Easing Our Children’s Transition to School

It can be so hard to separate from our children sometimes! Particularly if they cry, seem anxious, or strongly object. How can we prepare our children (and ourselves) for a successful transition? Janet responds to emails from two different families struggling with goodbyes at school drop-off and offers recommendations for a helpful and respectful approach to handling all transitions and separations.

Transcript of “Easing Our Children’s Transition to School”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today, I’m going to be addressing a couple of notes that I received about children going away to school for the first time or the first time of the year and the difficulties that parents are having with separation. Hopefully, I’m going to provide some answers as to how to ease this issue and help children to transition into these new challenging experiences.

Okay, so first I actually just want to give you some bullet points for the advice that I’m going to offer here. And then I will get into more detail with the individual notes that I received. So here are my basic recommendations for transitioning into school.

1) Number one: Find a program that you can feel confident in because unfortunately, our confidence level will always set the tone. Our children can’t be the ones to reassure us that this is the right place for them. It really has to start with us. So, I would make the best choice you possibly can for your situation and your child, knowing your child as you do. And then make that decision for yourself that you’re going to proceed with confidence and trust in what you’ve chosen.

2) The second recommendation I want to make is we want to prepare children, honestly, with as many specifics as possible. Specifics that we know about that program, what the day will be like, what drop-off will be like. And what we don’t want to do is whitewash the situation or try to build it up, pump it up for our child, really just sharing with them the facts and not trying to dictate how they’re going to feel about this situation.

3) And then the third basic recommendation I have is what you’ve heard from me before: welcome the feelings, whatever they are. As you’re talking to your child about this situation in the weeks or months before, maybe they do get to go visit this establishment or meet the teachers and they might have mixed feelings about that or maybe just negative feelings about it holding space for all of those feelings. Welcoming your child to share them with you is this counterintuitive way that actually helps them to feel better about the situation.

Here’s the first note I’ll be addressing:

Hello, Janet. Your work has helped me a lot with setting an empowering approach in educating my kids and I regret immensely I didn’t discover your articles and books earlier when my kids were babies. We’ve been living in England for a few years and my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter will start nursery next week. Sadly, she really seems not to be ready, although I’ve been trying to prepare her for this moment for the last two months. My husband tried to let her off at a Sunday school session once, but since then she’s never wanted to step into the Sunday school building. I couldn’t find any article on your blog that addresses specifically the problem of separation anxiety in preschoolers, which I’m desperate to try from a RIE point of view.

I’m also wrestling with accepting or not the proposal of the manager of the nursery my daughter will be attending, hopefully, of just coming to the doorstep and handing my daughter over and then leaving without looking back. I ask the staff, if I might join her for the first few sessions in the hope of helping her settle down there easily, and then gradually making steps back. Sadly, I couldn’t find there a respectful approach that treats each child as an individual with different needs. I’m wondering if we’re to treat our little ones as whole persons showing respect and understanding, shouldn’t we refuse to drag them to school or nursery or try to persuade them how much they’re going to like it there? Isn’t it disrespectful trying to inflict what we would have happen in our time, not theirs, ignoring their desires or lack of willingness or readiness? We wouldn’t try to do this to an adult, right? This deepens my confusion. Should I wait until next year? I’m a teacher myself so I wouldn’t fear she might miss nursery information. As her activity, her playroom is armed with everything she needs to know for her age. She’s got friends, so the play dates are on our agenda. And we also attend a playgroup where moms are allowed to stay.

Should I listen to my daughter? Should I trust her feelings and wait for the right time? Or is this waiting for the right time a trap? All the best in the great work you’re doing!

Okay. So my thoughts about respect for this three-and-a-half-year-old are a little different from the way this parent is framing it. For me, respect is making decisions for children that they can’t make for themselves yet, and this might be one of those. I mean, children don’t have a picture of what it’s going to be like in school and how much they’re going to enjoy it. They don’t know any of that. And we, knowing them better than anyone else, can make those choices. We can hopefully gauge our child’s readiness.

At three-and-a-half generally many children are ready for preschool. That doesn’t mean that maybe this child isn’t, and if the parent has the option of waiting longer, maybe that is a possibility. But I would not base this decision on the challenges of separation, because I would expect that to be a challenge.

I mean, think about it. We’re expecting our child to go into this brand new situation without us there, where they have to learn to communicate with the adults caring for them, they have to trust those people. Then they have this other big challenge of navigating the peers in the situation and then the schedule of the day. So there’s a lot going on there. And sometimes children have… almost like performance anxiety or separation anxiety, but it’s appropriate to feel those things. Those aren’t necessarily signs that we should listen to our child when they’re wavering in these decisions or having a struggle to say goodbye to us, that we should assume that means that they won’t thrive in this setting.

