How to Handle a Child’s Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off

By Kristin D. Birdsey
Dad holding crying little boy

You pull up to the school, put the car in the park and sense the tears building in your baby’s eyes as they say, “But I just want to stay with you today.” The reality of seeing your little one facing these big feelings and challenges settles on you, and you realize they aren’t the only ones dealing with big feelings and challenges. School drop-off anxiety is a common occurrence.

Transitions are hard. It’s hard to leave that warm, snuggly bed and enter the big, bright world. It’s hard to go from the comforts of your family unit to a place with a bunch of other people and personalities. And it’s hard to see your baby upset about it.

So, what do we do when young children (and grownups) struggle with school transitions? Thankfully, there are a number of interventions and strategies you can try to help beat the drop-off blues.

School drop-off anxiety interventions and strategies

1. Get some sleep

We live in a society that demands a lot of us all, kids included. Too many people aren’t getting enough sleep, and none of us do our best when exhausted. While children’s needs vary by age and activity level, sleep recommendations can be anywhere from a minimum of 8 hours for high schoolers to 12-14 hours for infants each day. Be mindful that some kids, especially neurodivergent ones, may need more wind- down time budgeted into their bedtime routine.

2. Build a strong routine

While some variables may change, make your child’s morning routine before getting to school as consistent and predictable as possible. Routines help cut down on uncertainty, which can feed anxiety. You can even find morning routine picture charts online for pre-reading children to help foster autonomy and independence.

3. Validate emotions

Your child’s feelings of sadness or school drop-off anxiety about leaving you are genuine, and it’s important that you recognize and validate them. “It’s okay to be sad about having to say goodbye. I get sad about goodbyes, too, sometimes.”

4. Practice the K.I.S.S. method

Keep It Short and Sweet. Get in and get out, especially if you have one who struggles with drop-off transitions. “Okay, last hug and kiss! It’s okay to be sad for a little while. I’ll see you after

5. Check with your school

If you’re concerned that they’re not shaking it off or able to re-regulate themselves after a while, reach out to your child’s school. Many can and do send pictures to help reassure you they’ve recovered. Remember that school-aged children’s teachers may be better able to communicate via email.

Don’t forget to be gentle with yourself, too. Our children’s feelings can so often trigger our own. Yet, children need to tap into their caregivers’ regulated nervous systems (since theirs aren’t yet fully developed) and caregivers to guide them through the ebbs and flows of their feelings as calmly as possible. If you find yourself activated, give yourself a few moments to regroup so you can better help. You’ve got this, both of you!

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