Transitioning to a new school is tough. But the morning drop-offs the first week were honestly, dare I say, miserable. Tears, screams, hugs, rocking, pouty lips. Every day I walked out exhausted, and it was only 8:30 am. Would it ever change?
When we transitioned our youngest daughter, Parker—our more “go with the flow” kid who used to kiss and wave goodbye without a hitch—to her new school, the tears and anxiety started. Each day, she would bravely walk, holding my hand, to approach her classroom door. I could tell she wanted so badly to like it, to want to be there. But, the newness was nearly unbearable for her, and she clutched me, hugged me, and screamed for me.
Starting a New Routine
Every morning was the same: We would arrive, big sister helping, and begin the drop-off routine: change shoes, put away jackets, lunch, snacks and water bottle, and sign in. Anywhere in that process the cries would begin. I would reassure her I was still there. She screamed, “Mama mama mama,” trembling and keeping her death grip on my finger as I walked her through putting everything away.
Keep a Routine, Tweak Until It Works
By day four, I realized we needed to drop off big sister first. Then, we went together to the toddler classroom. As I worked with her to put everything away, I looked up and saw the rocking chair. I asked her, do you want to rock? She whimpered a “yes,” probably knowing it would keep me there, but also knowing that is one of her soothing mechanisms. So we rocked. And rocked. And rocked. Finally, after giving her a two minute heads-up, I told her I had to go to work, have a great day, and Papa would pick her up. And the wailing continued as I handed her over to her teacher.
We’ve All Been Here. (Some longer than others)
I walked out every day, and every day it never failed: another parent—moms and dads alike—would empathize. Some would stop and say something encouraging, others just gave me that look. We’ve all been there. It’s painstakingly difficult, not so much to walk away, but to walk away from your screaming child. It’s gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, and flat out exhausting. Each day, I wanted to go home and cry, and yet, each day I pulled up my bootstraps and went to work.
By the sixth day (and, yes, I counted), it was a softer entrance. I felt a difference even in her finger grip. We went through the routine of putting everything away, and then I asked her, do you want to show me a water lesson? She said, yep and almost pranced on her toes, proudly, over to the water lessons. There was no water, so I looked up at the teachers, slightly panicked that this happy child was going to melt if we didn’t put water in the pitchers pronto, but also approaching a zen moment that this is how it works, unfolding naturally in the appropriate time and place.
Once the pitchers were filled, Parker immediately started pouring from one to the other. Over and over and over. She was calm and nearly rhythmic. She would drip just a little and take the towel and wipe it up, beginning again pouring from one pitcher to the next.
She then spotted the spray bottle from the window washing lesson. Putting down the pitchers, she took the spray bottle and sprayed and wiped and sprayed and wiped. She asked for help and kept spraying. I wanted to walk away quietly while she was happy, fearing she would break down in tears if I were to say goodbye. But, I’m a firm believer in not “sneaking out.” So, as she continued, I simply said, “Mama’s going to go to work. Have a great day, and I’ll pick you up.” She smiled at me, said goodbye, and I walked out quietly. No tears. No screaming.
Sigh of relief! The next day was just as seamless. She found a lesson, I said goodbye, and walked away without tears—me or her.
We are on a roll, and I hope it continues as she becomes more comfortable with her teachers, friends and surroundings.
Tips on saying goodbye that our teacher, Sara Silva, shared with us:
- Always say goodbye, establishing trust in the process and the family will come back.
- Trust the teachers—they are there to support our children and families.
- Prepare children for transitions by talking about upcoming events, reading stories about saying goodbye and coming back, and assisting in the preparations for the upcoming day at school.
- Create comfortable, consistent morning drop-off and pick-up routines.
- Take time for transitions.
- Allow children to bring a comfort item to school. This is often a way for them to feel connected with home and family throughout a school day, easing the transition.
- Communicate with your child what is happening and when you will be back. Remember, toddlers base time on a series of events rather than on the clock, e.g. “Mommy will be coming back after lunch time” or “Papa will pick you up after after-care.”
- Prepare children for changes in routines by communicating changes ahead of time.
- Know who the primary care-giver is and communicate any changes or updates.
- Trust in the process.