In preschool, learning is far less about the ABC’s and 1,2,3’s and far more about developing an awareness of yourself and the world around you. Knowing how to best support your child and help them feel more comfortable transitioning to a school environment can be instrumental in setting them up for success.

Joining me this week to help parents learn how to guide their children through this transition is the co-director of the Downtown Little School, Meredith Gary.

From strategies for dealing with separation anxiety, to helpful tips to get your child out the door in the morning, to ways to foster your child’s connection to their teacher, this episode will help you feel prepared for the start of preschool!


Meredith (00:00):

I think the most important thing, if you wanna talk about giving your child a tool to get through separation successfully would be having clear and concrete routines in general, that help your child feel a sense of trust in you. As an authority figure

Dr. Sarah (00:21):

As summer fades, feelings of stress and anxiety can emerge for those of us who are about to start school for the first time. Oh, and our kids could be nervous about this too, but in all seriousness transitions are hard and navigating the transition to preschool can be a challenge for parents and kids alike. Joining me today to help support and guide parents is Meredith Gary. Meredith is the co-director of Downtown Little School. She’s the author of the children’s book, Sometimes You Get What You Want. And she has 28 years of experience working with young children and their parents.So whether you’re feeling anxious about separation at drop off, helping your child feel comfortable in a new environment, or maybe trying to decipher whether or not they’re ready for this big step, this episode will cover all of this and more.

Dr. Sarah (01:07):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (01:45):

I am so excited to welcome today to the podcast Meredith Gary, thank you so much for being here.

Meredith (01:51):

Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (01:51):

I’m really happy to talk with you today. I think one of the reasons why I was so excited about this episode is because I’m a parent, I’ve got two kids both have been in school since they were very young. I did. I mean, I’m a working mom, so my kids went to daycare when they were five months old respectively, each of them. And I think it’s hard. It’s hard to send your kids to school no matter what age and you know, you being so, you know, experienced in supporting kids, but also supporting parents, cuz kids going to school is really just as big of a transition for the parents as it is for the kids.

Meredith (02:34):

Yeah, it really is. And I think if it, any good preschool is gonna recognize that, that this separation has two halves to it, the child and the parent and be able to support both. You’re not gonna feel if you’re not comfortable leaving your child, your child is not gonna be comfortable having you go. So I think the first thing for first goal for you is to establish a sense of trust in the environment, in the school that you’ve chosen in the people that run it and then communicate that feeling of trust to your child. And I think step one for most children is gonna be connecting with a teacher in that classroom as the first thing. So when you’re bringing your child to school and it’s the separation or phase in period, and you’re able to be there in the classroom, I would sit back as much as you can bring a book, bring something to read and let your child connect with an adult in the room and feel if you can joy and pleasure in that connection because the joy you feel will be communicated to your child.

Dr. Sarah (03:37):

Yes. I think that’s actually a really good point, you know, like this idea that, okay, so we, what we’re talking about going to preschool, right? You are the co-director of the Downtown Little School, like you work with how old are the kids at the Downtown Little School?

Meredith (03:53):

So their ages are two to five. And so most of our children who are starting school for the first time are either two year olds or three year olds.

Dr. Sarah (04:00):

Okay. And maybe share a little bit with our audience, like how you got into this work and like what your story is like getting into, into all of this.

Meredith (04:09):

Sure. so I took the, the, when most people take a semester abroad in college, I took what was called an urban education semester and actually came to New York City, worked in a public school and took some classes at Bank Street College, which is a graduate school of education, upper west side. And then when I finished my undergraduate degree, I came back to New York and got my master’s at Bank Street. I was really quite hooked. Then my first real early childhood job was at a school called Pace Little School, which was part of Pace University. And what was great about that job in terms of my own professional development was that we were working with children. We were working with parents and we were working with student teachers. So I had to sort of articulate a philosophy and way of doing things that kind of resonated for all three of those groups.

It was really a terrific learning experience for me. So that was kind of the foundation. And Kate Delacorte, who was the director of the Pace Little School and I are now co-directors of the Downtown Little School, which is what Pace Little School became when we moved out of Pace. Oh, so that’s kind of the basics of my bio, but for me, I believe in play based education. I believe in not starting academics too early, and I believe in the importance of social and emotional development for academic success. Cause I think I say this to parents all the time, if your child gets to kindergarten and they don’t know all their lower case letters, the teacher is gonna feel really prepared and ready to help them learn what those letters are. But if your child gets to kindergarten 26, 28 kids and one teacher and has trouble separating is afraid of conflict feels nervous in the face of challenge struggles with following routines. All of these things are gonna get in their way and be much harder for a teacher to deal with in a one on one way. And so that’s the kind of stuff that we really wanna support in preschool.

Dr. Sarah (06:05):

That’s so I’m so aligned with the way I view childhood I’m. So like, I love how you articulate that. And I think it’s very reassuring for parents to hear an educator, you know, with your level of experience, tell them it’s not about the ABCs.

Meredith (06:21):

Yes, I really, yes. It’s not about the ABCs.

Dr. Sarah (06:25):

Not they’ll learn it. They’re not gonna not learn that, but they might miss the other. I think that social emotional piece is the bedrock of academic concepts later on.

Meredith (06:38):

Yes. And development is real. I know I, you know, of course it’s real, but I think like if we look at something like walking, everybody knows that children are gonna walk maybe at 11 months, if you’re an early Walker, 12, 13, 4, 15, maybe 16, 17 months. If you’re a late walker, everybody kind of accepts that there’s this range and that that’s developmental. That it’s gonna be unique for each kid. And nobody who doesn’t have a 10 month old who’s walking is panicking. They’re just figuring, I don’t know, they need another couple of months. And by the time children are two, no one even knows who was the early Walker and who was the late Walker. They sort of pass that developmental milestone. And then, you know, you’ve got a bunch of kids, kids who all look the same and you can’t push it.

