Dinner, Bath, Books, and Goodnight: A positive, effective approach to helping your child get through daily routines

I have rarely met a family that hasn't struggled in some way with getting their children through daily routines. Common complaints include: “Ethan whines and protests every single step", or, “Talia’s refusal to cooperate is forcing us to nag and bribe her which is driving us crazy and we know is messed up. We’re all miserable by the time we walk out the door.” Families with young children face these types of struggles because most toddlers have some degree of difficulty with transitions. 

There are several reasons children have a hard time moving from one task to another during morning and bedtime routines, including:

  • Young children are quite zealous about asserting some control over their world. This means that whenever there is a demand to follow someone else’s agenda, such as yours, there is a natural tendency to defy it.

  • It is hard for many children to move from one activity to another. They become absorbed in what they are doing and making a transition takes a lot of effort.

  • Sometimes children have not actually tuned in to the direction you are giving them. They haven’t processed all of the information being communicated to them, so they can’t effectively act on it.

  • Some children are very distractible. They start to follow a direction, but something catches their attention and they lose track of what they are supposed to be focused on.

  • Morning and nighttime routines are associated with separations, such as going to child care/school, saying goodnight, etc. This can be emotionally challenging for young children.

The following strategies address these underlying issues and can help children better cope with daily routines. Note that the content below builds on another blog that focused on "Cracking the Cooperation Code", so you will see many of the strategies described in that post applied here.

  • Acknowledge that separations are hard. Feelings drive children’s behavior. The more we name and empathize with our children's emotions the less likely it is that they will have to act them out. “I know, mornings can be hard. We have to get ready for work and school and then say goodbye until dinnertime." Once you have shown understanding you can help your child cope: “But, we all have important jobs to do during the day. Yours is to play with grandma/go to school and learn all sorts of cool stuff and mine is to (fill in the blank). Why don’t we read four pages of your favorite book before we leave for school, then the first thing we’ll do when we get home is finish the book together.” Creating a bridge like this between separations can be very comforting for kids and gives them something concrete to look forward to. Another bridge might be having your child help you pack a snack in the morning that you bring with you when you pick him up at the end of the day.

  • Make a visual calendar. This provides cues as to what will happen next that can greatly ease transitions, especially when you include your child in creating the calendar. Take photos of all your child’s daily routines: waking up in the morning, having breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, getting into the car/bus, etc. Be sure to include the people who participate in or help with these routines. For example, take photos of Mom helping with getting dressed in the morning, Dad giving a hug at preschool drop-off, and so on. Then, help your child create the calendar, providing whatever support she needs based on her age/ability. Guide her to choose photos that depict each step of the routine and tape them up on any kind of paper/cardboard (some families get really fancy and use Velcro) in chronological order. You might even have her choose what she will have for breakfast and include it on the calendar. Give her two choices (have visuals for the various options) and put the photo of the food she chooses on the calendar as well. This can reduce challenges in the morning. Go through the same process for the evening/nighttime routine. Take photos of every important step of the process. You can create the calendar for the evening routine at the time you feel would work best for your child. Some families do it during breakfast for kids who fiercely depend on predictability and like to know exactly what is coming down the pike. For some children, this is too much to process in the morning; in this case, it works better to create a ritual of doing a brief family meeting before dinner to go over what the plan will be for the whole evening. For example, dinner, bath, tooth-brushing, books, bed. Again, be sure to take photos of all the people who might be involved in these routines so your child knows exactly what to expect: Daddy is doing bath tonight and Papa is the book-reader. Finally, provide a way for children to note that they have completed a task. They might put a check-mark or a sticker next to each photo as they move through the routine. This can be very motivating for kids.

  • Provide a warning to help children anticipate a transition. As many of you know, I am a big fan of the  Time-Timer because it provides a clear visual that helps children track how much time they have left. (Be sure to place it where your child can see it but be sure it’s out of her reach or, like most clever children, she will add time.) “Lucy, there’s only a little red left on Time-Timer. When he makes his beeping noise, it will be time to put the blocks away and take a bath.” Then add a choice to give your child some sense of control: “Do you want to play with the animal or planet stickers in the bath tonight?” This also helps her anticipate what will come next in a positive way.

