Ah, the beginning of the school year. I just finished week three, and I still regularly hear a little one or two crying when they first come in. Most of these kids settle in, but in the meantime they take up a lot of our energy. Here are some tips on how to get them in class and happy.
- Encourage the parent to leave. Often the parent is crying as much as the child, or at the minimum is distressed to see their child so upset. While we completely understand, and want to acknowledge the parent’s feelings, we must also help them learn that children get even more upset when their parents are sad. Once the parent leaves, the child will be able to focus on their own needs and settle down.
- Move the student away from the front door. If the child can see the door where their parent came from, they will continue to focus on waiting to leave. If the child is too upset to enter class immediately, consider a nearby room such as the nurse’s or counselor’s office.
- Distract the child. Talk to them about their day, give them a coloring page, let them play with a toy- anything that gets the attention off of leaving home and on to something else. Younger children can’t always calm down on their own, so it is up to the adult to provide something that can help them out.
- Take the child to class as soon as possible. Even if the child is crying, one they enter the classroom and see their friends, breakfast, or other daily tasks, their mind will refocus and they will calm down. As long as the child’s behavior is not significantly disruptive (i.e. throwing objects), they should be able to join their class, and stay there until they calm down. It may take more time than we want for them to calm down, and the tears may return during transitions. Just keep them focused on school and don’t let their mind wander for too long.
- If the child is older, give them more time. They won’t want the extra attention, or to be embarrassed by their peers, if they are crying. At the same time, you need to be sure that they are not finding reasons to avoid class. If they are not ready to return to class after a set period time (say, 20 minutes or so), someone could be sent to pick up the child’s work and bring it to the calm down room. This will also serve as a distraction to get them ready to return.
- Praise the child once they are calm and doing well in class. The staff member who supported the child before entering class (usually the counselor, nurse, or school psychologist) should visit later in the morning and reinforce their success at transitioning into school.
If the separation issues continue, examine the following issues:
- Is the parent easily separating from their child? Parents should show enthusiasm for going to school, and if they are dropping them off give a quick goodbye at the front door. If the parent is lingering, or seems sad, school staff should encourage them to leave quickly and help them understand how their behavior makes the transition harder for their child.
- Is the child getting enough sleep? Tiredness in a young child can translate to irritability, which can in turn affect their ability to leave home. Talk to parents about appropriate sleep times for children.
- Is the child hungry? Some districts, particularly in high-poverty areas, now provide free breakfast for all. If this is not the case in your school, or the child is late, offer a meal as they calm down.
- Is the child always with their parents? Often, our new students in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten have never been away from their parents, and have limited exposure to play with same-age peers. If this is the case, encourage the parents to find a playgroup, enroll in a sport or other community activity, or let the child have overnight visits with grandparents or other close relatives so they can get comfortable separating.
Signs that you should talk to your school’s mental health professional (counselor, school psychologist, and/or social worker):
- Are there other signs of anxiety? If the child gets nervous or scared in other situations at school or home, there could be deeper mental health issues beyond the transition to school.
- Has the child experienced any trauma? A scary event in a child’s life may make it harder for them to separate. If there was a recent death in the family, for example, a child may be terrified that something bad will happen to their parents.
- Is the behavior unusual, either in intensity or duration? In other words, is the crying turning into a full tantrum or becoming aggressive? Is it lasting all day? Is it going well past the first few weeks of school?
In these cases, the child and family may need some outside counseling or other support in order examine underlying issues and ways to address them. Your school’s mental health professional will help determine the best intervention.
Finally, here’s a handout for parents and educators if you have concerns about a child’s behavior. School Refusal Information for Educators
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