Like if I started a school and I was like, I have a school where I’m gonna teach six month olds to walk, they would all fail. Right. And I would just have a bunch of really anxious and upset parents. And I think that’s what happens when you start to push academics too early. You’re putting a skill onto someone who developmentally is not able to really own it. And I think that’s hard because it starts to make parents feel bad. It starts to make children feel bad. When really, if you look at it as a developmental thing that happens along a continuum, you feel much less pressure. If you’re like, oh, children learn to read sometime between four and seven. Okay. That feels so much more relaxing. Then I hope they’ll read, learn to read it too so that we don’t have to worry about it later. Right. That just is like trying to teach somebody to walk.

Dr. Sarah (08:11):

Right. And I think like I work with parents in a totally different zone, right? Like they’re coming to me for, for more mental health issues and behavioral concerns. But a lot of times, a lot of my work is helping parents adjust their expectations to be more developmentally appropriate. And I think a lot of, and it’s not their fault that they have developmentally inappropriate expectations. I think it’s a product of our society. And a lot of it comes from the education system where there is this pressure for children to have this academic achievement far before they’re cognitively ready for it. But far before they’re emotionally and social emotionally ready for it. Like we need to teach regulation. We need to teach a set, like help foster a sense of safety and connectedness to others before some of these educational constructs can even begin to take hold because they require to learn your ABCs, to learn math. You need to be able to sit still. You need to be able to listen actively. You need to be able to focus for long periods of time. You need to be able to inhibit impulse. Like you like there’s, there’s a lot of emotional and social, emotional learning that has to take hold before you can get to those. Like I hate this whole kindergarten is the new first grade.

Meredith (09:34):

Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And then let me just, if I can add to regulation and the other list of skills that you just said, I would talk about symbolizing, you know, early symbolic play is important for not only for, let me, let me talk about academics in a second, but when you have a child, for example, with the transitional object that object symbolizes something for them. It symbolizes something emotional. Sometimes a transitional object helps a child go to school. If they can bring something from home and it helps them keep their parent in mind and a sense of gives them an emotional sort of core sense of comfort and what symbolizing evolves into. And when we talk about symbolic play, you know, I’m pretending this is a cup, I’m pretending that this block is a cell phone. That’s what reading eventually is, right? I mean, all of letters are a symbol.

And so you see the words S T O P and you have to understand that that symbolizes stop. That that means a word. And so the first step is understanding the idea of symbols, right. And using them on a daily basis. And that’s what children do when they’re playing in preschool. And I have to say yesterday, I was watching this little girl. She was pretending to be the mom. And, and one of the kids in her class was pretending to be her kid. And she was walking him through the steps of her going to work. She’s like, I I’m gonna go to work now. And when I tell you I’m gonna go to work, I want you to cry. Okay. And you tell me not to go. And then he sort of said, don’t go, mommy, don’t go. And she said, okay, well, you know, I need to go because I have, but I’m gonna come home and I’m gonna bring you a present when I, right. And so she acted through the entire thing that probably she herself experienced that morning when her parent went to work. And I’m like, you can’t watch this and not understand how important it is, how much she was soothing herself and making sense of her world by going through this little dramatic play sequence.

Dr. Sarah (11:24):

Yes. And that’s why I think that play-based learning, like, you know, it’s obviously super important and critical, but I think it gets cut short in a lot of academic programs because it gets booted out to make space for worksheets and handouts and getting them ready for standardized tests, which it, you know, is a whole nother thing that I could get on a soapbox about. But like, you know, we we’re, we’re we throw the baby out with the bath water a little bit. When we do that, when we, we put play at the bottom of the to-do list, because it’s just extra. Right. When in fact it’s everything,

Meredith (12:06):

I really agree. And I think that’s so undermining to what children are trying to sort of accomplish through their play. Right. They have a job to do. And I think we undermine it when we don’t let them do it.

Dr. Sarah (12:16):

Yeah. Yes. Oh, we could have a whole episode all about this. And I think I’d like to, but I also wanted to talk about like, you know, kids going to school for the first time and what that, that obviously it could be hard for kids to make that transition. It’s also really hard for parents to make that transition sometimes more so. Right. And like, you know, I think I know your answer to this, but like how do we help a kid get prepared for preschool?

Meredith (12:45):

Well,  I don’t believe in prepping, obviously definitely not prepping in terms of academics. And I, sometimes one question I get is, should I prep them by leaving them in other words, by leaving them with a nanny or by doing some kind of a drop off class. And even that, you know, if, if you’re doing that for some other reason, like the class is gonna be fun. Sure. But I don’t think that any kind of prep is necessary even for a child. Who’s just been home with a parent all the time, which I know during COVID has been true for a lot of people. I think the most important thing, if, if, if you wanna talk about giving your child a tool to get through separation successfully would be having clear and concrete routines in general, that help your child feel a sense of trust in you as an authority figure.

I can talk about what I mean by that. If you say to your child, it’s in a few minutes, we’re gonna leave the playground and then a few minutes pass and you take your child by the hand and you walk out. That’s a very simple thing, but what that helps your child know is, oh, when she says it, she means it. When she says something is gonna happen. This thing does happen when she warns me to expect something, my, the expectation occurs even for a two year old, that it can become a very internalized feeling. And I think that’s important because what’s gonna happen at school is what you’re gonna say to your child. I’m gonna sit here for a little while and then I’m gonna go, your teacher is gonna be here to take care of you, and then I’m gonna come back. Right? It’s another version of that, which is, let me help you, let me explain to you with clarity, what’s gonna happen and how this is gonna be okay. And you want your child to believe that. So if, if those kinds of small routines or limits or transitions are challenging, I would say that’s one thing you could do if you’re thinking about prep is see if you can get a handle on some of those things before school begins so that your child will feel ready emotionally.