  • Be sure your child is tuning in to and processing what you are communicating to him. It can be very helpful to establish a cue with your child for when you want his attention. One family I recently visited established a routine of placing a hand firmly and lovingly on their child’s shoulder to signal, “I have something to tell you. It’s time to stop doing what you’re doing and focus on me.” The more ritualized these cues become the more powerful they are. Some other tools for securing your child’s attention that were introduced in the Cracking the Cooperation Code newsletter include teaching your child about:

    • “Pause”: Explain to your child that when you stretch out your arm and hold up your hand as you say, “pause”, it means to “stop what you’re doing and get your body ready to listen.” You use “pause” to cue children to tune in when more typical strategies for getting their attention, such as calling their name or telling them you have a question to ask them, haven’t worked. (When we call children’s names over-and-over they tend to tune it out—think Charlie Brown’s teacher.) If your child is still not tuning in to you, you might need to place a hand over the object your child is still messing with and guide his hands to his lap to provide additional support for turning his brain onto what you need to communicate to him.

    • Brain teasers: These are distractions that call your child’s attention away from what he needs to be focusing on. Imagine you’ve directed your child to get his coat but on his way he gets sidetracked by a dump truck. You might say: “Oops, dump truck brain teaser. What was your job?” This provides a cue to get him back on track in a positive way, without nagging.

  • Communicate directions clearly: “Austin, I have a direction: please place your dish in the sink.” “Rumi, it’s time to go upstairs to take a bath.” This helps your child know exactly what is expected which is comforting to kids. Because giving a direction may feel dictatorial and we want to be “polite”, most of us tend to pose a direction as a question, such as: “Rumi, can you come upstairs?” Or, “Rumi, time to go upstairs, okay?” The problem is that these seemingly benign phrases are confusing to the child, who hears that you’re giving her a choice, which then causes frustration for parents when kids don’t comply. One recent example: a mom asked her 4-year-old multiple times, “Can you please come to the dinner table?” The child (logically) responded, “No, I’m not done with my game.” (Click here for more about providing clear choices and expectations.)

  • Use the concept of “two great choices!” to let your child know his options. Continuing to avoid or protest is not one of them: “Charlie, the direction is to go upstairs for bath. You have two great choices: you can go upstairs on your own, or, I will carry you up. You decide.” Focusing on the fact that your child is the decider and you are just implementing the consequences of his choices makes children feel more in control and less defiant. Many parents worry that this is somehow giving in to the child, i.e., carrying him up the stairs; but what’s the alternative? Waiting for your child to comply puts him in the driver’s seat for how the evening routine will go. This dynamic is not healthy for you or your child and results in a lot of unpleasant battles. Rest assured, once you follow through on this limit a few times your child will be hopping or slithering up the stairs on his own. You can use this strategy for every step of the routine: “Time-Timer says we have 20 minutes for breakfast. You have two great choices: you can eat enough food to fill your belly up; or, if you choose to play instead of eat, then we will put your food in a container to take with you in case you get hungry.” “It’s time to get our hands clean for dinner. Your choice is to wash your hands in the sink or use a wipe.” If your child runs away, you simply approach him as calmly as possible, give him a bear hug and use a wipe to clean his hands without any anger. You are simply showing him that any tactics that aren’t acceptable or good for him won’t work. That’s how children ultimately learn to adapt and make good choices.

  • Incentivize cooperation: A natural consequence of cooperating is that it saves time which can translate into more opportunity to do desired activities. You might explain to your child that he has 10 minutes to get dressed, alone or with your help. If he cooperates, he banks 5 minutes. Same for getting shoes on, etc. You can add up the time he has saved and at the end of the day he gets a choice of say, 10 extra minutes of play- or book-time before bed. This can serve as a powerful incentive. It is also a great alternative to using rewards or negative consequences, which often have no connection to the actual "incident", can be shaming, and tend to backfire.    

  • Give your child some sense of control over the transition: “It's time to get into the car. You have a choice: do you want to bring a book or listen to a story on tape?”  “It’s time to go upstairs for bath. You have a choice, should we hop like a bunny or slither up the stairs like a snake?” The more your child feels he has some control over the process the more likely he is to comply.

  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions and desires: “I know, you love to color and it’s so hard to stop doing something that’s so much fun. But Time-Timer is telling us that it’s time for what’s next on our schedule—getting dressed!” Remember, when you validate your child’s feelings, it makes it less likely she will need to act them out.

