Aug. 17, 2014 at 11:09 AM ET
It's easy to think that separation anxiety is just for clingy babies, but even your normally cool-as-a-cucumber kid can get unnerved when it comes to starting school. Whether he's heading to a brand new school (hello, kindergarten!) or just feeling the jitters about the year ahead, these smart tips will help ease any back-to-school anxiety.
Make a plan
Too much change in one fell swoop is overwhelming for anyone, especially a little kid. So instead of rolling out a whole new morning routine — and then sending him off to a new school — do some dry runs the week before. Post a schedule (with photos or clip art for non-readers) so your child knows exactly what to expect in the mornings and feels empowered to do as much as possible on his own.
Get sleep back on track
If bedtimes slide during summer (and of course they do!), get back on track a couple weeks before school begins by starting lights-out 10 minutes earlier until you’re back to normal. By the time the big day arrives, you’ll all be well-rested and ready to conquer school.
Invest in something special
A new backpack, shoes or a special outfit can give your little students that extra mojo they need to tackle the unknown of a new classroom. Build excitement by making a day of back-to-school shopping, and let her choose the key items (even if that means pink, pink and more pink). She’ll feel her best wearing something that’s so her.
Rehearsing a goodbye can help a child feel more secure when the big moment really comes. A few weeks prior to the school send-off, let your child stay a bit longer than usual with a babysitter, grandparent or friend so he gets used to spending time apart from you. It also helps to create and practice a private “goodbye” between the two of you — like a secret handshake or special kiss. Or put a pretty pebble or a key chain with your photo in his pocket and explain that whenever he touches it, you’re thinking of him, wherever you are.
Scope out the scene
A week or so before the big day, take your child for a visit to his school so he can check out his new surroundings. If you can go inside, find key places like his classroom, the water fountain and restroom. Keep anxiety in check by spinning the trip as a fun errand and sweeten the deal by taking him for ice cream afterward.
Help your child make one new friend
Knowing just one friend can do wonders for easing back-to-school anxiety. Reach out to the teacher or your school for the name of a classmate you might contact. Ask the neighbors if they know children of the same age at your child’s school. Or do a little sleuthing: Kids often play at playgrounds and parks near the school, so congregate there with your child and start asking if anyone will be in that classroom.
Stay calm and say goodbye
Your child picks up on your cues, so when that first day of school finally arrives, try to stay positive and calm. If you can go into the classroom with him, look for an activity he may enjoy in the classroom — say, a puzzle or blocks — and sit down and do it together. Or help him find a familiar face and strike up a conversation. Keep goodbyes short and use your secret “goodbye” ritual. And don’t linger— it often can increase your child’s anxiety.
Use a book to ease the jitters
Sometimes the best way to help a child open up and talk about back-to-school concerns is by reading together about the topic. Some favorite back-to-school books for younger children: First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg; The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing; The Night Before First Grade by Natasha Wing; I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas; Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate; The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.
Stick to the schedule
Be sure you or your caregiver picks your child up at the time and place that you and your child agreed on. Knowing that he can count on a predictable routine helps your child feel more confident. And if he cries when you pick him up, don't panic. It likely means that he’s just happy to see you — not that he hates school. If separation anxiety continues, check in with the teacher to find out how he's doing during the day (probably great), and then see if she has suggestions for making drop-off or pick-up easier.