The things we want to look for to gauge whether a child is ready when let’s say we make the decision for them to go… We want to look for not the experience of drop-off, where they’re separating, necessarily. That could be messy, but what happens once they’re there and we’re gone, what happens then? Are they able to focus? Are they gradually starting to reach out and connect with other children? This might not happen all at once. But are they making progress? And how quickly do they seem to settle into the situation? That’s information that we can get from those teachers or directors, how our child is really adapting.

So, just as respecting our child doesn’t mean that we never say no to them or we never help them brush their teeth if they don’t like that, we don’t avoid saying goodnight if they’re saying they don’t want us to leave them and they don’t want to go to bed, transitions are difficult for children just generally. Ones like this that are a brand new situation, I would expect it to be challenging. And I wouldn’t take every feeling my child shares as a sign of some deeper anxiety or deeper problem or misjudgment on my part. Though I can see how that would be confusing as this parent says, “this deepens my confusion.” If an adult was objecting, we would probably listen to that and say, “oh maybe this isn’t the right place for you right now,” but adults have a whole different frame of reference and understanding of the situations that they’re entering that children just don’t have.

So respecting them is about respecting their stage of development, the choices that they can make, and some that they maybe need us to make for them. We want to do our research. We want to find a place that we’re very comfortable with or the most comfortable with that we can be. And we want to observe this place, ideally. Most schools will let you sit and observe, I would maybe do this without your child there. And what that does is it really gives you an idea of not just the philosophy that the director is sharing with you, but what this actually looks like in practice in that environment with those teachers. So it’s really important in terms of helping us to get comfortable with the situation and decide whether this is right for us and for our child.

But again, most three-and-a-half-year-olds could probably be ready for a few hours a week of nursery school. However, the parent has to believe in it, they have to believe in their choice and also have confidence in their child to be able to handle a change, a new experience. That’s approaching this with respect. Because the alternative…  if the leaders that our children need, which is their parents, which is us, if we’re not confident with the decision, we’re not comfortable, we have doubts, it’s very, very hard for a child to be the one to get comfortable there and therefore say goodbye to us. If we’re worried that they’re not ready, we’re adding all of this pressure onto our child and to this separation experience.

So, in a way we have to be kind of brave and mature in these situations so that our child can make this separation. It would be unusual for this to be a seamless experience. If we see it through our child’s eyes, wow, this is the bigtime. They’re doing something brand new that they’ve never done before. Even if they’re entering a new classroom, it all feels new.

So when this parent says, “shouldn’t we refuse trying to persuade them how much they’re going to like it there?” Yes, so what I’m saying is don’t do that. Don’t try to persuade a child because it’s not as helpful to our child if we’re trying to build something up rather than giving them the facts.  I wouldn’t try to persuade a child or sell them on an experience because children read that as another indication that maybe there’s something that their parents aren’t really comfortable with about this decision. They think why else would these people try to sell me on it? Why are they telling me how much I’m going to like it? Children are so aware and smart and they know the difference between when we’re being straightforward or we’re trying to whitewash an experience for them. And the whitewashing of the experience can make them feel more anxious.

So, more honest would be, “we’ve chosen this place for you because we think you’ll really enjoy it. This is what’s going to happen when we take you, we’re going to say goodbye at this gate or that door and one of these teachers who you’ve hopefully met is going to usher you in. You might feel sad that I’m leaving. You may not be happy to say goodbye to me, but I want to hear all about that, I want to know what you’re feeling. Then I’ll see you when I get back in the afternoon after lunch.” So we’re giving them those points of reference.

And maybe we even know more. Maybe we know: “so after we say goodbye when you first get there, there are going to be art supplies set out and you can choose to use those or not.” Whatever we know about the day we want to tell her. So she can come into this experience with some confidence in knowing what to expect. She can predict, that’s what helps children to settle into new experiences. They’ve heard this story about a place, and then this whole story comes true for them. Wow, that happened. This teacher did this and then there were art supplies and maybe even I cried just like my mother said in the story and then she said goodbye anyway and that was okay because she came back.

Children can do this if we believe in them. But all these doubts that go through our minds can get in the way, they’re reflective of what we’re feeling. And these feelings are going to get expressed to our children because they’re very sensitive and aware. So none of this is going to be hidden from them. And then it makes it impossible when they sense their parent doesn’t feel safe about this. That we’re all uncomfortable and we’ve got that look in our eyes, we don’t want to let go of them. If we’re not comfortable, they can’t be comfortable. So we want to think about it from our child’s perspective.