Dr. Sarah (14:39):

Yeah. And I think that’s particularly challenging for parents who struggle with that conviction, you know, like whether it’s a drop off and they’re wavering and wavering and wavering at the door, or it’s just in the house, when they say, you know, after this, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do this now. You know, after you’re done coloring, we’re gonna go and have dinner in the kitchen. Or after this show is over, we’re gonna turn off the TV and go, you know, get ready for whatever. Yeah. and then our kid gets upset cuz they don’t wanna do that transition. And then we get anxious or we get flustered or we get mad or we, or we playcate because we waffle in the face of their distress because we’re not, their distress is uncomfortable. It’s it’s it can throw us. And so I think being able to say to ourselves in that moment, it’s okay for them to be distressed. It’s okay for them to protest. They’re not doing anything wrong by communicating to me that they don’t like this plan. And it’s still my job to hold that frame. Yes. And so I can validate their experience. Ugh. You really don’t wanna turn off the TV right now. It’s hard to stop something that feels good and I’m gonna turn the TV off and here we go. Yep. and I think that’s very similar. I would imagine with like this, the plan for drop off, right? Like it’s hard. And it happens.

Meredith (16:02):

Yeah, it happens and just as you say, narrating, their feelings is helpful. Speaking with clarity and following through is helpful. For sure. And I also think that there, it, it’s hard for parents. Yes. It’s hard to see your child in distress. I also think there can sometimes be a temptation to want your child to buy into your idea. That makes sense. You know what I’m talking about? Absolutely. And they’re so little, this is where the developmental piece comes in kids these days. I mean, I know they’re very articulate. Sometimes kids have these vocabularies, which I’m like this two year old has this big vocabulary as I have, but they are still little. They’re still not as smart as we are or experience as experienced as we are. And they don’t always understand the big picture. So even though little kids often act like they wanna be in charge and you know, we could talk about all the developmental reasons for that.

I don’t think they truly do wanna be in charge. I think they feel much better when an adult is in charge. And when we’re talking about starting school, they have no framework for understanding what school means, what all this stuff is about. When the first time we tell kids to go wash their hands all as a group, think about how foreign that feels. They’ve never washed hands with 10 other people in a bathroom with several toilets who are all little, right. It’s a very strange thing. So they feel much better and adjust much more easily when they have a sense that the adults are in charge. So I think when parents are able again through separation and even afterwards to say, you’re at school now, you know, I think school is good. Maybe you don’t wanna go today, but I know your teacher’s gonna help you and it’s gonna be okay. That feels much better to the child than saying, making them agree. Don’t you love school. What about all these times? You’ve told you like school, what about all your friends who you love at school? Sort of trying to get them to agree that school is good. I think creates a lot of pressure for them, as opposed to saying I’m your parent and I know this is gonna be okay. Yeah. I know people who are in charge of you.

Dr. Sarah (18:03):

I think that’s a really helpful distinction to give parents, right? Like, and I think you, this plays out in all other kinds of scenarios, much, like we were saying, like this idea of like being sort of the confident firm holder of the frame while being able to empathize and validate our child’s feelings and maybe even their protest about the thing while still holding the frame, it’s containing for a kid, that frame is in fact a container. And it’s very comforting and yes, I agree. A kid is going to show us and speak to us in a way that might implicate that they want the control and they want to be in charge, but that’s like existentially terrifying for a child. Yes. And it’s very anxiety provoking to feel more powerful than the person who’s here to keep me safe. Yeah. I know in my core that I’m dependent on you for survival. If you are less powerful than me, I’m pretty screwed so yes, they wanna assert their power and we can validate that wish. And we can say, I’m making this choice now and I know it’s gonna be okay.

Meredith (19:11):

Yeah. Yeah. So when you have a child who’s you’re struggling to get them out the door. They aren’t putting their shoes on. They don’t wanna school go to school that day. I think it’s much more helpful to say, well, you have to go to school. So this time I’ll put your shoes on for you next time. I hope you’ll put your shoes on yourself and out the door we go that communicates confidence. It moves through what is a difficult moment as opposed to sort of joining in that feeling. Well, why don’t you wanna go to school? Or if you don’t put your shoes on, we can’t go to school. All of that I think gives the child a lot of power that can feel scary

Dr. Sarah (19:46):

As yeah, totally. And one other thing I’ll add that I do sometimes with my kids. Cause my kids, my kids love school. They really, really do. They always have, they’ve adapted to it very well. Generally like temperamentally, both my kids are kind of they’re, they, they take their time, but they’re, they’re in the grand scheme things pretty quick to warm up to new things. But they’ll say like, I don’t wanna go to school or I don’t wanna do this. And you know a little thing that I’ll play around with them is to kind of build this concept of being able to tolerate multiple feelings at once is to say, I wonder if maybe this part of you right here and I’ll, you know, touch their shoulder and be like this part of you doesn’t wanna go to school right now and maybe this part and I’ll grab their other elbow and I’ll be like, this part really likes those blocks that you have over in the corner and this part of you and I’ll like wiggle their ear and be like, loves your teacher.

And so just try it. It’s playful. It’s light. I’m not trying to get them to say, oh, you’re right. I love my teacher or, oh, you’re right. I love the blocks. You’re right. Nevermind. Here we go to school. I’m in a great mood about it. It’s just to kind of hold space for the complexity of it. Yes. There is a part of you that doesn’t wanna go to school right now. I get that. And I know there’s lots of parts of you that like this and that, and you don’t have to be con I don’t say all these words, but like basically I’m communicating, like you don’t have to be connected to all those parts of you in this very moment, a for them to exist or B for us to still go to school right now. Like that’s the decision I’m making and here we go. And sometimes they kick and scream on the way to the car seat. They’re pissed. And that’s okay. I put my kid, my daughter’s socks and she’s on after she got buckled in today, cuz she wasn’t gonna do it. And that was not a fight I wanted to deal with. So, or a hill I wanted to die on. So I was like, all right, don’t wear your socks and shoes. I will put them on once you’re buckled in and I can physically do that.

