Children react differently to school drop-off—and so do their parents, who may need as much comforting as the their child during a rough morning handoff. However, while there are a million ways drop-off can go wrong, the smoothest, happiest ones share a few traits in common.
Drop-off preparation begins well before the child’s first day at school. At Wonderschool, we strongly advise teachers offer each new family a concrete transition plan, even knowing you may—in fact, probably will—need to modify it based on the specific needs of the family or child. Codifying the drop-off procedure plan, even if it’s a work in progress, established in a calm, clear-headed moment will mean the next stressful moment will have a roadmap.
Once a child enrolls, have the parent/s visit with their child for an hour if they have not already done so. During this visit, discuss drop-off strategies and ask if they have any preferences in terms of dropoff—do the parents want to physically hand the child over to the teacher? Is there a special song or hug before they say goodbye?
“Not every child can say goodbye quickly or according to the procedure,” says Emily Webb Price, a home daycare provider in Evanston, IL. “Be flexible if it helps the child with transition, especially one who has not been able to adapt to standard procedures within a reasonable time frame. They may need differentiation.”
When it’s time to say goodbye, validate everyone’s feelings. Reassure parents that you know it’s hard but that you, as a professional, see this all the time and that it’s typical for children to forget about their tears and go on to have a busy, happy day. If it takes awhile to adjust, remind parents that it can take several weeks for a child to fully transition to a program, and that consistency of visits is very important during this time. It is OK for a child to take a little more time, or a little less time to settle into a new environment.
If you have time, send the parent a photo of their child happily playing to assure them the child has moved on (the Wonderschool App makes it very easy to do this). Similarly, be empathetic towards the child’s feelings and try not to simply promise them that they will be fine and that they will have fun. Acknowledge their feelings and offer hugs or let them know what they can expect from their experience at school that day, like, “We are saying goodbye to Mommy so we can do circle time and then snacks. Would you like to hold the story I read at storytime after snack?”
During a stressful drop-off, “Try never to pry the child from the parent,” says Price. “If the situation escalates, it may make future drop-offs even more traumatic.” Sometimes you can distract a child who is having a hard time separating by giving them the option of three “special jobs” to do after they say goodbye, which gives them a feeling of control, even if they’re not the decision maker.
Finally, we all aspire to a smooth and tear-free dropoff, but it won’t always happen and that’s ok: It’s still important to teach children that they can withstand being sad for a few minutes before having a fun, nurturing, and comfortable day.
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