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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Helping My Child Overcome Anxiety About Starting School

Starting school can be an especially anxious time for both a child and parent, whether it's starting preschool for just a few hours each week or going to a primary school for five days a week, the transition involves a physical separation of the parent and child and all the emotions that go with it. For us. the transition has been particularly painful.  For the three years of my son's life, he and I have been practically inseparable.  (We lived in Singapore without any close family nearby to babysit and with our impending move, we decided not to enrol him in a preschool there).  Almost everything we experienced in those three years, we experienced together.  Suddenly, I was bundling him up in jacket and backpack, walking him down the road to a building where I kissed him goodbye and left him in the hands of complete strangers.

In reality, the separation wasn't quite that dramatic.  Initially I sat in on the sessions until I felt he was adequately settled.

It was then that the backlash began ...

My (usually) non-aggressive child was kicking and hitting his brother, he would sit on the stairs before preschool refusing to go, he would try to dodge the teacher to follow me out of the building, any mention of the word "preschool" would involve tears or a torrent of hate-speech: "I want to hit preschool", "I want to huff and puff and blow the preschool down!!" (I suspect they read him the story about "The Three Little Pigs" there) or more recently "I want to throw the preschool into the toilet and flush it away!" Whilst the preschool assured me that beyond the initial upset of saying goodbye, he was peacefully engaged in all the activities there, I started to feel the whole experience was damaging our relationship, that the unquestionable trust that a child has in his parent to listen to him, to take his feelings seriously and to make him feel safe was being eroded.  I was on the brink of pulling him out...

Before abandoning school entirely, I decided to do some work on helping my son talk about his feelings. I started by ordering some books about feelings and separation and then followed up this reading with some play therapy and created a "Peace Corner" in the children's bedroom.

Two books that have helped us immensely are:  The Way I Feel and The Kissing Hand.

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain is a book that illustrates children displaying an array of different feelings: silly, scared, disappointed, happy, sad, angry, thankful, frustrated, shy, bored, excited, jealous and proud. The pictures are accompanied by a rhyming text that helps to describe the emotion in more detail: for example the emotion "Frustrated" depicts a girl trying to tie her shoelaces with the accompanying text: "I'm frustrated because I can't do it.  It's hard and I want to cry.  I don't know whether to give it up or to give it another try."  My children love the illustrations in this book, which not only show realistic images of children displaying emotions, but also reflect that emotion in the surrounding illustrations on the page.  The boy who is sad and sitting in a tree is surrounded by drooping leaves of blue and green that invite the reader into his world of sadness.  (The illustrations are so effective that my 23 month old, Dooey, looks at it and starts to talk in a sad voice too, before taking the book in his hands and kissing the page to make the boy feel better).

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a heart-warming book about a raccoon called Chester who feels anxious about starting school until his mother shares with him the secret about "the kissing hand". His mother unfolds the fingers of Chester's hand and kisses the palm, telling him that if he feels lonely and misses her, he should lift his hand to his cheek and instantly he will be filled with his mother's love and warm thoughts.  The story has a beautiful ending where Chester looks towards his school and then unfolds his mother's hand and kisses it before running off.  The book wonderfully acknowledges that the separation is painful for both the parent and the child. This story had a profound effect on my son who was about to enter the preschool gates a couple of weeks ago, when he lifted his hand to his cheek and smiled at me.

Somehow spending each evening with Wugs on my lap for 10-15 minutes, reading him these books, helping him to identify circumstances that cause him to feel angry, sad, frustrated or jealous and then talking through how to handle those emotions has resolved the aggressive behaviour and made him more vocal in describing his feelings rather than simply acting on them.  "Preschool" is still a bad word in our house and with last week being the beginning of a new term after the Easter break, I was concerned his anxiety would re-emerge.

