Starting school without any tears

One of the most harrowing experiences known to parents is that of having their screaming child physically torn from them by a stranger, then having to walk away to the sounds of their child crying and begging them not to leave. Just a necessary part of letting go? Teaching your child independence? Or an unnecessary, cruel and detrimental way of managing a delicate situation? I think the latter.

I made the mistake of allowing this to happen once, when my child was two and a half. I vowed I would never allow this to happen again, and have successfully avoided such a situation all but once, when I was taken by surprise one morning at school.

It first happened at a playgroup that clearly didn’t believe in settling in arrangements. They fully bought into the ‘just let them cry it out and they’ll be fine’ philosophy. There were hysterical children and parents everywhere. It was carnage. I subsequently withdrew my child from the playgroup’s register, returning several months later on the pre-agreed condition that I remain with him for as long as I felt he needed me to, even if this meant I never actually left and became a sort of volunteer parent helper with cutting out and sorting coloured pens.  As it happened, I remained with my child for his two mornings a week for about a month. When I finally left there were no tears, nor were there any on any subsequent occasions. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there, being a lively and sociable child who loves being around other children in this type of environment. He just needed time to feel comfortable and safe enough to be there without me. Trying to rush this was counterproductive.

Before making the decision to move him to the pre-school attached to the school he would eventually be attending, I was careful to speak to the staff there about their settling in arrangements. They were happy for me to do whatever I judged best. I planned to stay with him for at least a week, but 3 mornings proved sufficient. There were no tears throughout the year there.

In the summer prior to my child starting school he showed considerable anxiety about the impending change. It was a great comfort to him that I could repeatedly assure him that I would be staying with him for the whole time on his first day. Feeling safe and reassured by the knowledge that I would be there with him considerably lessened the anxiety and stress of the first day. There was no dread of a separation, no need to fear. He knew I would be right there with him. It worked perfectly. I sat in a corner of the classroom with a book. My child joined in with the other children, engaged with the teacher, in short, did everything the other children did and that he was expected to do, just ‘checking in’ with me occasionally.

On the second day I explained to him exactly what would happen when we arrived; “The bell will ring then you’ll all get in line. That’s when we’ll kiss goodbye, then you’ll go into school with the other children, and I’ll be back at lunchtime, just like at nursery”.

This way there were no surprises, he knew what to expect. From his behaviour and reaction on the first day I had made the decision that he was ready for me to leave. As with all the settings he had been to, once the decision was made and I had told him what would happen, it was important that I stuck to it, not letting him feel like there was any choice, any room for negotiation. So making the decision was the tricky part – I needed to be sure he was ready.

This is how it worked for me. It won’t work like this for everyone. Every child is different and will react differently. But I firmly believe that time invested at the beginning saves a lot of tears in the long run, and makes for a much more happy and settled experience for a child, helping develop a positive attitude towards school. The conventional wisdom is to leave quickly, even if your child appears distressed. But as with many aspects of parenting, the conventional wisdom is not something I go along with!

Attachment theory and neuroscience already inform us in no uncertain terms of the detrimental effects of leaving a child aged under three without an attachment figure. But with our early school starting age pushing children into school when they’ve just turned four, and consequently pre-school at three, we need to consider if it’s reasonable to expect a child, at such an age, to be comfortable being left in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar adults and unfamiliar rules and routines. Yes, it’s often simply fear of the unknown. So why not simply stay until the unknown is known?

I get tired of hearing the old story, “They stop crying as soon as you’ve left”. For me, this doesn’t mean they’re OK. It just means they’ve stopped crying. Children can have a myriad of feelings, fears, misgivings, and anxieties without expressing them through crying. What’s the point of expressing them if no-one’s going to listen?

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., & William J. Pieper, M.D. put this nicely in “The Smart Love Parent”:

“When parents come to pick up their child, they may well be told that the child stopped crying almost immediately and was “fine” the rest of the morning. The flaw in this reasoning is that the child’s behaviour, rather than her feelings, is being used to measure success at separating.”

As with any parenting decision that goes against the traditional majority, we shouldn’t be afraid to stick to our guns, to stick to what we know is best for our children, to trust our instincts. Speak to the staff and explain your position beforehand. Make your child’s school experience start as you want it to go on – happy and stress-free.

3 Responses to Starting school without any tears

  1. gill bowker says:

    I would love to be able to stay with my child in her first year at reception class (just like I did in pre-school until , like you said ,felt comfortable when the time was right for you to leave). The only problem I have is my little girl’s school doesn’t allow this and I fear that this will hold back an already anxious and under confident child!
    I talk quite happily to her about what she may be doing today and wonder what new and fun and exciting things she may do bit I just get ” I’m not going today unless you can stop with me!”.
    To add to my daughters (& mine) stresses she has started wetting herself at school which she has never done since starting potty training – the staff take her to the loo but she won’t go with them.
    I really wanted school to be a fun place for her but Seeing her so upset…It makes me feel sick leaving her and I just come home a cry!!
    I hope it gets better, and soon.

    • Jo says:

      Hi Gill, I’m so sorry to hear you’re having this experience. It sounds really hard. Needless to say, I think the school are wrong not to allow you to stay.

      One thing you can do is to try leaving your child something of yours, preferably that may smell of you, like a scarf. She may also find having a picture of you helps her get through the day, or she may have her own comfort toy. Find out if there’s somewhere she can keep things like this, like her own drawer, where she can access it when she feels the need. If not, and the school are uncooperative, you could put a picture, or a note/smiley face in her lunchbox.

      Be sure to validate her feelings so she knows you understand she’s finding it hard at school and you’re on her side. “It must be strange settling in to a new place” etc. Talk to her about what you’ll be doing after school when you pick her up.

      Wetting herself gives a clear sign of the level of anxiety she is experiencing and I would think give you enough cause to request a meeting with the class teacher and/or learning mentor if there is one. If they won’t let you stay, you could at least discuss other ways to help her settle. A little extra attention from the staff, having someone look out for her, give her little jobs to do, whatever you think would help. The school should at least be concerned with her ability to learn, which will be pretty low right now!

      Good luck!

  2. Erika says:

    It’s indeed a standard thing to be there until your child gets used to his environment. One thing that will always work is to know what to expect On the other hand, parents must also tell their child what they should expect like when they must part ways and what time they can see each other again.

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