‘It’s a struggle getting my daughter to school every day’
Ask the expert: Separation anxiety during the first year of primary school is very common
‘It breaks my heart to see her upset going to school and I don’t know what the matter is’
Question: My little girl just started school this September and it all seemed to be going fine in the first week. But then, in the second week, she said she didn’t want to go anymore and became quite distressed when we said she had to.
Since then it has been a bit of an ordeal to get her out the door to school. She won’t say specifically why she doesn’t want to go and just says she does not ‘like it’ and wants to stay at home with me and her dad (she is an only child). We checked with her teacher and she said she was surprised there was a problem as she seemed happy in the school, though she is very quiet and does not talk too much yet. The teacher says this is normal for lots of children who are getting used to school. She is very chatty at home with us and when her cousins are over.
After much fuss we do get her into school each day and she hasn’t missed any days, but it is wearing. This week she said she would not go in unless Daddy took her and he has arranged to go in later to work so he can manage this (but he can’t keep doing it). I’m not sure what else to do. It breaks my heart to see her upset going to school and I don’t know what the matter is. She does not discuss much of what goes on during the school day.
She attended a small Montessori for two years preschool and there was never any problem with her going there, so it is a new thing.
Answer: Separation anxiety during the first year of primary school is very common. Lots of children can find it hard to adjust to the routine of going to school every day and to settle in the classroom. Even children who have a good experience of going to preschool can find the transition to primary school difficult. Having to deal with less attention from the teacher, being part of a much bigger class, dealing with a longer structured day and getting to know lots of new children can all take its toll.
Frequently, young children find the situation stressful and want to stay at home where they can get one to one or even two to one attention at home with their parents. This is completely understandable in the mind of a four or five year old child - why wouldn’t they want to stay at home when they might find it anxiety provoking to go to school?
Sometimes, there are particular reasons as to why the child is experiencing separation anxiety - for example they may be worried about their parents or find it hard to get on with the other children in the class. As your daughter is quiet in the classroom, (when this is not her normal personality), this suggests she is not yet comfortable to open up and be herself. Though with a little bit of support you would expect this to change over time.
Work closely with the teacher
It is very important to work closely with your daughter’s teacher. Solutions to school anxiety are usually joint ones that parents and teachers create together. It would be great if the teacher could provide her with a bit of extra attention to help her ‘get going’ in the class. Perhaps she could set her special fun tasks or give her some enjoyable responsibilities or pair her with another child who she might ‘click’ with. Check in with the teacher regularly to hear how your daughter is doing so you can understand what activities she is enjoying the most and when/where she is the most engaged and open in the class. The more your daughter warms up and enjoys the class the easier it will be for her to settle. Get specific details from the teacher of your daughter’s school day so you can chat about this at home with her. For example, you might enquire, “How did the games in the yard go today” or “I hear you liked the art today when you were working with N”. Asking specific questions about things you know she is doing is more likely to help her open up.
Help her connect with the other children
You can support her getting on better with the other children by building connections with them outside the classroom. For example, you might be able to identify one or two children who could be potential friends. When dropping or collecting her from the school you can try and start conversations with their parents and invite the children around for a play date. In organising a play date make sure it is one to one. Larger playdates with three or more children are fraught with problems and can reproduce dynamics from school. Instead, a one to one playdate with another child is the best way to build a friendship. Establishing one or two friendships like this will help your daughter feel much more connected to the school
Continue to patiently support her to get to school each morning
Carry on providing the support and attention she needs to get to school each morning. This is about providing a mixture of reassurance and gentle encouragement while being persistent and firm. Reflect on what strategies work best for your daughter. For example, sometimes it is best to say very little if she is distressed and just to gently hold her as you take her to school. Other times it might be best to coach her and to talk through the issues. Sometimes, changing the routine on the journey to school can help. For example, some children find the arrival point at a noisy schoolyard very difficult - if this is the case you could get agreement that she arrives a little later so she can go directly into a quieter classroom. One girl I was working with, went first to the principal’s office in the morning, who let her play quietly for a few minutes before she took her to the classroom. This helped her manage her anxiety. Over time, as your daughter settles you can plan to gradually reduce the level of extra support she needs to get to school each morning.
– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering a number of parenting workshops in Dublin and Cork this Autumn. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles.