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Separation Anxiety

Q. I am a veteran Kindergarten teacher with 30 years of experience. I have, however, never seen as many children, as I have this year, with separation anxiety. I think perhaps it is because of 9/11. Whatever the cause, how do I best help them cope?

I have one mother who won't leave her child's side the entire day. She has been coming to school with her daughter for 2 and a half weeks solid and staying the day with her. It has been my education and experience that it is better to make a clean break than to keep the parent coming. However, in this instance the mother is very intelligent and I have had 2 other daughters of hers in my kindergarten classes.

One was completely independent (the first born), the second also suffered from separation anxiety, but both parents seemed to agree that they should leave her after the second day of school. This one is really a difficult situation. The child wails and makes herself physically sick, to the point of vomiting, when her mother or father tries to leave her at school.

What should I do? Allow the mother or father to continue coming to school and spending the day, or insist they taper off slowing, or make a clean break from the child? I did once suggest with their second child, that they seek a psychologist's help, but they refused to do that. I doubt that they would do it with this child either.

A. That's certainly a difficult situation for you, the child, and the family. I think the best course, if possible, is to work with your school's psychologist on how best to deal with the child and the family. For our other readers who may not be familiar with this problem, so-called school phobia is--as you rightly note--usually a form of separation anxiety.

If daily school attendance is enforced, most cases will improve in just a few weeks. As BD Schmitt MD notes [see the article at www.choc.com/pediatric/hhg/bschphob.htm], "...the longer your child stays home, the harder it will be for him to return." Dr. Schmitt gives a number of helpful suggestions for the family; e.g., insist on an immediate return to school; be extra firm on school mornings; talk to the child about his/her school fears, etc. But, what about your role? Again, I think working with a mental health professional is prudent in this case, even if the family refuses to see a psychologist.

Of course, you may be helpful by working individually with this child to see if there are any specific reasons for this unusually strong anxiety reaction; e.g., fear of being disciplined by the teacher, fear of the other pupils, etc. This can then be shared with the school psychologist (I am assuming your school has one! If not, you will probably need to work with someone on the outside). There are cognitive-behavioral methods for dealing with school phobia, but these should generally be managed by a mental health professional. However, you may want to see the book, "The identification and treatment of school phobia", by LZ Paige (1993), published by the National Association of School Psychologists. Good luck!

January 2003

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