individual children to your house to play.
• If the problem persists, consider setting up a reward system for smooth goodbyes such as a marble jar or sticker chart which when filled lead to special time with Mom or Dad.
• Encourage your child to express her concerns verbally as well as artistically. Use storybooks, such as Owl Babies, or The Kissing Hand to help your child work through his or her anxieties.
Probably the most important piece of advice is this . . . Once you’ve made the decision to leave, do it. The directions are easy. Tell your child goodbye, give her a hug, turn around, walk away and don’t look back. Implementing it could prove to be a bit harder. The tears, screams, and fussing resonating in your ears will most likely subside in a few minutes under the proper guidance of a sensitive caregiver. If your child’s actions and behaviors were successful in delaying your departure, she won’t hesitate to us precisely the same tactics next time. Most of all, be consistent and be patient. This is normal preschool behavior, and is not anything you or your child should be embarrassed about, angry about, or ashamed of — in fact, learning how to handle these transitions is one of the things preschool is all about!

(Source: T. B. Brazelton, Touchpoints, The Essential Reference – 1992)