  • Let your child know when she’ll be able to do the desired activity again: “You can color again when we get home this afternoon while Daddy is making dinner. What do you want to draw tonight?” When you acknowledge your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants eventually, you reduce the stress typically experienced when children can’t get what they want right away. It calms them and puts them in a more positive frame of mind, which makes them more willing to comply.

  • Stay positive, even in the face of your child’s protests: Your tone is infectious. When you get revved up and this kind of thing comes rolling off your tongue: “If you don’t put the crayons down on the count of three you won’t have them for a week!”, it elicits an oppositional reaction and puts children in a more defiant posture. This makes it less likely that they will comply. Instead, try: “Mommy is going to be a helper and put these crayons away so you can focus on eating your breakfast.” Just because your child is losing it doesn’t mean you have to join her. The more calm and non-reactive you remain the more likely it is that she will get calm and comply.   

Of course, every child is different. These strategies are great for some kids and not effective for others. For example, some kids respond well to making a breakfast choice the night before. For other children, it just leads to a breakdown in the morning when they change their minds. You know your child best. Use your judgment and adapt these tools to best meet your child’s and your family’s needs.

Cracking the Cooperation Code

If you're like most parents, not being able to get your children to cooperate is one of your most vexing challenges. It’s especially maddening when a child’s lack of compliance seems totally irrational; for example, 3-year-old Sadie, who loves to eat but refuses to come to the dinner table and draws her parents into a power struggle, making everyone miserable. This naturally catapults her parents into revved-up mode. They get increasingly annoyed and resort to all kinds of rewards or threats to motivate Sadie to tow the line. Unfortunately, this typical, reactive kind of response usually makes it less likely that a child will change her tune and is more likely to result in an intensified tussle between parent and child.
 
As with all child-rearing challenges, the key is to figure out the root cause of the problem; what the driving forces are that result in the unacceptable behaviors. My colleague, occupational therapist, Teri Kozlowski of Teekoz Kids, has helped me crack the code on getting kids to cooperate by pointing out two key factors that influence the chance that children will follow directions: (1) whether children are even attending to and processing the information parents are trying to deliver to them; and (2) the tone and approach parents use to communicate directions to their children.
 
Factor #1: While there are many reasons why a child might not cooperate, one major variable is whether the child has even tuned in to what is being communicated to her. If your child hasn’t processed the information, for example, because she is still focused on the toy she is playing with, it makes it very hard for her to act effectively on your direction.
 
There are certainly times when children are purposefully ignoring your direction because they have learned that this is a good strategy to avoid having to make a transition. But there are also times when children are not attending because they have challenges with tuning in to others, period. They get so absorbed in their own internal experience that they may have a hard time turning their attention to what others are trying to communicate to them.
 
Regardless of the underlying reason for a child not tuning in, the following strategies can be very effective for getting kids to focus on and process a direction. All the strategies provide cues which help children know exactly what is expected of them, just like you might have a special ritual to say goodnight at bedtime or goodbye at preschool drop-off that helps your child cope with a separation. Consistent cues are powerful tools for helping children comply with directions, which is why kids are often much more cooperative at child care or school than at home. Group settings are highly structured with cues for everything: singing a song to signal that it’s clean-up time, ringing a bell when it’s time to line up to go outside, etc.
 
Strategies for Tuning In:
Without realizing it, many of us talk to children before securing their full attention. How often do you find yourself repeating a direction? Calling your child’s name over-and-over? Rephrasing the same direction ten different ways? Talking to the back of your child's head while he’s focused on something else? The following strategies provide clear cues to children to help them stop what they are doing, pay attention to, and process the important information you need to communicate to them.

  • “Pause”: Stretch out your arm and hold up your hand as you say, “pause”.  Explain that when you signal them to “pause”, it means “stop what you’re doing and get your body ready to listen.” You use “pause” to cue children to tune in when more typical strategies for getting their attention, such as calling their name or telling them you have a question to ask them, haven’t worked. (When we call children’s names over and over they tend to tune it out—think Charlie Brown’s teacher.)  

  • Listening body: This provides your child a clear direction about what to do to get his body and mind primed to pay attention. Teach your child about and practice listening body during a quiet moment together. “Darnell, we’re going to play a fun new game called, listening body. Once your whole body is ready to pay attention, I’ll read you a story.” Then you describe, demonstrate, and help your child practice the following steps: 

    • Listening feet: feet are on the ground and “quiet”, meaning they aren’t moving. Guide your child’s feet to the ground and put a finger up to your mouth and say “quiet” to signal “quiet feet”.

