Drop-Off Diaries: One Preschool Parent's Experience & Advice
Hi Everyone! On Belle’s last day of Pre-K (year 1) last May, I wanted to document a little “look back” on the year, and some of our struggles during drop-off. I thought it might be most impactful to actually share this around back-to-school time… and now we’re just a couple of weeks away from a new school year beginning! Since she'll turn 5 just past the Kindergarten cut-off, she'll return to Pre-K this year, which I think will be absolutely great for her. it's 3 hours in the morning, 5 days a week. I know I do many more videos than blog posts these days, but on this topic, I felt there were some very important tidbits that I just didn’t want to get lost in the rambles. I hope this is useful to the parents & care providers out there, and most importantly, helps you feel less alone if this is something you face at any point throughout the school year. Thanks for reading!
PRE-K… Journaling our Journey
I remember day one like it was yesterday! We’d been to the orientation just days prior…. met the teachers, toured the classroom. The teachers even have a practice of visiting kids’ homes to build up the comfort level, which I think was great. And I remembered thinking- this is such a massive change from her everyday life (with mommy and/or Nana all the time), I won’t be surprised or even stressed if she has a little trouble adjusting. Well let me tell you, that child marched in that door happy as can be, completely in awe of all the new toys, the room, the activities. And for several weeks I thought… wow, that was easy!
Then I remember it was homecoming week, and around that time, things started to change. I think some of the newness of school was wearing off, and she came to the realization that this is an EVERYDAY thing?! She came down with her first school-related sickness (her first ear infection) around that time also. And instead of waltzing in the door like she owned the place, she became much more hesitant. I was really quite shocked, believing that the FIRST days of school would be the hardest to adjust to…. not the weeks that would follow.
Cue the Nerves… 3 Weeks In
After much googling, article reading, and advice-seeking from my own followers/YouTube audience, I realized that this kind of reaction to school is quite common. My little 3-year-old (at the time) was so overwhelmed by this life change that it literally took weeks for it to sink in. And once it did, I felt like her clinging to me at the school door was like her last grasp at control over the situation. Belle is a VERY strong-willed child and I sensed that even as a newborn. She loves her routines, and feeling like she’s making some decisions. So her grabbing my hand, leg, etc. was literally a last grasp at control… sometimes with tears, sometimes I’d feel like I convinced her to go ahead and walk in, and other times a teacher had to pry this upset child off of me and carry her in.
The teachers said once things got started, she’d jump right in to any activity happily. These are the words I tried to keep in the forefront of my mind as I walked away from the school door many days with tears in my eyes. This separation anxiety was really eating me up! I tried to take the advice I’d read to heart… keeping everything super positive (it was a damn pep rally around here most mornings before school), saying goodbye at the door happily and quickly- not letting her stretch things out too much. And hoping that when a teacher would pick her up, she’d start to view THEM as a figure who could provide comfort- not just mommy.
Every day at pickup was happy. And not just out of desperation to see me… she always seemed to be laughing with friends, stories to tell, songs to sing. And teachers always letting me know that she’d had a great day. So even though mornings were often rough, my parents reminded me that she’s STAYING there and nobody’s calling me to pick her up, and she’s getting along fine. I feel like we went a month or so with frequent problems… and then we’d get to where only Mondays or long weekends prompted a difficult drop-off, and other days were fine.
Making Strides… With Some Stumbles
How did things ever start to improve that fall? Well, I tried to put emphasis on the fact that the way she CHOSE to start her day was HER DECISION. Nobody could control this but her (playing to her love for decision-making)… and I also provided an incentive. Maybe a bribe. Call it what you will, but I wanted her to know that making the right decision would pay off and I wanted it to be very obvious to her what the right decision was. Things like a visit to a new local toy store that weekend, or a special ice cream treat became something to look forward to. And I just had a gut feeling that if she saw herself enter school happily and with at least a little consistency, she’d realize that a big “clinging to mom” episode wasn’t necessary. We also nick-named her teachers “school mommies”… and talked about how they were there for her just like I am at home. We even had a special handshake before going in, which she always enjoyed.