Under the heading of “children being able to predict,” here’s some information. This was surprising to me when I first heard it but the more I thought about it from a child’s perspective it made sense. Often when we start children in preschool, we might want to pick just a one or two-day program a week, and that’s fine to do if that’s the best situation for you. But I would also keep in mind that if they’re only going two days it’s going to take them longer to find their stride in that place than if they’re there more days. They get more comfortable the more they can predict: this is what my day’s going to be like. With days in between, they can forget, it’s like starting all over again. So, that’s just something to keep in mind if this is even an option for you, you might consider more days rather than less to ease your child’s transition into the experience.

So, then this parent worries that trusting her child’s feelings and waiting for the right time, she’s saying, “should I do this or is this a trap, this waiting for the right time idea?” And I would say, it’s not a trap, but what it’s saying is that our child’s feelings about saying goodbye or about trying something new, these natural feelings of trepidation and nervousness and fear, that these are convincing us that we’ve made the wrong choice. But these are actually the natural, normal feelings around separation that children have. It’s only a trap in that our expectation might be that this should be a seamless experience and that our child should just say, “Bye. Go ahead, leave me here.” Even if we’re uncomfortable. That’s probably not going to happen.

So, it’s not a trap, but it may be an expectation that’s not as realistic. And remember that expressing feelings to us is the most positive thing that our child could do, and us allowing it is a way of building trust and bonding. So, personally, I think I would forge ahead with that choice, but I would reframe it for myself and try to be the brave one in this situation that believes that I’m making the right decision for my daughter. However, if this parent isn’t comfortable with that then she should wait till she’s sure maybe there’s a different school that has a more gradual transition process, there are a lot of those. It comes down to what we need to feel confident and comfortable.

Here’s another question and it is basically the same issue:

Hi, Janet. My five-and-a-half-year-old son has just started school. He says he enjoys it and he likes his teacher. He hasn’t made any friends in his class yet, but it’s only been just over a week and he often takes his time getting to know people. The problem is letting me go in the morning. He just wants me to stay with him at school. The first few mornings, I was clear that I would be back very soon. I acknowledged that it was hard to let me go and that he would miss me. I told him I would check how he was getting on and he accepted that and let me go.

However, the last two days, he really did not want me to leave. He clung to my arm and begged me not to go. The teacher tried to distract him and eventually told me to go. I did and I’m devastated that I left him crying, calling for me. Both days the teacher said he’s okay after I’m gone. I went into the school on Thursday and the secretary went to check on his class and said he was fine, but I simply cannot leave him like this again. I feel like I’m betraying his trust in me. I just don’t know how to handle this so it’s not traumatic for him. Please help. Thank you so much.

Yes, this is so understandable. And again, it’s about a parent feeling uncomfortable. It sounds like it was easier in the beginning, but then there was this little bump in his process. I think she handled it beautifully allowing his feelings. But one thing I probably wouldn’t say that she said is that “you’re going to miss me.” I probably wouldn’t put that out there unless we’re sure, unless he’s actually saying that. I would maybe say, “oh, you might miss me or you might think of me. I’ll be thinking of you for sure.”

I would say, this is definitely not a betrayal of trust if she’s doing what she said. Which is, being clear about him, what she’s doing, what’s going to happen, that it’s okay with her if he’s upset and that he knows he’s going to see you when you get back. You believe he can do this, he can handle this experience and you are accepting that separations are messy sometimes.

So, we’re the leaders of this. We’re the ones that have to set the tone of confidence and conviction in our choices and our child’s readiness. We have to believe in our child and try to say goodbye in a way that’s not heartbroken. When this parent says “I just can’t do this again,” I so understand that it’s wearing on her. The problem is that this comes across to her child and then it makes it less possible for him because now he’s got a really uncomfortable mother that he’s saying goodbye to, which means he can’t feel comfortable.

So, what we want to try to do is be more accepting. “Wow, you really don’t want me to go. You’re holding onto me even. I’m going to take your hand off my arm, I know it’s really, really hard right now. I’ll see you when I get back. I love you. Goodbye.” Bravely going off, being brave for our kids because they really need this from us to be able to handle new situations.

What this parent says is that it’s traumatic for her son. I know it seems like that but I honestly believe that it’s not traumatic so much is dramatic. Not that it’s fake, but it’s a dramatic romantic goodbye to somebody he adores so much. And I would let him have this, I would let it be okay with you that he does this and you be the confident one, trusting your child to experience this process.

I really hope this helps. And remember, we can do this.