    • Listening hands: hands that are not messing around with other things (unless it’s a small toy/object you have given your child that helps him focus). Guide your child to place his hands on his lap and say, “quiet hands”.

    • Listening ears: ears that are listening to who is talking and not to other sounds in the environment. Point to your own ears and say, “listening ears”.

    • Listening eyes: eyes that are looking at the person who is talking. Point to your own eyes and say, “listening eyes”.

    • Listening mouth: a mouth that is not talking. Make the sign for zipping your own mouth closed to add a visual cue.

    • Listening brain: a brain that is tuned in to what the other person is communicating, and not thinking about other things. Turn an imaginary knob on the side of your head. This is the cue that your brain is turned on to what you are talking about and doing together.

Once you have taught your child about listening body, in the moment when you need to use it, only provide the cues that are necessary beyond saying, “I need a listening body”.  For example, you might need to place a hand over the object your child is still messing with and guide his hands to his lap to provide additional support for him to keep his hands still. Or, you might just use the visual cue of zipping your mouth closed. Keep in mind that the success of these strategies, such as pause and listening body, depends on using them consistently. It won't be effective if you direct your child to show his listening body only one out of the 20 times you are trying to get his attention. 

  • Choice vs direction: Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation. “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.”  Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to clean up, okay?”) Almost all parents do this without thinking. It’s important to become aware of these seemingly minor language choices as they cause confusion for children, who hear that you’re giving them a choice, and frustration for parents when kids don’t comply. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.” (Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.)

  • Beware the brain teasers: These are distractions that call your child’s attention away from what he needs to be focusing on; for example, the TV, a toy, a noise, a piece of lint on the carpet. In these moments, you might say: “Oh—brain teaser!”, as you point to the distraction; it might be another book on the shelf or a toy he is reaching for while you’re reading together. Then add, “It’s time to turn your brain off of the toy and on to our book”, as you turn an imaginary knob by the side of your head to add a visual cue about the need to change his brain's focus. Another typical scenario is when you’ve directed your child to retrieve a specific object, such as his shoes, and along the way he sees a ball and starts to play with it. In this situation, you might say: “Oops, brain teaser. What was your job?” This provides a cue to get him back on track in a positive way, without nagging.

  • Being a helper: This is a great tool for when the strategies above are not working and your child is still having a hard time focusing on the direction. Take the example of the child who is going for the ball instead of getting his shoes. You might say: “Oh, do you need a helper? I’m going to count to three and you can decide if you can put the ball down and come get your shoes on, or if you want me to be a helper.” If he doesn’t comply after the count of three, you say, “I can be a helper and put the ball in the ‘wait space’”, which is essentially anywhere the child can’t access the object. This takes the distraction out of the equation and helps your child focus on the task at hand.  

Notice that all of these strategies have an intentionally, positive focus - such as showing children they have choices and positioning yourself as a helper - which is a great segue to the next key variable for getting kids to cooperate. 

Factor #2:  Parents tend to unwittingly approach limit-setting or giving directions using a negative tone or frame: “If you don’t stay in your room, I am going to put a gate up!” "If you don't put all these toys away I am throwing them in the trash." This approach engages children’s defiance and puts them in a more oppositional state of mind which makes it less likely that they will comply. When you use a positive tone it motivates children to cooperate. Consider the following strategies:

  • You have two great choices!: This strategy acknowledges that you can’t make your child do anything. You can only set clear boundaries and limits that you are able to implement which guide and shape her behavior. It also provides a positive frame as it focuses on the fact that your child is making the choices and you are just implementing the consequences of her decisions. If she makes a good choice it results in a positive outcome for her. A poor choice leads to a less-desired outcome. Here’s how it might look in real life: “Tania, the direction is to stay in your room after lights-out. That’s our rule. You have two great choices: if you choose to stay in your room, no gate. If you choose to come out of your room, we will help you get back into bed one time and put the gate up to help you stay in your room so you can get a good night's sleep. You decide.” Or, "Brandon, if you choose to cooperate with tooth-brushing, we will have time for an extra book; if you choose not to cooperate, I will need to brush your teeth which means we won't have time for the bonus book." This incentivizes children with natural consequences: cooperation leads to more time to do desired activities. 

