Lessons in anxiety
ASK THE EXPERT: I am worried about my four year old starting a new Montessori in September. Last May and June, I started him four mornings a week in a playschool and there were problems going in each morning as he used to get very upset at the door when I left him.His worry about going would start the moment he got up in the morning, when he would immediately say he “didn’t want to go” and he would resist getting dressed and into the buggy and so on. His anxiety would build and he could start crying even before we arrived at the playschool. His teacher said that he settled quickly once I left and he was in the door, but it was still very stressful and I was glad when the summer break came. He has been happy enough at home for the summer and I have not mentioned that he has to start a new Montessori until last week when he got upset and said “I’m not going”.
I am worried that there will be problems again this year. I have tried to reassure him that it is a lovely preschool but he doesn’t listen. Do you have any tips for me to avoid the mornings becoming so difficult or what I can do if he refuses to go? I am starting a new part-time job in September in the mornings so staying at home is not an option.
It can be a big step for a child to start preschool and for some children it can take them a while to get settled into the routine, especially if they are used to being at home. Like your son last year, many children go through periods of being unsettled during the morning routine and can display separation anxiety particularly at the point of being dropped off.
Though hard to deal with, such anxiety is developmentally normal for a child of three or four and usually fades over time as they become secure and used to the new routine.
Periods of being unsettled can be triggered by many factors such as changes in the preschool routine, sickness or tiredness.
As in your case, in the majority of situations, although the children can be upset and display anxiety at the point of departure, they usually settle very quickly when the parent leaves and they get into the routine of the day with the support of an experienced teacher.
It is good that you are thinking how to prepare your son this year for starting his new Montessori and preparation can avoid problems.
The first thing to do is to plan a good morning routine that gives you and your son plenty of time to get ready. This can include getting him dressed before you bring him down, having plenty of time for breakfast and even having some playtime before you set out.
A good morning routine starts with a good early bedtime ensuring everyone is well rested. If your routine has got out of sync over the summer (later bedtimes and later rising), you may wish to gradually adjust this over the next few days until the start of the new term.
In talking to your son about the new preschool, it is normal enough that he initially might say, “I don’t want to go.” This gives you a clue that he might be still feeling a little anxious. At this point, I would back off from the conversation and come back to it later.
It can help to take some physical steps to prepare him. For example, if you have not done it already, it might be a good idea to visit his Montessori before he starts so he can see where he is going and even say a brief hello to his teacher.
Either way, it is a good idea for you to have a chat with his teacher in advance of the new term to discuss his/her suggestions regarding managing his anxiety.
You can also involve your son in the preparations – buying an exciting new lunch box or school bag can help take the edge of his anxiety as well as mentioning the things he might enjoy at the preschool when he gets there.
If possible, you could consider arranging a play date in advance with one of the children who is also going to the preschool so he is reassured about the children he will meet and you can talk positively about this.
On the days going to the preschool, the key is to be positive and upbeat and to not necessarily anticipate any problems. If he does get upset or says he does not want to go, acknowledge his feelings – “starting somewhere new is hard” – but also point out the things you know he will enjoy there – “you will be doing colouring, and you have your favourite snack for lunchtime”.
Having a range of distractions for the journey there can help such as letting him hold a favourite toy on the way down or telling a story or pointing things on the way. When saying goodbye at the school door be very positive and definite – “enjoy school, mummy/daddy will be here to collect you when you finish all your fun at school” – and then withdraw without lingering.
Expect some upset but be positive and definite. Sometimes the point of departure at the school door can be made worse by there being lots of parents and people there. In these instances, you might want to time your arrival well, either getting there just as the door is open or holding back until the crowds have cleared and then drop him in – especially on the first few mornings. Trust the experience of the teachers and that they will contact you if there are any problems.
Though it is sensible to anticipate problems this year, it could also be that things go smoothly of their own accord. Young children can develop and mature quickly, and this September your son is that bit older and may be more able to manage the separation from you and adjust more easily to the new routine at school.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and pyschotherapist and director of ParentsPlus charity. His website is solutiontalk.ie.
Readers’ queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but John regrets that he cannot enter into individual correspondence. Questions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
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