Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
When Going to School is Not a Pleasure, (Part 2) Breaking the Script
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
This blog is the second part of a two-part series on how to support your child when they're struggling with the transition into the school day. This part is focused on the Top Tips to Make Going to School a Pleasure. If you haven't read part 1 yet, you can do that here.
Top Tips to Make Going to School a Pleasure
Before we get to undoing those three common mistakes, let’s look at how we can support a child who is having problems at school itself.
Understanding the child’s inner world and their struggle is an important part of tackling their emotional needs. If your child is having academic issues, or problems with a teacher, you’ll want to schedule a meeting with the teacher and work together to support the child. You can read more about that here (link to another blog I did while ago).
If you believe your child’s anxiety about school is because of a lack of social connection, you might want to consider regular playdates, or going out to the park with other children after school or on the weekends. If you live nearby any classmates, try to organise commuting together in the mornings so your child has an opportunity to connect with others. This will help them to make friends, and make the journey to school more joyful. It is often easier for children to separate from their adults at school when they are commuting with a friend.
Socialising is a huge part of the school experience, and if your child has friends that they love and trust, the school experience will dramatically change for the better.
Combatting the Common Mistakes: 3 Steps for Success
Now, let’s turn to the three most common mistakes parents are making when it comes to school drop off. What can we do instead?
These tips have been split up into three sections: what to do in preparation for the morning routine, during the morning routine, and at the moment of separation itself. You’ll notice that the bulk of the work comes earlier on in the process. We’re building solid foundations that put less pressure on the ‘goodbye’. By the time we reach that point, we want both parent and child to feel connected and prepared for the transition.
In preparation for the morning routine:
These are things to try when you and your child aren’t under time pressure – when you have the space to be playful; to talk and think together about how you can make going to school easier and more pleasurable for both of you.
Children learn best through play, so make this part fun. Work together to design a poster-sized list of tasks they have to achieve in the morning – let them come up with the tasks, and draw or write them onto the poster. Decorate it together, and hang it up somewhere visible. This is for you to refer back to, if your child gets distracted while getting ready in the morning. It’s a great way to make getting ready for school into a game. It can help to lessen conflict in your routine, too. So, for example, when your child asks you in the morning if you can read them a story, you can say “go check the list to see what’s left for you to do before story time”. It’s no longer them against you, but you together against the task list.
Repetition really helps children to cement new habits. If you’re already stuck in an unhelpful script, it might take some extra practice to build a newer, healthier one. For younger children, there are some great picture books out there to help with this – stories that will familiarise your little one with the steps in a smooth morning routine. You can also use dolls, or just a play-pretend game, to act out your morning tasks, and create the seeds of change in your own script.
Remember to validate any separation anxiety that comes through in the game or story. Ask, “What would make it easier for him/her (the character in the game or story)?” Then, be quiet, and wait for their answer. Let them be active in the solutions they bring.
Another two important tips that come from therapeutic world are the concept of object relations and creating a mantra. You can find more about it here.
During the morning routine:
It’s already time to bring in some of the preparation work you’ve done. Does your child want to watch TV before they’ve had breakfast? Ask them to run and check the poster-list, to make sure they’ve completed their morning tasks. If you’re putting shoes on to leave the house, and your little one is starting to feel anxious about separation, load up that stone full of kisses (link to the object relation concept here).
What else can a parent do to ease the morning struggle? Here are 4 tips that will make the morning run more smoothly:
1. The one crucial tried and tested way to reduce disruption and distraction in the mornings is to avoid screens. Children absorbed in screens find it so much harder to make transitions.
2. To increase your own capacity for patience, you might want to make time for yourself by getting up a little earlier. Fifteen minutes to shower and have coffee in peace can set the tone for a calmer morning for all of you.
3. Allow time for natural movement. For example, I recommend walking to school. If you have to drive, try parking a block away and walking the last part. Movement regulates anxiety, so making sure you both are moving your body on the way to school can do wonders for your nervous systems.
4. Getting to school on time is something parents underestimate the importance of. My advice is: be more than on time. Be early. When children meet in the playground before school starts, they begin to form groups of play. Not only does this time ease the children’s transition into the school day, it also establishes good foundations for social connection throughout the day. A child who gets to school late might find it more challenging to find their place in the group, which can lead to a sense of isolation. If your child’s anxiety about school is connected to their lack of friendships, this is even more important.
Remember, routines need consistency to become automatic. Things might not go smoothly at first, but repetition will make it easier over time.
At the moment of separation:
A lot of work has been done now to put less pressure on this moment of separation. The moment will be a short one, but a loving and connected one. Do they have their stone, loaded with kisses for the day? Check. Now, repeat your mantra: “Have a lovely day, I’ll think about you and see you at pick-up.” Two kisses, one hug, a high-five. Notice that the mantra reminds them of the end of the separation – this is a safe, limited goodbye.
Remember to look at your child with trust. Trust in them, in the school and teachers, in the child’s resilience. That trust will be reflected in your eyes, and this will help your child to believe in their own capability to manage this transition.
Hand them over to their key worker (it’s best if this person is consistently there every morning). A comforting touch from this trusted key worker can serve as a healthy distraction from the goodbye, and this can make a world of difference.
Know that you’ve done all you can to prepare them for the day ahead. Give yourself a pat on your shoulder, take a deep breath, and have a nice coffee!
Written by Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a senior parenting and relationship expert with 20 years of experience empowering parents throughout their parenting journey. She is also psychologist, speaker and author, who is passionate about giving families access to trustworthy advice. She runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London, and in addition to running parenting workshops, she is the author of Small Steps to Great Parenting, The Essential Guide for Busy Families, and is the chairperson of Imago UK, an internationally-recognised approach to relationship therapy.
Dr Ben-Ari’s expertise are regularly been featured by the BBC, Stylist, Metro, Evening Standard and Refinery29 and has been a guest on podcasts like Cosmopolitan UK and The Parent Hood.