  • Direct, don’t correct: Children, especially highly sensitive, reactive children, tend to feel shamed and overwhelmed when being corrected. When they hear “no!” their brains become flooded with emotion and they are unable to think or problem-solve. This makes it much less likely they will comply and change their behavior in positive ways. Instead, skip the “no” and provide a clear direction about the expectation and what your child can do. For example, if a child gets up from the table before mealtime is over, instead of saying, “No getting up to from table. Sit back down right now or there will be no more food,” you might say: “Oh, we’re still sitting at the table” (as you tap his chair to provide a visual cue). Or, if a child goes for a toy when you’ve told her it’s time to get pjs on, you might respond: “We’re putting on pajamas, now.” This approach also has an added benefit as it entails using a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We give a long lecture thinking we can convince our children to do the right thing. But this tends to have the opposite effect. When a limit is being set it’s stressful for kids. They have to stop doing something they enjoy in order to comply with someone else’s agenda. The more we talk, the more agitated and overstimulated children become, which escalates their frustration and interferes with their ability to regulate and comply. This positive and “to the point” strategy also helps you self-regulate. All that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.

  • “First, then”: When your child is pursuing an object or activity that is preventing her from focusing on the task at hand, you can say: “Oh, do you want to play with the balls? ... Great idea! First we need to clean up these toys and then we can play with the balls.”  When you acknowledge and validate your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants to do eventually, you reduce the stress she typically experiences when she can’t get what she wants right away. This calms her mind and also puts her in a more positive frame of mind which makes her more willing to comply.  

Everything children do is driven by what’s going on in their bodies and minds. When you provide them with tools to calm their bodies and focus their minds, and when you approach directions and limits with a positive and motivating tone, you set your children (and yourself!) up for success.

Tips for Helping Your Child Start School With Confidence

Four-year-old Harris is starting at a new school next week. He is a sensitive little guy who has a hard time with transitions. When he first went to preschool at age 2 he was frantic at separations. It took him several weeks to feel calm and fully engaged in the program. His parents were on the verge of pulling him out and mom was considering quitting her job; but they stayed the course and Harris ultimately adapted and thrived. His parents are naturally worried about this upcoming change for Harris and how to best prepare him.

It's that time of year, when many young children are starting school or changing schools, which can be stressful. But it’s what we think of as a “positive stressor”--a challenge that is not detrimental to kids but that leads to growth. It is an opportunity for children to develop close, trusting relationships with other adults and peers. It builds confidence and helps children adapt to future separations.  And high-quality programs provide endless opportunities for developing the skills—intellectual, social and emotional—that set children up for success far into the future. Below are some ideas for how to help your child cope with this transition.

Keep in mind that every child is different and approaches separations in his own way. Avoid comparing! Some kids jump right in. These tend to be the ones who "go-with-the-flow" by nature. But for many, especially the kids who are “slow-to-warm-up” temperamentally, it may take weeks to feel safe and comfortable. One 3-year-old I know sat in the “cozy corner” most of the day and looked at a photo album of her family, that she had brought to school with her, for almost 3 straight weeks. Then one day she got up and stood at the edge of the circle during book-reading time; then she started to join one other child in play. By the end of the first month she was totally engaged and crazy about school, protesting when her grandma came to pick her up at the end of the day.   

Validate feelings before jumping to reassurance. Labeling and acknowledging difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over and work through them in positive ways. “I know it feels scary to go to a new classroom. That makes a lot of sense. But once you spend some time there you will see that it is a great place where you will have a a lot of fun playing and learning.” Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away. 

It can be helpful to share a story of a time when you started something new. Describe your own feelings of being nervous/scared, what you did to cope, and the ultimate benefit of the experience—what you would have missed if you hadn't forged ahead. If your child has had any past experiences with mastering something new, remind him that he has faced a challenge like this before. Emphasize the strength and bravery that helped him adapt to the new experience and how this led to a good outcome for him; for example, having fun at a birthday party or other activity he had initially been fearful of and protested going to. (This was a very effective strategy for Harris—reminding him of how he felt really nervous going to his previous school but that once he spent some time there he loved it.) This is how children build resilience. The more experience they have persevering through a challenge, the more muscle, confidence and skills they develop to master future difficult situations.

Visit the school in advance. Play on the playground. Explore inside the school if this is allowed. Meet the teacher/caregiver in advance. The unknown causes anxiety; the more a child is familiar with the new setting the less fearful she is likely to be.