Play Therapy

I have used play therapy with Wugs before to help him overcome feelings of loss when some family members flew back to Malaysia after a brief visit (Play Therapy for Families Living Apart).  I decided to do this again by building a copy of Wugs' preschool using Duplo bricks and adding stickers to the bricks for important details such as his coat peg and his name label.  Then I talked him through a typical drop-off at preschool, with us walking to the school, seeing his teacher at the door, finding his peg and name, putting his fruit in the basket, sitting with friends in the reading corner. We even built the toilets as another milestone for him has been trusting a teacher to help him use the toilet.  Familiarity and routine play a huge part in making Wugs feel secure and in control of his day. An unexpected outcome of this form of play was the way in which Wugs extended it.  He seemed especially interested in what Dooey and I would be doing whilst he was at preschool (so we built a separate scene that included our house, with me preparing the tea in the kitchen and Dooey having a nap).  He spoke about activities he did at preschool, the names of children and teachers that he interacted with and what looked like actions to songs he had learned there (things that he does not readily talk about when I collect him at the end of the session).

Other Ideas/Suggestions to Help Settle a Child at School (from a non-professional)

Sit in on a Couple of Sessions - At least initially I would recommend attending some of the sessions, even if the child isn't visibly distressed about you leaving.  This gives the parent a feel for what the child will be experiencing during his day, the types of children he will be playing with, the way the teachers handle specific issues as well as the general impact of the preschool schedule on the child.  I found it beneficial to observe the children, especially those that were initially distressed when their parents said "goodbye" and eventually settled into an activity.  Other children happily kissed their parent goodbye and then got upset at some point during the afternoon.  In Wugs' preschool the teachers handled that by getting the child to draw a picture for the parent they were missing.  This sort of observation helped me to trust the teachers that would look after Wugs and that feeling of trust (I believe) was sensed by Wugs which enabled him to trust them too.

A Keepsake - Just as The Kissing Hand is about carrying a mother's kiss wherever the child goes, the preschool teachers have recommended giving the child a keepsake of some sort to carry around with him at school.  (Something inexpensive in case it gets lost - a small paper heart, for instance).  The child may pull out the keepsake and feel a sense of proximity to the parent through it.  One of my favourite tips was to rub a little perfume on your child's clothing so that he can feel close to you through a familiar scent.  

Telling the Child What You Are Doing Whilst He/She is at Preschool - This suggestion came from an experienced preschool teacher who said that children often feel that when the parent leaves, he/she has disappeared for good.  It helps the child settle if he knows you are doing a particular activity whilst he is at preschool that has a beginning and an end (going to the shops, preparing the dinner, posting a letter etc).  I tried this a couple of times, but for me the challenge was finding something that Wugs wouldn't want to do as well.  He loves working alongside me, going to the supermarket etc.

Accepting All Emotions -  I've often heard people say "Don't cry" and then "Well done for not crying" to Wugs in a heart-warming way and with the best of intentions, but telling a child to bottle up their emotions is not only counteractive (because it is through expressing them and talking about them that the physical behaviour is resolved), but threatens the relationship of unconditional love that a child believes he has with his parent.  Even though I've often wanted Wugs not to cry in order to make my job of leaving him easier, it is unfair to expect him to control his emotions in order to save mine.  He is looking to me for emotional stability, to be able to accept his emotions and reassure him.

Using Neutral Language - I started referring to preschool as "big school" where Wugs goes because he is a "big boy", playing on the fact that Wugs often feels proud to be the older brother (whereas Dooey is still little and stays at home with mum).  What I didn't appreciate was that Wugs was feeling two conflicting emotions - one was a sense of responsibility for his brother, (he was worried about where Dooey was and what he was doing when Wugs was at preschool) and the other was a feeling of wanting to draw back (I suspect he was experiencing preschool as some kind of punishment for growing up) and  was regressing fast (lying across my chest with his milk in his hand wanting to be like a baby).  Again, I found it helpful to accept the way he was feeling and let him work through it in his own time.

Making Time Before and After the Preschool Session - Wugs attends afternoon preschool sessions, so I keep the morning activities light so that he is not too tired when he goes (some of his initial unhappiness in attending preschool I believe was due to tiredness - usually he would nap in the afternoon).  Although I have sometimes struggled to do this, I found it helpful to prepare the evening meal whilst he was at preschool so that I was available to him when he came out, rather than scurrying off into the kitchen to cook dinner as soon as he was home.  

I'm pleased to say that after completing his first day in his new term last week, no tears were shed and Wugs was actually excited to go - something that was unimaginable even a month ago.

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