Meredith (21:37):

Yeah. And a lot of times, by the time they’re buckled in, then they’re ready for it. Right. It’s like the worst part is over.

Dr. Sarah (21:42):

Yes. Oh my gosh. She put her socks on herself. Literally. She’s like, well I wanna do it. I was like, fantastic. Here you go. And I was like, that’s that felt like a win to me. But like, you know, it was still a big scramble in the morning and it was stressful. But we went to school. We always still go to school.

Meredith (22:03):

Can we talk, can I segue for a second into what kids say about school when they come home at the end of the day.

Dr. Sarah (22:08):

Oh my gosh. Yes.

Meredith (22:10):

Only cuz I think it’s related. Which is a lot of times, I mean, I, whatever this is true for me too, you know, you come home and you just talk about the worst parts of your day, right? Like cuz you have to get them out. Like all the annoying things that happen to you, you tell to whoever is home with you. And I think sometimes when children come home with negative stories, that can feel really hard for a parent. And especially if you’ve dropped a child off who hasn’t been happy to be at school. Oh boy. Then it’s like even worse to hear that someone didn’t play with them or they didn’t get a turn with something or right. And I think there that, even though that’s something that happens at the end of the day, I think there’s a connection between that and how your child feels coming into school.

Because if you can hear those things as sort of an empathetic listener, but who doesn’t like freak out or dive too much into a story, which may have only shades of truth in it, cuz children are sort of not great reporters. I think that really helps because what you’re saying to your child is that every day has an ups and downs it’s okay. Right. Oh no. You didn’t get a turn with that. I’m really sorry to hear that. Well, I hope you know, tomorrow that you, you will get a turn. What else do you wanna tell me? Right. What that tells them is sure. Your school day is gonna have disappointments in it and that’s okay. And now pro usually once they get all the bad stuff off their chest, then they’re ready to tell you all the good things that happened. And so I think being able to hear those things helps you and helps your child so that when you’re dropping off, you’re not saying I’m dropping you off because everything that happens to you in the next three hours is gonna be perfect and amazing and excellent. Right. I’m dropping you off because school’s good. And of course, you know, you’ll have your up, right? Yeah. I think it’s all part of a whole package.

Dr. Sarah (23:53):

I agree. I think that’s a really good point. And I, that also made me think of like a question that I hear all the time and the in, when we’re talking about relationships with our kids and communication is, you know, when kids don’t wanna talk about school at the end of the day, when you get home and you’re like, how is school? And they’re like, Hmm. Or mom, I don’t wanna talk about it. Or it was fine. Or I don’t remember like what are ways that we can engage our kids in conversations about school? You know, that, that open it up a bit more.

Meredith (24:25):

I think some of it depends on the age. I have to say that for two year olds, especially like our two year olds come half a day in the morning. And if you’re the, a parent and you pick up after that half day, then I think they probably will have stories to tell. But if you, for example, have a caregiver pick up and you see your child that evening. Honestly, what happened to them that morning may feel very distant, especially since so many things have intervened. So I think I wouldn’t build up too much reporting about that given day. Sometimes they might remember, you know, you can connect it if, if your teeth, if the, if you know that Wednesday’s cooking day and your child’s school, then that might be a place to start cuz that will kind of jog their memory.

But otherwise I don’t feel like you can have put too much pressure. Yeah. older children who don’t like to talk about school four year olds and five year olds, I have found a lot of success asking them to tell you the worst thing that happened to them that day. Honestly, what’s the worst thing that happened to you today? Did you, was, did anything upset you today? Because a lot of times that’s what they wanna say and that will get them started. Oh yeah, because this happened and that happened and then suddenly you’ll get the stories from the day it’s like a cork you take the cork out and the rest of the stuff comes too.

Dr. Sarah (25:36):

Which I think is helpful to remember your first set of skills around that too, which is to not then just dive in and be like, oh gosh, that can’t believe that happened. This is horrible. But to be like, to empathize, to say, oh, that sounds tough. And what else then what? Yeah. Then what?

Meredith (25:54):

And sometimes the older children will, will understand. What’s funny about having, had you ask what the worst thing is that day, you know, and the worst thing will, you know, they’ll be like, the worst thing is the lunch you packed me. Huh. And then, and then that, but it…

Dr. Sarah (26:07):

Yeah. And it’s a little, it’s a little it kind of throws them off their game a little bit. Cuz they’re expecting you to be like, what was the best thing or what happened? Or I wanna hear the good stories and then they, you are, you go, you go in with that negative spot and they’re like, what? Like right. Yeah. Oh, I wasn’t expecting you to say that. And then that it you’ve, you’ve captured their attention a little bit. Yes. You’ve engaged them. I often will like do very specific questions too, like versus like how was school? That’s really big. That’s a big question. It’s hard to answer a big question. Like I like to drop anchors a little bit, like at least with my old, my son’s four and a half. And I’ll be like, can you think of anything that like made you laugh. Or you know, did you, did anyone share something with you at school today? Or did you play a game that was fun or just being a little bit more specific and concrete or sometimes more open ended? Like you know what it was there? Anything that like made, yeah.

Meredith (27:07):

Anything new? That’s a good one. Anything new today that you haven’t seen before?

Dr. Sarah (27:12):

Yes. So, and I also sometimes just recognizing that kids don’t wanna talk the second they get home. Like sometimes they need a minute like if I come home from a long day of work and my husband is like, tell me everything about work today. I’m like, I need a minute. Like I just wanna like sit and like breathe and play and do something else. And so sometimes checking in later in the night, like in bath time? Yeah. Or when you’re reading a book. Yeah. That can be a time when kids have more bandwidth to open up and they’re feeling connected to and wanna talk versus a time when they’re like, I just wanna like do my thing right now and I don’t wanna go back to the school. I just left in my mind.