Establish a ritual for leaving home. You might have your child choose a book that you read partway during breakfast or sometime before you leave in the morning. Have your child make a special bookmark he places in the book to indicate where you left off. Then, when you pick him up at the end of the day, or, the first thing you do when you get home, is finish the book together. This provides a connection from morning to evening that helps children cope with separations.

Create a special goodbye ritual. Rituals can help kids cope. Establish a special kiss, hug or mantra you say every time you say separate at school. One dad-child pair held each other in a tight hug for a count of 5 and then said, “See you later alligator” in unison.  Doing that every morning eased the separation tremendously.

Provide Transitional Objects: This could be photos of the family that your child can put in her backpack. Some kids bring their special lovey that stays in the cubby and can be used for comfort when the child is upset or for naptime. Be forewarned that this can be a slippery slope; if the child wants to hold it all day long it can become an obstacle to her engaging in classroom activities.  Setting limits around its use are advised. 

Be clear that going to school is not a choice to avoid protracted battles. It is very common for children to protest going to school. As long as you are sure that it is a safe, good place, when he says he doesn't want to go, validate his feelings. Let him know you understand that it can be uncomfortable when starting something new, but that going to school is not a choice. Just like mommies and daddies go to work, a kid's job is to go to school to play and learn. Keep moving forward, calmly and lovingly, even if he continues to protest. Avoid the pitfall of trying to convince him to go; that communicates that he has a choice which can lead to more stress for everyone. Once he experiences the daily routine of going to school each morning no matter his protests--that is when the push-back stops and the adaptation begins. 

Say a brief, upbeat goodbye. Children look to their parents’ for cues to help them assess a situation. If you are calm and positive in your approach, even in the face of your child's distress, you are letting her know that the new school is a safe place that you trust completely and she is more likely to make a quicker and more positive adaptation. “I know you don’t want daddy to leave. It's a new place and you are feeling afraid. I totally understand. You will feel less afraid the more time you spend here and see how great it is--that's why we chose if for you. Your job is to  play and learn here with the other kids. My job is to do my work. I can’t wait to pick you up and hear all about your day.” (It’s a good idea to find out from the teacher what the last activity will be before pick-up time so you can let your child know exactly what to expect: “After you have music, Daddy will be back to pick you up.”)  

Tune in to your own feelings about separating from your child, so you can manage them: It is natural to feel anxious about separating from your child, especially if this is your first born and it is his first experience going to school. But acting on this worry can increase a child's distress (and thus yours, too) and make the separation even harder.  I have heard many a parent unwittingly pass on anxiety in the way they say goodbye, for example : “Oh Sweetie, I promise mommy will come back as soon as possible”, said in a tense tone of voice. This communicates that maybe the school isn’t such a good, safe place and thus your child needs to be rescued from it soon.

Further, resist looking back, hovering, or returning to the classroom after you say goodbye.This again communicates that you are worried about your child—that you don’t trust he will be okay and has the capacity to cope. This erodes versus builds his confidence that he can handle this new challenge. (Research shows that the longer the goodbye routine, and the more parents hover or keep returning for one last hug, the longer it takes the child to eventually calm and adapt.) As long as you keep re-engaging when your child begs you not to leave, your child’s focus and energy remains on trying to connect with you versus adapting to the classroom. In many of the schools I work in the teacher will take over to help the parent leave. She will comfort the child (gently peeling him from the parent if necessary) and guide him to join the classroom activity or give him the space he needs until he is ready to participate. 

The take home: talk to your partner or friends about any feelings you might be struggling with around separating from your child—which are totally understandable. Just avoid projecting them onto your child.

Have faith that with support from you and her teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Through the 15+ years I have been working in schools, I have seen many families pull their kids out of wonderful programs because they had a hard time transitioning. The child’s natural stress caused the parents so much discomfort they couldn’t tolerate it. They worried that their child just couldn’t do it. There are certainly some situations where there is a challenge in a child's developmental that makes participating in even a quality, loving, group care setting too stressful and inappropriate; for example, kids who have very low thresholds for sensory input may be so overwhelmed by the sound and activity-level in a classroom that they can't feel calm and adapt. But for most children, it is a gift to provide them the opportunity to experience that they can muscle through a challenge and successfully adapt to a new situation. It helps them feel less afraid and more confident about tackling other challenges they face in the future.