I was super relieved that we’d made these strides, and then sometime around Thanksgiving, her primary teacher (whom she’d become pretty close to), went on maternity leave. The combination of that, and also the frequent breaks (Thanksgiving and Christmas), resulted in sort of a relapse in rough drop-offs. This is going to sound weird, but I got her the book “Llama Llama Misses Mama”… and it was like that story practically inspired her to get sad at drop-off again, too. This is going to seem like intense over-analysis of a simple children’s book, but she always comes away from that story seeming sad. Llama basically goes around hating the entire school day and there’s no happy resolution until like the last two pages.
Cue the difficult Mondays and and me wondering if this is ever going to get better. Well, sometime prior to Spring Break, we had a TRUE breakthrough. I’m going to just bullet-point the things that I think helped…
- I gave her the following options before leaving for school (read this from a child psychologist’s website)… I’d say- here are your choices! You can throw a crazy fit here at home! (And then I’d do some crazy stuff and her and her sister would start laughing), or you can throw a fit at the school door! (We’d joke about hiding behind mommy or grabbing on so tight- the girls both laugh their butts off during this, which is key- keep it light), OR… you can do none of those things and just wave “bye!” And she’d always chose option 3. Since I started doing this, we had ONE rough drop-off. And at pick-up, she told me I’d forgotten to give her any choices that day. Haha!
- Outside of the little before-school discussion I mentioned above- I really lessened the talk about school and the way the day started. I thought that perhaps making it such a focus was applying too much pressure. So we didn’t even talk about it the rest of the day.
- I got her a heart necklace… well, half of a heart and I had the other half. While I don’t think her missing me ALL morning was a real problem, she was excited to know that there was a part of mommy with her all the time. Her Nana also said she could give herself a quick pinch if she felt like crying and it’d magically stop the crying. It had Belle convinced! :)
- She made a really good friend. I think she played with all of the kids in her class and the teachers do a good job of creating different activities that mix things up, but at some point mid-year, these two became really close and the thought of seeing her made Belle EAGER to get in the door at school. We’d pull into the parking lot and she’d say- is (E) here yet?! So that enthusiasm was really great to see and it never wavered once it started.
- Daniel Tiger. I can’t say enough about this show, but once she and her sister started watching it (seems like most seasons/episodes are on Amazon Prime), I feel like she’s caught on to so many healthy habits. The show is based on the teachings of Mr. Rogers, and there tends to be a catchy jingle that she prides herself on remembering. The show about Daniel going to school and knowing that “grown-ups come back” is SO good. I feel like the show takes the time to acknowledge a child’s fearful feelings, but doesn’t dwell on it too much and ultimately makes the entire “going to school” experience seem more lighthearted, positive and approachable. There are countless other lessons that this show teaches, but the idea that “grown-ups come back” has really stuck with her.
The Takeaway: PATIENCE & PERSPECTIVE
So bottom line, even thought I’ve worked with a variety of strategies… ultimately your child has to be ready to receive them, you know? I think there are some situations in life that will perhaps only be remedied by time and a little added maturity and life experience. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly patient person (I love a quick fix), but becoming a mom has helped me develop more of that quality. Then helping a child overcome separation anxiety took me to a new level of patient… and I didn’t get there overnight. Like I said, I spent time worrying about this, praying about this, and crying about this. Knowing what I know now, I wished I wouldn’t have stressed so much. If you are a parent dealing with this, you are NOT alone. I have the privilege of having a platform that puts me in touch with tens of thousands on a daily basis… and so many people have dealt with/are currently dealing with the same thing. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. And guess what? It’ll eventually be replaced by a new concern- ha! :) As one of the teachers told me… soak up these days when she’s clinging on to me- because eventually she’ll be racing out the door with barely a goodbye. Hard to let that sink in on day 45 of rough drop-offs, but it’s probably true.
And one final thought… one day when I walked back to the van after a particularly bad drop off, tears in my eyes… there was a certain song playing on the radio as soon as I turned on the car. It was Darius Rucker’s “It Won’t Be Like This For Long.” Your child is in the process of gaining comfort with new people, new environments and new lessons. Even though it might be rocky at times, this is growth. Remind yourself that your child is a human, not a programmable robot. Maybe a few days go well, and then there’s a relapse- this doesn’t mean your child is weird… it means they’re human and normal. As hard as it can be at times, don’t dwell, take it one day at a time, and find those little nuggets in the day to feel grateful for. You lead with your own attitude, so keep it light, positive and fun… and most importantly- patient.
Thanks for taking time to read this, and I wish you all a great school year ahead!