Meredith (27:54):

Yeah. Yeah. And some kids like having a real separation between home and school, you know, they feel like there’s something about their school self that’s like special that they like to keep over here and have their home self somewhere else. Yeah. I definitely have seen kids like that too.

Dr. Sarah (28:07):

Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense. And like now I know that we’re, we’re talking about like dropping off and supporting kids and I think we’re talking about, you know, every kid, you know, every kid struggles with this stuff, sometimes it’s not like only some kids struggle with wanting to go to school. But I do think some kids have much more pronounced difficulty separating from parents and other kids even in just completely normative populations. Like not kids with like major anxiety disorders or trauma history, but just kids who have more separation anxiety, which separation anxiety is developmentally normative

Meredith (28:49):


Dr. Sarah (28:50):

And so yeah, like if you have, if you’re dealing, what do you, how do you support parents who have kids who, who really, really it’s it’s tough. It’s really tough to separate.

Meredith (29:00):

Yeah. we have done a bunch of different things. I mean, I think it always has to be individualized. I have to say because obviously, right. Like no kids’ temperament is the same. No parents sort of bandwidth is the same, but a few of the things we’ve tried is doing many separations. We definitely do that where a parent goes away and comes back in a much shorter amount of time, you know, just gets a cup of coffee and comes back to sort of practice that feeling, which can sometimes it’s, you know, it’s like an exercise then you’re exercising a muscle and they parent goes for 15 minutes, 30 minutes. So it goes sometimes that really helps. Having very concrete routines for separation has helped a lot of kids. I remember a child who did the exact same puzzle with their parent every day at drop off, not a puzzle, that puzzle because there was something about moving through that activity together that gave him kind of the time he needed to deal with the fact that he knew his was his father was gonna go.

So that’s something that has been useful. I think making sure that a child who feels, who has separation anxiety has one teacher that they feel very connected with and taking off, I think for a child for whom separation is work, I think we have to take the rest of the burdens off of them, the burdens to socialize even the burden to play at the beginning. I can remember one little boy who, the way we handled this separation is I had two little chairs set up sort of to the side of the room where there was no action going on. And he and I would sit there. His parents would say goodbye to him there at these two little chairs where there was nothing to do. And I would say, and then we’ll wait. And when you’re ready to play, then you’ll get up. Because what his parents initially wanted him to do was to like set him up at the Playto table or set him up at the easel, doing something before they would go. But he couldn’t do anything while he was thinking about them going.

Dr. Sarah (30:53):


Meredith (30:53):

So it was just much easier for him to sit just next to an adult calmly, have them go wait. And it used to be sometimes five minutes. He would sort of look around the room and assess what was going and then get up. And that period of time then was shorter and shorter until he would just sort of bounce into the seat next to me and then bounce back up and go play. But he needed to have some of the expectations taken off of him so that he could just cope with separation. So those are just a few stories.

Dr. Sarah (31:18):

I think that is profound. This idea that like when separation anxiety is really pressing that we have to give child space to cope with just that one thing first and not have to then also contend with, you know, engagement or solving problems or any, anything, or even having fun. Right. And it’s really owning and permitting their distress. Which goes back to this idea that when we validate and name a kid’s feelings and still keep a frame around it, like he’s still at, at school, we’re not saying, oh, you can’t handle this. We’re gonna take you home and try again tomorrow. But to say it’s okay for you to be distressed. It’s okay for you to sit here as long as you need. We’re not putting any pressure on you. And I think that that’s really powerful for the child. Yeah. And also helpful for the parents to know like it’s okay. If he sits in that chair and cries for an hour it would be okay.

Meredith (32:15):

Yeah. And I have to say this little boy I’m talking about didn’t even cry. The two chairs became so symbolic for him because it was like, oh, I’m gonna sit there am mayor’s gonna sit next to me. Like it was like, the plan was in place and I think it was symbolic to the parent like, oh, we’re gonna leave him here. But a grownup is gonna be sitting there. There’s their two little chairs that, that like picked pu put a lot of relief onto the whole situation. I think for that particular

Dr. Sarah (32:40):

Family, which really illustrates the profound, you know, importance of having a child-led approach. And just attunement like this, I, this feels so logical to me, the way you’re describing handling separation anxiety. I know that, you know, a lot of schools probably do similar things. Not all schools do this. Like I’m, I’m also mindful of the fact that not, not all teachers know how to do this. And a lot of times at drop off, you might see a teacher being like, don’t cry, everything’s fine. Let’s go play and just distract and move them outta that feeling really quickly. And I’m curious, like as a educator in this world, who’s trained teachers, like where can teachers get, how do we, as parents find the schools that follow this particular model and have these particular values.

Meredith (33:38):

Yeah. Well of course, obviously that can be one of the questions that you ask. And I think hearing to, I mean, a word I would listen for would be individualized because I think there are kids who are ready to separate on day one is just not that big a deal. They walk in and they say bye to their parents. Right. And those parents should not be made to go through a long process, which might you see what I’m saying? So I think when you hear that a school says our separation process is individualized, that I would open my ears and listen for more, because then you can feel comfortable that if your child is somebody who has it easy, you’re gonna go. And if your child has it hard, there’s gonna be people who aren’t prepared to help you. So for sure, I think that’s one thing. And then I also think any school that talks about valuing social and emotional development is gonna think about separation first. I, I really do. So I think if the conversation is all about academics, then to me, that raises a red flag.

Dr. Sarah (34:40):

Yeah. And I think that goes back to what we were talking about the beginning of this episode, this idea that, you know, I think as parents, sometimes we’re not that educated about what schools should be looking like, looking like, right. I would not be surprised if I interviewed a hundred parents of, you know, almost preschoolers and said, what’s the most important thing about preschool. And I think a lot of them would say to learn the things that they need to know for kindergarten. And I think in that their language they’re picturing academics. Yeah. Cause there’s so much pressure in our society to be ahead of the game on academics, to give your kid a jumpstart and to be, you know, enriching everything from an academic lens versus enriching things I believe in enrichment. But my definition of enrichment’s maybe a bit, a bit different, it’s more play based. But like, I, I don’t know. Like I think, I don’t know, this is a little bit like more philosophical, but like I’m curious your thoughts on like the whole academics obsession that we have as a society, how that makes parents kind of ill equipped to, to be educated consumers of preschools because they’re looking for the wrong stuff.

