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Coping with drop-off: Survival tips from experts on smooth goodbyes

Some children sail into school with barely a “Bye! Love you!” Others have a harder time saying goodbye at dropoff. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a child who has a difficult time with transitions; it can be hard for adults, and we’ve had a lot more practice. Here are some ways to set yourself up for drop-off success.

Mitigate drop-off issues early. If your child has a rough time with transitions, talk to the teacher first about what their drop-off protocol is so you understand ahead of time. Discuss with your child–yes, even if you have a newborn– your drop-off plan the day before, detailing what will and might happen at drop-off, including how you will say goodbye and think about each other and then have a great day. “Until a routine is established, some kids need to know the expectations in order to deal with their fears and separation anxiety,” says Emily Webb Price, a home child care provider in Evanston, IL. “Then you remove any element of surprise.”

Put on a happy face. At drop-off, show your child that your teacher is a trusted adult, says Neta Raz Studnitski, early care and education mentor at Wonderschool. “Be friendly with the teacher, chat, not just about the child, but about everyday things. Model to the child that if Mommy and Daddy are friendly with them and are smiling at them this must be a good person and I don’t need to be afraid.” Also, be prepared to make a quick getaway. If you have questions that require extended face time, schedule a time that works for you and the provider. Starting a dialogue at drop-off draws out the process and can trigger a meltdown.

If your child has a rough time after you leave, create a photo book to leave in their cubby to go to when they need comfort. “Find the person that your child most easily transfers to and see about doing drop offs with that person, be it a teacher, aide, or administrator, until the child is more confident,” says Webb Price. At the end of the day, compliment your child on how well they transitioned and remind them you came back when you said you would and that they were able to do fun things during the day because they stayed with their teacher and friends.

It’s okay to feel bad. But try to remember that small children have little sense of time and once they’re distracted, they aren’t aware of how many hours per day you’re gone. Remember that it takes a while for some kids to adjust to a new transition, and children who are at care fewer hours per week typically take longer to adjust. Also, warns Webb Price, resist the urge to promise your child a treat at pickup if they can get through drop-off: “You are setting the expectation for all future pickups. So be prepared for your own consequences!”

Remember, sometimes parenting means making tough calls. Even if you feel sad about saying goodbye to your kid, you can’t be a wreck when you leave. Cry in the car if you have to. Also, don’t drag out a drop-off, and never call a child back after you have said goodbye. It is tempting to get an extra hug or kiss, but that can quickly turn an easy drop off into hysterics. “Sometimes kids are ready to start the day, but when they sense your hesitation or you ask for a longer goodbye, they question their confidence in being dropped off,” says Webb Price.

Know your own child. Drop-off challenges are extremely common, so definitely give the process some time—but if things never get easier and there are no good days, even after you’ve been consistent for several weeks or months, maybe the school is not right for your child. There may be other underlying issues your child is struggling with that manifest during separation that necessitate a different type of childcare scenario—just be prepared with a strategy as you head into the next transition process.

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Mia Pritts

Mia is the Head of Early Care & Education at Wonderschool. She started her career as a preschool teacher 20 years ago and has since taken on major leadership positions in the field of Early Care and Education. In addition to deep knowledge and expertise in all operational aspects of childcare programming, she has also helped launch several shared business services initiatives specific to the field of ECE.