Please check out some of my other podcasts at JanetLansbury.com they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember, I also have books on audio at audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also, I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are six individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. The more I read on your website the more I question the validity of the RIE philosophy. I went through the experience of separation and age does make a difference, a striking one. When the mother has the doubt, it means that the child is not ready. It is not because the mother is not ready herself but she knows her child so well that she cannot pretend otherwise. The idea of RIE as presented here is like “as far as independent play is concerned, the child should be trusted to know what is best to her. When it comes to more serious matters the child has to led by adult decisions. “

    1. Yes, my son just started kindergarten happily, last year he wouldn’t even leave me at the playground. This summer he seemed so “kindergarten-ready”, leaving me behind and making new friends. I’m so happy we waited a year to start and didn’t force him last year. (He is four now)

  2. Thank you for this useful article! Soon my oldest son will go to school, and I think that he can begin to cry when I go with him to school, because he is very much used to spending time with me. My wife and I have long thought about how this will all go, but luckily I came across your article. Now I’m sure that everything will go smoothly and he will be well set for studying at school. After all, for a child it is very important to concentrate on classes and get as much useful information as possible in the school. Thank you very much for sharing this interesting, important and useful article!

  3. Thank you for this article. It is very helpful as my son is starting Kindergarten next week. I have general and social anxiety and I really want to give him a confident and positive goodbye on his first day but I am afraid I will cry or get panicky. Thank you for giving us phrases we can use in these situations so our child can trust that the separation while they are at school is a good thing.

  4. Elaine K Gruenke says:

    This answer really falls short for me. I appreciate your wisdom on so many topics, and generally feel RIE is an excellent approach to parenting. However, to me this answer lacks profundity, love, and basic science in terms of the neurochemical changes a child goes through when separated from his or her parents. It’s all too simple to create a formulaic drop off script, and then blame the parent for revealing some of their own (probably unavoidable and definitely authentic) inner anxiety as the reason the child is having difficulty. My son is just over two and into his second month of daycare (a few mornings a week). He tells me that he likes the caregiver, likes the other kids, but doesn’t want to go back to school, and then says “miss mama.” He has done a brilliant job of accepting the new caregiver and classmates, but is struggling with the loss of one he loves, even though it’s just a few hours. There is nothing more profound and difficult any of us will experience than the loss of a loved one, and this is his first time feeling those feelings (even though it’s just a few hours, the feelings are real). Mothers, parents, feel this deep and profound love for their children too, especially at a time of separation or when they see their loved ones having difficulty. Most, if not every parent will try to be brave and set an example of courage for their children (see the stories we’ve heard of the migrant parents separated from their children at the US border, and the incredibly brave and moving few words they often said to their kids if they had a chance…). It is ridiculous and a little inhuman to expect a parent to be a flawless wall or organized feeling in the face of this very real and challenging situation for both parent and child.

    1. Thank you. This makes me feel human and authentic. I’m not the only one having a hard time seeing my child crying and asking me not to go. I am ok with my decision and I have accepted her feelings and let her cry them out. But it doesn’t mean that she is suddenly fine, oh my mom is ok so I am ok. No, she cryes even in her third year of kindergarden and it hurts my soul to see her like that and not beeing able to be there for her. And it feels really inhuman to lift her arms off me and wave goodbye. Of course she is ok after, but it doesn’t mean she is happy and accepted the situation. She just doesn’t have other choice and in the end mommy is the one who left her there and for a while mommy is not there. She has all the reasons to cry and I have all the reasons to be sad that she is sad and of course that I let this feeling get to her. It’s a circle and I can’t pretend that everything is ok.

  5. Thank you Janet for yet another extremely helpful article. My son (3yrs) has just started nursery and has been expressing to his teachers during the session the desire to go home. Drop offs have been fine so far (week 3) but I knew a meltdown at the gate was on the cards. I am so confident that he is ready for nursery and once settled will thrive but of course this is uncharted territory for him especially after pandemic lockdowns and no toddler groups he was used to. So when the meltdown came this morning, I had already read this article in preparation and it gave me the confidence to tell him gently but firmly that I knew it was hard for him but it was time for nursery and I’d see him at home time. Handing him screaming to his teacher I told him I loved him and walked away. He stopped crying almost immediately. The teacher phoned to say he had settled no problem. And on pick up they said he had no crying during the session and was a whole new boy. It is a lovely nursery with very lovely teachers so I am confident they will nurture him well in our absence. Thank you for giving me the strength and wisdom to make the painful handover less painful than it may have been without your advice. I’d have been lingering and trying to settle and comfort him making the whole thing pull at his heart strings (and mine) even more. He was a little quiet with me at first but then went on to tell me all about his day, including that he’d felt sad which I acknowledged and also the fun things he’d done. We went on to have a very enjoyable afternoon and evening without any lingering upset. Thank you without end for the work you do, it is invaluable.

  6. Jade Henley says:

    Hi. My daughter has been struggling with the separation as well, this was really helpful to hear. My question is about potty regressions during these huge changes and how to deal with them? Thank you.

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