Separation Anxiety on First Day of School a Part of Individuation

Sally Eberhardt

As we embark on a new school year, the concept of separation anxiety becomes real. While some Stepping Stones parents and students might be experiencing this for the first time, the stress caused by the first day of school is nothing new. Rather, it's a timeless experience that countless families have encountered in one form or another. 

From the Whitby School archives – written by Sally Eberhardt

If you are concerned that your child may experience "separation anxiety" when you leave them in the classroom on the first day of school, just remember that separation is an integral part of growing up. Separation is a process that begins at birth, and ends only when the child becomes an individual with his or her own adult life. One of the jobs of a parent is to help the child through the various stages of separation in order to become an individuated being.

Parents who choose to send their child to Whitby are taking one of the steps on this road to individuation.

What is Individuation Anyway?

Maria Montessori recognized that this process – i.e. the need of the child to become an independent person – is part of what the child's "work" is about. Her revolutionary idea was that school should assist and encourage childrens' independence, rather than hinder or deprive them of it. She also felt that some aspects of what she called the child's work – making friends, learning to care about others, learning to perform new tasks – were best done outside the home environment.


Unfortunately, the adult who says goodbye to his or her child at the classroom door for the first time often experiences this natural separation as a loss, combined with guilt or regret. It has been my experience in counselling families that if a parent can handle this aspect of the separation, then the child will have less difficulty as well. It is usually only when the parent feels anxious or ambivalent that the child will have a hard time being left. So if there is a problem, my first advice would be: don't worry so much about managing your child's problem. Instead, look at yourself; pay attention to what's going on in you.

Easing Separation Anxiety

To ease the transition, here are some other points to remember. Present going to school as part of the normal evolution of the child's life. Emphasize the positive aspects of this new adventure – don't dwell on how much you will miss each other. Once you have said goodbye and you are out of the classroom, stay out and don't look back. Trust the teacher to take it from there.

As soon as your child indicates that he is ready to be dropped off at the door, make that your daily routine; don't hang around unnecessarily. Be reliable about pickup time however – your child needs to be able to trust that you'll be back when you promised.

In the case of very young children, parents are often encouraged to stick around for the first days of school. Ideally, the parent will be close by but out of sight.

In some cases the teacher may ask a parent to stay in the classroom. Making this sort of judgement call is precisely what the teacher has been trained to do. You may be asked to leave while another parent is encouraged to remain in the classroom. Understand that each child is unique and each situation is unique. This is not a competition.

The transition to school life can be further eased if some of the methods used at school are integrated into the home environment. For example, you can help promote independence at home by having clothes that are easy to reach and easy to fasten so your child can dress herself for school.

Finally, don't lose sight of the fact that separation is a natural developmental process of growth. It is not a loss of love. Quite the contrary. When independence is encouraged in an appropriate way, it creates more love, not less. The time you spend with your child outside of school will be more valuable and meaningful as a result.

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Sally Eberhardt

Sally Eberhardt is a former employee of Whitby School.