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School Anxiety

I vividly remember bringing our daughter to nursery school for the first time. My wife and I were so apprehensive at the idea of leaving this little thing by herself for a whole two and a half hours. That morning, the family walked to the school with great ceremony, our daughter Abeline in her crisp new floral dress. When we arrived, there were already a dozen kids there, half of them screaming and hanging on to their parents’ jackets. After we spent an hour playing with all the toys available, we reached the fateful moment of separation. We kissed her good-bye and snuck out, but we didn’t get very far: We looked back to see our little Abeline’s blond curly head banging on the window. We ended up going back in and joining a happy group of kids and parents singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” We wanted to show Abeline how much fun she could have, so much fun that we ended up staying there all morning and the next morning too.

The first day of school always generates a little bit of fussing; it’s a later but lesser form of the same separation anxiety that shows up at eight or nine months. Some kids will have it the first time you leave them in school; others may take a few sessions.

The best way to drop Jimmy off at school is to stay a few minutes and then leave. The message you send when you leave confidently is that you approve of the place, and you approve of leaving Jimmy there, no matter how heartbroken you are. If you try to avoid the unease by prolonging your stay or overexplaining the process, you’ll only arouse Jimmy’s suspicion and anxiety. When you come back a few hours later, he’ll begin to understand that every departure is followed by a return. He’ll also start to have a great time.

Interestingly, some nursery schools ask parents to stay with their children for the first few sessions. The intent is to limit the crying at drop-off; teachers don’t want their entire classes freaking out at the same time. But this just makes the separation even more difficult. Three weeks later, the parents are still sitting in school for most of the morning and even sneaking out during a moment of inattention, which unnerves Jimmy and increases his fear.

You should treasure those moments of separation anxiety, because they sure won’t happen again when you drive your precious student off to college as much as you’d love to stay.

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