Tips for Decreasing Separation Anxiety Upon Returning to School

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted families in many ways. One of the most dramatic changes resulting from the pandemic is the extended period of time without access to in-person schools or daycare. In fact, some educational settings closed abruptly in March or April of this year and remain closed up to t his date. As a result, many children have spent all or most of the past six months at home, in close proximity to their caregivers, and these children have had little or no interaction with their peers or teachers. In addition, many adults and children may be fearful of leaving their homes due to the risk of becoming ill. The extended period of time at home combined with fear of becoming ill is likely to increase children’s separation anxiety upon returning to school. That is, children may engage in problem behavior during school/day care drop off in an attempt to extend the amount of time caregivers remain at school, prevent caregiver from leaving, or cause the caregiver to return.

Thus, it is important that caregivers’ respond to their child problem behavior during drop off in a manner that will be less likely to reinforce their child’s problem behavior. Furthermore, caregivers and teachers should work together to establish a drop-off routine that is more likely to set up the child to succeed during their transition back to school. In a recent article published by Pelaez and Novak (2020) the authors outline various strategies that caregivers can use to make the drop-off an easier experience for both the caregiver and their child. Here is a summary of them:

  1. Learn the new rules and routines of the classroom, and plan ahead: as much as possible caregivers should communicate with teachers to attain information about the rules and routines of the classroom so that the caregiver can establish a drop-off routine that will work for both the caregiver and the teacher.
  2. Listen carefully to the child: caregiver should pay attention to both physical and verbal cues from their child that may signal that the child is anxious. These cues indicate an increased probability of problem behavior. Caregivers should provide the child with re-assurance before problem behavior occurs.
  3. Model calm: school drop off may also cause anxiety for caregivers, especially if they know that their child is likely to engage in problem behavior. It is important that caregivers react to any problem behavior in a calm manner and that caregivers maintain a calm demeanor during the drop-off routine.
  4. Create a less stressful environment: caregivers and teachers should ensure the child has access to reinforcing activities upon arriving to school (e.g., having a snack, playing with a peer or preferred activity).
  5. Announce your departure & make the explanation clear and short: once the child is engaging in a reinforcing activity, caregivers should inform their child that they are leaving (e.g., give child a kiss and state “have fun, I will be back later to pick you up”). If the child become upset, the caregiver should leave as planned and without negotiating or providing the child with additional explanation. This is important because further interaction with the child may reinforce the child’s problem behavior by delaying the caregiver’s departure.
  6. Depart without vacillating & do not return: caregivers should leave the setting in a calm manner and without hesitation and the caregiver should not return to talk with their child if the child is protesting due to the departure of their caregiver. However, if the child’s distress has a negative impact on the caregiver, they should consider contacting the school to check on their child and hopefully receive confirmation that their child is calm and happily engaging in a school activity.
  7. Behave consistently: predictability is imperative! Throughout repeated exposure to a consistent routine the child will know exactly what to expect. Thus, caregivers should, as much as possible, follow the same drop off and pick up routine each day.

Although these strategies should minimize the distress associated with school drop, caregivers and/or teachers should consider seeking assistance from a professional (e.g., child psychologist) if the child’s behavior does not improve or worsens.

For additional resources on coping with stress during the pandemic check out these websites:

https://store.samhsa.gov/product/Coping-with-Stress-During-Infectious-Disease-Outbreaks/sma14-4885

https://www.nasponline.org/resources-andpublications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-risis/healthcrisis-resources/helping-children-cope-with-changes-resultingfrom-covid-19