Reassuring Goodbye Rituals To Make School Drop-Offs Easier

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: FatCamera, E+ Collection/Getty Images

Back-to-school season brings lots of big feelings for kids and families. Childcare handoffs or goodbyes at school or the bus stop are often where those feelings bubble over. “Transitions and separation can be so stressful for children,” social worker Laura H. reminds us. Whether it’s a battle that starts before you can even get shoes on at home, a slow buildup of tears during the commute to school, or a surprise meltdown at the last moment, drop-offs can be tough on many families. To prepare for back to school this year, check out these favorite goodbye rituals recommended by parents and teachers.

Talk about it with a great book.
Cozy conversations over books, enjoyed at a time of day completely separate from an emotional parting, are one of the best ways to give kids language and strategies to cope with separation. For instance, Always With You, Always With Me by Kelly Rowland and Jessica McKay and illustrated by Fanny Liem, follows a child and his mom through a week of goodbyes and reunions. When they have to be apart, they look for “magic traces” of each other, which families could replicate in their own way. Or, meet some owlets who miss their mommy in Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson. The little owls — and little readers, too — find security in big sister Sarah’s patient refrain, “She’ll be back.” (And what joy when she is!) For more great titles, check out 15 Comforting Books for Kids With Separation Anxiety.

Make your hug or kiss a special one.
A special routine just for you and your child can be so reassuring. Jenn C. remembers how her mom always left a lipstick kiss on her sister’s hand. Now she gives her kids “three kisses on each cheek and then a ‘sticky’ hug (because it sticks all day long).” Some kids like to choose; the year she was four, my daughter insisted on “four hugs and four kisses.” Whatever it is, making your special goodbye the last thing you do before your exit gives kids a reassuring, loving landmark during the transition process.

Leave them with a message.
Many families land on a consistent message as part of their goodbyes. Parent Jenna P. says, “I shout ‘Be kind and be awesome!’ to my kids as they exit the car, usually while rolling their eyes.” Similarly, Tiffanie D. always reminds her kids to “Shine your light!” Eliza M. calls out, “Be a good learner and be a good friend!” While the instructive content is a nice bonus, it’s likely less about what you say and more about how hearing the same parting words every day becomes a comforting routine. I still fondly remember my own dad’s reliable, “See ya later, Alligator!”

Let them push you out the door.
Social worker Laura H. says her daughter used to “Literally push me out the front door at daycare. It allowed her to have some control over my leaving.” Similarly, several young friends from my preschool teaching days always liked to dramatically “shut the gate” after their parents exited. These actions are often good for a few therapeutic giggles and help kids feel capable as they start their day.

Make it silly.
Nothing quells tears and anxiety like a dose of laughter. Silly rituals help many families through separation woes. Rachael B. always sang, “Pants! Don’t leave the house without them, you’re going to need them for school … pants” sung to the tune of ‘Fame!’ We don’t remember how it started, but it stuck!”  Scott M. says, “When we used to do outdoor drop-off at preschool, we always drove away doing the same honk rhythm while kids waved.” Bus-stop dad Adam M. had a “secret handshake” with his kindergarten son they did right before he boarded that made everyone — including his kiddo — smile.

Get busy right away.
My kids’ beloved preschool teacher has always been a master at creating urgent, appealing tasks for kids right when they arrive at school. Invitations like “Ah! I need your help checking for eggs in the chicken coop!” or “Oh! We’re just about to walk over to the sandbox and see the dinosaur nest kids are building” don’t leave time for a sad goodbye to erupt — there’s fun to be had! Connect with the teacher and request this kind of help. Then blow a kiss and get out of there! Showing kids that you trust their teachers to help them goes a long way, and even if kids cry at your departure, it’s almost always done by the time you’re out of the parking lot.

Keep it predictable.
The beauty of goodbye rituals is that they give kids something to count on in a situation they can’t really control. Maybe each day it’s “Ten pushes on the swings, and then I’ll go.” — and stick to it! Parent Meredith B. says, “For years, we waved until we couldn’t see each other anymore.” What sweeter way to start the day is there than that?