Meredith (35:59):

Yeah. Well I think also because these things, and let me talk about social skills too. Cause I know a lot of parents will say, the reason they’re going to preschool is so that their kid can gain social skills. But this stuff we’re talking about comes before that too, you can’t get social skills. If you can’t feel comfortable at school and feel confident and feel okay that your parents have gone, right. That comes even before socializing and way before academics, that if you can start to think of these things as important in and of themselves and foundational to later school success, as opposed to thinking of them as kind of throwaways, you know, it’s like, again, I was talking about walking before. It’s like things like tummy time and crawling. We understand now most of us that those things build muscles, which are important for other stuff.

You know, that when you’re, when you’re three month old is picking their head up and pressing like this, this is important for them later in life. You don’t think to yourself, oh, now they’re walking. Right. You just think these are the steps they go through. Yeah. And I feel like for preschool things like separating following routines, learning how to solve problems, using how to communicate with other people, all these are foundational to academic success. So it’s not like I’m poo, pooing, reading and writing. I’m just thinking, let’s make sure they’re prepared for it with these things, which aren’t themselves on the surface academic, but which are foundational.

Dr. Sarah (37:20):

Yes. Yes. I think that’s so important. And I think going back to like, you wanna talk a core foundational, like, what is it the most, what is it at, in its most essential form, the building block from which everything else gets built upon is safety. It’s security. And like, you know, we’ve talked a couple times about the importance of helping your child like connect to the teacher and when the separation is happening or when there’s, you know, resistance to be able to help them find the safety in the teacher. I think really this, I mean, this podcast is called securely attached. Like it’s all about that attachment. And you know, basically your teacher is for all intense and purposes a surrogate secure base, a surrogate attachment figure. And so can we talk a little bit more about that? Cuz I think that’s, I wanna go a little bit. I think I wanna emphasize that really for parents, like how do they support a child developing a secure attachment to the teacher? Who’s going to be their, their surrogate secure base so that they can do all the other stuff we want them to be able to do at school.

Meredith (38:30):

Yeah. so let me, can I tell a story?

Dr. Sarah (38:33):

Yeah. Love stories.

Meredith (38:34):

So we had a three year old come. This was many years ago, come to school, midyear having left another school after a bad experience. So he was already feeling all, I think a little worried about school and probably so were his parents. And he came running into the classroom and found this basket of Dulo, you know, those big Lego and looked around to make sure that people saw this and dumped it out on the rug. Kind of like, what are you gonna do now? Right. So one of his teachers at the time came over and said, I’m gonna help you pick these up here. You just do a couple and I’m gonna do the rest with you. And at first he didn’t want to, we wanted to go do something else. No, no we’re gonna finish. We’ll clean this up. I’m helping you.

And we’ll put these in and then you’ll go on do something else. So he only did put like three away and the teacher put the rest away, but they did it together. Put the basket away, moved on the next day, rushing into the classroom, straight to the same basket of Dulo look around, dumped the basket. Same teacher back again. Oh this happened yesterday, but look, I’m gonna help you again. Let’s do this together, put these things away. Right. And then we’ll go on to do something else. This is a tiny story. And maybe a boring story. Maybe it’s more vivid when you remember it. Like I do, but it was so important to him, for him to do something bad. I’m putting bad and quotes. If I, this is just audio, do something bad and see what was gonna happen to him in this new environment.

And once he saw what happened, which was something very predictable, right? He had to clean it up. Nobody, you know, let him get away with it. But predictable, calm, consistent, supportive, helpful a teacher nearby to help him do it right. Then he had to do the same thing again. Okay. Get the same reaction. And this was like fundamental to him feeling comfortable at school. So when we talk about becoming securely attached to a teacher, I think a big piece of it is having teachers who set predictable limits, who can remain calm in the face of difficult behaviors. Because by this point, all of us have seen it. All right. It’s hard to shock a preschool teacher. But to show the child that even though sometimes they have these huge feelings, which feel uncomfortable, they have behaviors which are bad. They miss their parents, that the teachers are sort of this calm, predictable, consistent base that is there for them to help them contain. You talked about a frame to help be that frame while they’re at school, I think is the most important thing. And some kids will just test that they will test.

Dr. Sarah (41:06):

Yes. And that’s, it’s so funny cuz like I, I think everything you just described is the same for parents, right? Like women we’re talking about how can parents help their children feel securely attached to us. It’s doing those exact same things. It’s having these warm, confident, consistent responses to things, not having these hugely wildly big emotional, unpredictable reactions, but also seeing it requires us in order to do that is to see that behavior, that quote bad behavior, not as, as you know, negative attention seeking or limit testing or acting out behaviors. I often describe them as connection seeking behaviors or most importantly safety seeking behaviors. Like I think a kid dumping out a bucket of Dulo checking out first to see that everyone’s watching, dumping them out and looking for the response that has nothing to do with Dulo. Yeah. Right. Has everything to do with how safe am I?

Who’s going to react to this and how are they gonna react? And I’m gonna do it over and over and over again. And I might even do it in other ways to test for any cracks in the foundation of this safety, because I have to know, I have to go right up to the edge because I need to know that I’m safe. And so I think reframing, you know, limit testing behaviors as safety testing behaviors gives us so much more empathy and so much more patience and, and understands that like, we are gonna have to revisit this over and over and over again until this little person feels safe. And that’s my job.

