Turning Tears to Smiles – Ways to Ease Separation Anxiety

parent reading to child

It’s finally here, the first week of school!  During the summer, you and your little ones have built excitement about starting preschool.  You may have driven by your school in anticipation, perhaps bought a new lunch box or backpack, and attended Meet the Teacher day.  Despite your efforts to make school sound like a new adventure, you may be faced with a burst of tears and cries of, “Mommy/Daddy, don’t leave me!”

It’s perfectly normal for children to feel hesitation about any change in their environment.  As exciting as starting school may be, surrounding your child with new faces, places, and expectations can naturally bring on a mini-rollercoaster of emotions.

At Spanish Schoolhouse we’ve had the joy of sharing in “first days” for thousands of children.  Our teachers and staff know that separation anxiety can be tough (for kids and parents!).  You can rest assured that they’re fully prepared to lovingly help with the transition in the classroom.

On the home front, there are things you can do as well.  In a nutshell, experts urge parents to prepare their children for what to expect, acknowledge their feelings, send positive vibes, create a consistent goodbye ritual, and reassure them they’ll be reunited at the end of the school day.

Talk About Feelings – Reading Together Can Help!

Be sure to talk openly with children about their feelings concerning preschool.  Some very sweet books address separation anxiety, so snuggle up, read, and point out that the families always reunite at the end of the day.  Here are some favorites:

“Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney

“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn

“Oh My Baby, Little One” by Kathi Appelt

“I Love You All Day Long” by Francesca Rusackas

“Don’t Forget I Love You” by Miriam Moss

“Daniel Goes to School: by Becky Friedman

Send Positive Vibes

Preschoolers take cues from parents’ emotions, so allowing enough time for a peaceful drop-off goes a long way in setting the tone for the day.  If you’re running late and feeling stressed, your child may pick up on it and become upset.  Consistent evening and morning routines help the transition.  Invite your child to lay out the school uniform and help pack a lunchbox the evening before school to make mornings less hectic.

Even though the separation may be pulling your heartstrings too, work on hiding any tears, smiling, and using confident body language to reassure your little one that all is well and a fun day awaits!

Keep Goodbyes Short and Sweet!

When you arrive at school, let your child observe you cheerfully greeting the teachers and other children in the room.  This helps convey that you’re in a safe, loving place that you trust.  Give a few moments of full attention and affection to your child.  Stay just long enough for him or her to take in the activities and people in the room.  When your child seems comfortable it’s time to hand the reins to the teacher.

Come up with a special hug, handshake, high five, or family phrase that you use each time you leave.  Say goodbye happily, and assure him or her you’ll be back “after nap time,” or after a certain activity.

Resist the urge to linger if your child becomes upset – this prolongs the transition and anxiety and by staying, you may reinforce crying or tantrums.

A Little Comfort from Home

A familiar item can help a new environment feel less scary.  Simple ideas that don’t cause a distraction in the class are: placing a funny drawing into a pocket, or a photo (of mom, dad, siblings, or the family pet) inside a lunch box.  You can “tuck a hug” into a shoe and remind a child you’re near all day.  Having access to these little comforts can calm a child when he/she is feeling anxious.

Oh, Not Again!  

You may breathe a sigh of relief when your child seems to have transitioned to preschool, and then be surprised by an out-of-the-blue setback.  Relax, say the experts.  This is normal too!  Separation anxiety can come and go in response to a variety of changes – a new baby at home, a substitute teacher at school, or being off for a week for holidays.  At times of change, it helps to talk about the things that remain the same.  Reassuring children that some things never change (like school routines, or like a parent’s love for them) can minimize the regression period.

Why the Tears are Worth It

Preschool offers opportunities for fun, friendships, and learning, but even more, it allows children to build important life skills.  Each day as they separate from you, they practice managing and expressing their emotions, build self-confidence, and increase independence.  Each pick-up at the end of the school day reassures them, fosters their trust in loved ones, and builds a sense of security.

Separation may be hard at first, but it brings life lessons that are definitely worth the tears!


  • A book we found helpful with our almost 3 year old daughter was “Daniel Goes to School” (Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood). She identified a lot with Daniel – having a backpack, lunch box, a red shirt, teacher, etc – and of course the emotions of her parents not being able to stay at school with her. We got it after she had trouble with drop off on the first day of school and she has asked to read it everyday since.

So, what do you think?