Seamless Separation: Transitioning to School!

When your young child enters into a school or daycare setting for the first time, the transition can be challenging for both you and your child!  This may be the first time your child has had to navigate a new environment without you, and it may be the first time you have had to entrust your little one to someone else.  Of course this has the potential to be stressful for everyone involved!

Here are a few proactive tips to help both you and your child have a smooth transition:

  • Try to meet with your child's teacher prior to the first day of class.  Discuss your concerns, goals, and values.  This conversation may help to ease your anxiety and build trust between you and your child's new teacher.
  • Establish a communication system.  Talk to the teacher and/or the school's administration to determine the best means of exchanging important information and find out how frequently you can expect communication.  This will help to establish trust, create consistency between home and school, and keep you informed as to all of your child's triumphs!
  • Have a game plan for the first week of school.  Although we certainly hope you and your child will transition to school without any difficulties, we always advise that you be prepared just in case!  Expect that the separation may initially be challenging for your child.  Talk to the teacher and school administration ahead of time and develop a plan for how you can help your child to be successful.  Rather than waiting for a difficult and emotionally-charged situation to arise and then reacting to it, we suggest that you take proactive measures and develop a plan when both you and your child are calm.  It is difficult for any of us to problem-solve effectively when our emotions are running high, so think ahead and plan before you encounter that challenging moment!  We suggest that you consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst for guidance in how to create a plan, ensure the safety of everyone involved, and set your child up for success.  Feel free to reach out to our behavior team or attend a Seamless Separation workshop for help!
  • Try to remain calm and confident for your child.  Children are often very good at reading our moods, emotions, and energy.  If you enter into the school transition with outward uncertainty and nervousness, you may send your child the message that he should feel the same way.  Instead, try to remain calm and positive about the change.  Model the behavior you want to see!
  • Prepare your child for the transition to school.  Discuss this new chapter in a way that expresses excitement and positivity.  Provide your child with clear information on what to expect.  Surprises or confusion can make the transition more challenging, so do your best to help your child understand with what will happen.
  • Create a "Going to School" story book.  Consider creating a fun story book to help your child get ready for this new transition.  Your story book can include both text and pictures of the school, your child's teacher, your family, and even some of his classmates (with consent from those parents, of course).  You will want to provide your child with a step-by-step guide for what to expect.  Using actual photographs may help your child to feel familiar with the school environment before the first day.  We suggest reading this story book to your child for at least 1-2 weeks prior to starting school, in the morning before school, and again after school until he is adjusted.  You may even consider having him bring it to school.
  • Do a dry run.  Ask the school for permission to bring your child for a visit before school starts.  Allowing your child to see the classroom and meet the school staff may help her to feel more comfortable on the first day.  You may even consider taking pictures of your child in the school building or with her teacher to post in her bedroom or to include in your story book.  If school is in session and the administration gives you permission, you may even consider trying to walk out of the room for a few minutes during the visit to assess how your child will adapt to you leaving later on.  (As a pointer, try not to make a big production out of leaving!  A dramatic exit may lead to a dramatic response!)
  • Practice separating from your child in familiar environments.  If separation is challenging for your child, you may want to consider practicing this separation in a less intimidating environment.  It may be overwhelming for your child to adjust to separation from you and the introduction of a new environment and new people all at the same time.  In preparation for school, try separating from your child in environments where she already feels safe and secure (e.g. in your home, in a grandparent's home).  You also have more control over these environments.  Provide your child with lots of praise and reinforcement for separating from you calmly and successfully!
  • Gradually increase the length of separation Some children benefit from gradual and systematic separation.  You may initially just try walking out of the room for 10 seconds, then 30 seconds, then 1 minute, and gradually increase from there.  We typically suggest that if your child is crying, you re-enter the room when she is calm.  We want to reinforce the calm behavior rather than the problematic behavior.
  • Try to engage your child in a favorite activity before separating By doing this, you are pairing the separation with something your child enjoys, which may make the separation itself less aversive.  It may also serve as somewhat of a distraction, so your child is less likely to focus on your absence.
  • Avoid reinforcing your child's crying.  It is fair to expect that your child may cry when separating from you.  (Note: If your child engages in more extreme behavior than crying and/or presents with any behavior that is potentially dangerous, please consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst immediately).  Crying is very typical, but we understand that it can be difficult for you as a parent to see your child in distress.  We hope that following the proactive measures listed above will prevent or reduce your child's crying.  But again, we advise you to be prepared.  As professionals trained in behavioral principles, we are always looking at why people do the things they do.  In this scenario, your child is likely crying because he wants you to come back.  So, if your child cries and you come back into the room to comfort him, what has he learned?  It is likely that he has learned that crying is an effective way to get you to come back.  In other words, his crying behavior has now been reinforced.  So the next time he wants your attention/access to you, particularly in similar contexts, he is likely to cry.  While you returning to the room to comfort him may stop the crying in that moment, it will most likely increase his crying in the future.  Always keep the bigger picture in mind--rather than focusing on making the crying stop in the moment, focus on reducing the crying overall.  Unless there is a safety concern, avoid re-entering the room while your child is crying.  If you are going to re-enter the room, try do so when your child is calm.  This way we are reinforcing the behavior we want to see rather than the crying.

Important Note:  Some children may engage in behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others.  If you suspect your child may engage in such behavior or has a history of doing so, we recommend that you consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) prior to implementing any separation plan.  If you observe unsafe behavior during the implementation of your plan and are unable to safely manage it, we suggest that you discontinue the plan and consult with a BCBA immediately.  Safety is always our top priority.

We hope that these pointers will help to make the school transition smooth for both you and your child!  Of course this list of tips is not comprehensive and our behavior team is full of other suggestions, so feel free to contact us for support!  You may find our Seamless Separation Workshop to be helpful!  We understand that every child and family is unique and that successful transitioning may need to be individualized based on your unique needs.  We are always here to help!

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