Meredith (42:52):

Yeah. And I think another piece which is related to that is the balance of structure and freedom, which is something that we work hard to do right here at school. And I think is, can be tricky for parents to do at home, but which I really encourage people to think about because children do need choices, but they don’t need, I think quite as many choices as sometimes parents might feel tempted to give them. Yeah. So for example, here at school, children are choosing where to play in the classroom dramatic play or Playto they’re choosing which child they might wanna play with. Or if they wanna play alone, these are all child size choices and those are enough. So there are a lot of things that are not up to children. So for example, when it’s clean up time, it’s clean up time. The adults say it’s time to clean up.

Right. And everybody has to do it. That part is not, I hate it when people say it’s not a choice, but it’s not a choice. And I think that structure that goes around that freedom is very important. It’s hard to enjoy your freedom if you’re always looking around trying to figure out what the structures are that are gonna keep you safe. Yeah. So we do have at school, a very predictable school schedule, very predictable rules, predictable responses to different behaviors predictable answers. And I think having those encouraging parents have those same kinds of things at home can, it is supportive of the school experience overall, I think because it helps children feel like they can grow and develop and become a big kid and a school kid while still having this framework of safety around them, of adults being in charge.

Dr. Sarah (44:20):

Yes. And I think it’s, you know, it’s interesting cuz I, this makes me think of the fact that a lot of times parents will come to me and they’ll be like, my kid is an angel at school and the minute they get home, they’re just outta control. They’re totally melting down. They’re pushing every single boundary. They’re just being so difficult. And I don’t know what to do, like why and one, I always reassure parents that like, that’s the order. We like to see things, right. We want kids to be a little bit more held together at school cuz they, they understand that there’s a difference and it’s a different setting and it’s not the, these aren’t obviously we want our kids to feel like their teachers are their secure bases. And I also think that’s why as you get more progressively through the school year, kids do tend to be a little bit more.

They’ll give their teachers a little bit more of a hard time because they’re building that sense of safety with them. But our kids feel so safe with us. So they save their, their mess for us. They save their ugliest messiest, most dysregulated selves for us because we’re that safe. I can be a hot mess with you and I know that you’re not gonna go anywhere. And so one, I think it’s very reassuring for parents who just know like this is kind of a healthy response, but two, you know, it also, we wanna help minimize that. Like we don’t wanna just last forever. We just wanna like be like, okay, this makes sense. And now what can I do about it? And one of the things I often tell parents is talk to your teachers, find out what they’re responding to your child, how they’re responding to your child or what consequences or, or like natural logical consequences are happening when they do a behavior like that at school, chances are. It might not even, it may not be showing up at school or might be showing up in very small ways at school and the teachers helping the child to move out, you know, to get out of that, that uncomfortable dysregulated space more quickly. And so I think teachers are a great resource, like find out what language teachers are using to set certain limits, find out how teachers are responding to certain behaviors cause then you can share the language and it becomes familiar. The child hears it. The teachers say it, he can hear mom and dad say it too. And it can help him to feel like, oh, I that’s cues my beha. I know what, how to respond when someone says that to me.

Meredith (46:41):

Agreed. I agree. All of the above.

Dr. Sarah (46:45):

So, you know, weird. You talked about transitional objects before which if anyone hasn’t, isn’t familiar with that, with that term, like a transitional object can be anything that like symbolizes a connection with the parent or with comfort, like a lovey or a stuffed animal or a blanky or maybe something that you can make with your parents to bring to school, to like symbolize something, to re just to help bridge that, that connection bridge, that gap of separation. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Meredith (47:17):

Sure. I think some children have a separation, have a transitional object, just naturally there’s children who have a certain stuffed animal or blanket that they bring everywhere. And we definitely support children bringing those to, to school. Some children, I remember we we’ve actually had several children who do what I like to call, pack a bag, which is they have some little purse or something and they, before they leave the house, they throw a couple things in it and bring that to school. I think just the idea of picking a few things. Some for some children is really meaningful. But we’ve also, we have family photos in the classroom. So every child has photos. They can look at of their parents and for children who seem to really like to carry those around, we turn them into a necklace. We just make a little laminated photo and put it on a piece of yarn around their neck so that they can still use their hands, but have a family photo nearby. So there’s a lot of different ways to look at a transitional object. But I think it’s just a concrete way of reminding you that you still have home, even when you’re at school.

Dr. Sarah (48:17):

Yeah. And like books can be like that. Can you make books and stuff like that too?

Meredith (48:22):

Yeah. So we make a lot of homemade books for children to at school to deal with a whole range of issues, new baby, moving, something sad that happens, a pet dies. So these are all things that we make to help children sort of understand their experience through the medium of a book. And I recommend it to anybody there actually is a book that’s called, I believe, Homemade Books to Help Kids Cope. I might be getting that wrong, but there is a, a 25, 30 year old book for parents. If anyone wants to check that out. And the book that I am, the author of which is called, Sometimes You Get What You Want came from an actual homemade book that we made in the classroom for a child who when he didn’t get what he wanted felt very much like he was flying to pieces. It was not just the usual, like I’m mad, I’m upset or I have a temper tantrum. I think he was super, super stressed at things, not going his way. And so we made him a little book that, you know, sometimes you get to sit next to who you wanna sit next to. And sometimes you don’t this kind of thing. It was very rhythmic. And then it got published. So yeah.

Dr. Sarah (49:31):

That’s amazing. We’ll link to that in the show notes, because I think there’s a lot of parents who probably struggle with that exact experience with their kids when they get really frustrated when they don’t get what they want. I think it’s, like you said, it’s, that’s a pretty developmentally normative thing. And then for some kids it can be extra, extra, extra.

Meredith (49:50):

Yeah. It can feel really like it’s like your core is disturbed. And that is a feeling we never want children to have.

