Tips for Parents

Separation Anxiety and Learning in Preschoolers

By Susan Magsamen, SVP Early Learning

Dropping your nervous three-year-old at her new preschool, you’re thinking about the fun she’ll have playing, making new friends, and learning, pointing out all that’s exciting in the classroom. But instead of running to play, she clings to you like ivy. When the teacher finally pries her away, she starts to cry and your heart sinks. Is this just separation anxiety that she’ll overcome eventually? Can she learn when she seems so scared?

Of course, separation anxiety, like other forms of stress, is normal in new situations. It often kicks in around 2–3 years old, when toddlers start to experience themselves as separate from you. So even though your infant showed no fear of strangers, your preschooler may express trepidation even at the sight of his regular babysitter when he knows you are going out.

Fear, stress, and anxiety can dampen our ability to learn so being without you in a new place for the first time might keep her from viewing her new environment, and the people in it, with the openness and curiosity that promote learning.

A little fear goes with the territory, and separation anxiety usually passes. But to open your child’s mind to learning, you can ease worries that might paralyze her. The first rule of thumb: don’t stress about it. Kids recognize their parents’ worries, which may amplify theirs. Other ways of helping:

  • Stick to an established routine: sleep, playtime, and healthy eating habits all work to make life more predictable.
  • Set aside time to talk about what’s bugging her. Sometimes this is best done in pretend play, over snacks, or on the playground.
  • Don’t insist that your child will love it if they give it time. 

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