Dr. Sarah (49:57):

Right. Yeah. And it’s interesting cuz like I’ve actually had a couple patients that I’ve worked with where I’ve said like write this down, make a story about it. Cuz I think telling the story, kids, kids stories are very relatable to kids and it also helps it feel a little removed. So it’s, you know, it’s creates a little bit of space, but it also helps them have this concrete thing that they can go back to. And you know, how kids like to read the same book over and over and over and over and over. And I think having a book that, that tells their story like I have a patient who their daughter is having a really hard time adjusting to a new sibling, like a very hard time adjusting to this new sibling and we were talking and it became clear that one of the things that had happened when the brother was born was mom, I can’t, I think someone, I can’t remember if it was the daughter or the someone got sick and they had to separate, they had to like do a quarantine cuz of COVID or something.

 and so even though they had prepared the girl for mom going to the hospital to have the new baby and then she’ll be home, she didn’t come home right away. And there was a longer separation than was anticipated. And this was not something that they came up, they came out, coming to me right away with, it was something that we like hadn’t thought of as a possible issue until we, it just came out. We’re like, oh, maybe this is part of why she’s having such a hard time with the new sibling. And I think there ended about being two separations due to quarantine, like things like kind of in rapid fire after the, the brother was born. And so I said to them, I said like, let’s, let’s help her write this story. Like help her make a story about this, tell the story of, of the brother being born and her, but the, really the story of her becoming a big sister and include in that story, the separations so that we can revisit it and revisit it and revisit it and process it and process it and process until it becomes less just existing inside of her body is this like stress. And more, it exists outside of me as this coherent narrative. Yeah. That I can go back to and make sense of.

Meredith (52:17):

And I think coherent is the operative word too, because I think a lot of times when children are coping with something like this and they bring it up a lot, different adults have different words for handling it. Even if the message is the same, you know, it’s like you hear different and putting it in book means everybody is using the same words. It’s like the adults can agree ahead of time. You know, here’s how we want this story to be remembered or here’s how we wanna explain it and put it in. And then a child can hear that same message happening over and over again.

Dr. Sarah (52:45):

Yes. And it helps concretize it, it helps it become this tangible thing. Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting. Cause I think the roots of there’s a lot, I mean, I have a background in doing trauma therapy and there’s, you know, a big part of trauma work is creating the trauma narrative. And literally there are part, there are treatments that literally have people who’ve gone through like horrific traumas when they’re ready, write the story, literally write it or say it repeatedly in therapy as a way of creating this coherent narrative because we store traumatic events kind of in this, our brains do these weird things where like we store them in this really scattered way. It’s not like, you know, usually when you and I have a memory, we can kind of play it back in our head head, like we’re watching a movie. And when scary things happen to us, when, when memories are stored, when we are in a state of fight or flight or distress, and that doesn’t, that could be like capital T trauma.

We could also be just distress in, you know, if we’re, if you’re a child and you’re dysregulated and you’re remembering something you’re or in you’re encoding a memory, you are storing that in the sort of fragmented way. And so creating the narrative, telling the story, making it, pulling it out of those fragments and putting all those fragments together in a really coherent narrative is part of consolidating those memories, making them feel less scary, making them feel less experiential so that we’re not reliving them all the time. They’re out of our body, they’re in our they’re outside of us. And that’s really like how we do a lot of trauma work. Mm-Hmm

Meredith (54:10):

There was this little boy, the other day in the threes who was having a hard day. And he said, told me, he said he missed his family. And I asked him, I can’t remember what I asked him about that, but it turned out his brother was home with pink eye. He said something like he has boogies in his eyes. And I was like, oh, I see this. Okay. I got it. And so I just drew a picture of his brother. I mean, just a, I’m not good at drawing with, with his eyes, you know, with go in his eyes. And it was, and he felt you could see his whole body relax, cuz it was like, he’d gotten it out, whatever he was worried about. And he just put the picture in his cubby and then that able, enabled him to move on. And I wouldn’t, I mean, obviously it’s not traumatic to have a brother with pink eye, but it was, he was stuck in it. He was stuck yes. In some way. And so it was hard for him to have a good day and, and once we got it out, then he…

Dr. Sarah (54:56):

Yes. And I think that just because they’re strategies that we use with trauma doesn’t mean that they aren’t very, you know, you could pull those strategies out and you use them in like very non traumatic situations very day to day, but they help kids move out of a stuck thing. Yes. I think that’s a really helpful reminder for parents like this. Isn’t just exclusive to trauma. It’s it’s you can use it to move kids through the day. Yeah. Or move kids out of a tough, a tough sticky moment.

Meredith (55:25):

Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Sarah (55:27):

Oh, this has been so wonderful talking with you and it, thank you. Definitely think people should check out the books. Sometimes you get what you want and I’ll, I’ll link to it in the show notes too. But and yeah, and I think obviously little or Downtown Little School sounds like an awesome, awesome place. If I was still in Manhattan, it’d certainly be a place I’d wanna know about. But I, this is a delight talking to you.

Meredith (55:50):

Thank you so much, Sarah. It’s been such a pleasure.

Dr. Sarah (55:58):

I hope this episode helped give you some comfort and confidence if your child is about to start preschool. And honestly, many of these strategies like building feelings of safety and security work with older kiddos too. And as you just heard Meredith and me talk about one of the best ways we can prepare is through work we do not with our child, but with ourselves. A simple first step parents can take to help their children’s strength, strength and their emotion, regulation, abilities, and work through their big feelings is learning how to manage our own regulation. And that’s why my workshop, Be The Calm in Your Child’s Storm: How to keep your cool when your child loses theirs, is all about you.
I’ll teach you simple but powerful steps to change the way your brain and body interpret your child’s dysregulation. And I’ll arm you with the tools you need to stay cool in the heat of the moment. So you’re able to help them calm down too. Head to drsarahbren.com and click the workshops tab to get instant access to the recording of my 90 minute workshop that will teach you the same therapeutic interventions I use with my patients to help them quiet their fight or flight response. That’s drsarahbren.com. Thanks for listening. And don’t be a stranger.

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65. Helping preschool parents prepare for drop-off, separation anxiety, and the development of social skills with Meredith Gary