This book list is not just for kids that don’t want to go back to school, but for children who really struggle with it. As a first-grader, I flat out refused to go. My poor mother was at a loss. I was sure that nothing anyone did would get me back into that classroom. A wonderful, caring teacher did the trick, and she is why I became a teacher. School anxiety is real and so many children struggle with it. From first-hand experience both as that child, as a parent of one child who struggled with it as well, and a teacher who has to hold that crying child the answer is not to ignore it. Yes, it’s common, but it deserves attention. One place where you can explore that with your children is snuggled up safe and cozy with a book.
If you teach – take note of these books for your parents looking for ways to help their children. Remind them that separation anxiety can occur for many reasons. It’s developmentally appropriate for preschoolers to struggle with it from time to time. I find the most common times are after long school breaks, after a child has missed class because of illness, and if anything new or big is going on at home including visitors, new siblings, any disruption.
Children will often get over school anxiety once they feel connected to their teachers, and feel safe. Take extra time with these children to connect. The best way I have found for parents and teachers to deal with drop off is to set a clear, predictable quick routine and be kind but firm. “Goodbye, I love you. I’ll be back at pick up.”
Whatever you do never shame an anxious child. Recognize their feelings “I know you are sad. Mom will be back at pick up. Do you want to try the playdough or read a story with me?”
A lot of teachers worry that children who aren’t anxious will become anxious with a crying child in the room, and research doesn’t support that belief. It can be unsettling, but it can also be an opportunity to create empathy and learn about feelings. Having other students offer help, invite the upset child to play and comfort their friend builds your classroom community.
There is no reason to separate a child who is sad unless it’s to provide them comfort, perhaps to read a quiet story but school anxiety is not contagious. Ignoring the crying child while sometimes effective for stopping the crying it’s a short term solution, no ignored child will feel comfortable and cared for. You don’t have to stop everything in your classroom, but it is important to recognize the child’s feelings as valid.
Here are the books I have found useful as a preschool teacher as well as a parent.
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I Don’t Want to Go To School! by Stephanie, Blake is a funny little book that deals with the big issue of not wanting to go to school. The little bunny Simon in this book doesn’t want to go even though his parents are supportive and try to make him feel confident about going. I loved that when he got to school the first thing he did was cry, and the author was so matter of fact about it. That lets kids know that there is no shame in expressing emotion and even after they cry things will probably get better, it did for Simon. My son loved that all Simon ever said was “No way!” and quickly took over every one of Simon’s lines. It was a big hit, got lots of giggles and had a great message.
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg has a special spot in my heart. It’s a book about not wanting to go to a new school; the first day is always the hardest, and it’s easier just to stay in bed! The beauty of this book isn’t just the recognition of anxiety about the first day. In the end, the twist is that it’s the teacher who has the jitters, not a student. I love this book and the power it has to help anxious kids. I have read it more than once to a jittery child and have seen how it can help first hand.
Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes by James Dean is a special school book for our family. At my son’s kindergarten orientation, the teacher read this to her class and the prospective students, and it’s been a favorite ever since. The book follows Pete who is a cool cat with rockin’ shoes. He heads to school, and while he isn’t exactly sure of how things work he doesn’t worry, he just goes with the flow. There is no way you will be able to read this book without smiling; it’s so chill and relaxed and plain fun. Both my kids love it, and I love the repetitive questions about Pete and his reactions to new situations and answer each one every time we read it. This is great for kids who are just a little worried about a new situation but not for the seriously anxious child.
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes, This book is about a little mouse who is about as anxious as possible. She worries about everything, and it makes her family worried too. This is a fantastic book to read before starting anything new! I read it for the children’s time at my church right before school started in the fall. It was a great opener for a talk about anxiety. We all have worries, such as school anxiety. Even though we may not worry as often or as fiercely as Wemberly, this book makes it seem okay and normal to feel those feelings. The way the author illustrates both through words and pictures the intensity of her feelings really creates compassion in the reader for this little mouse. And that ability to understand what another is feeling is something that I desperately want to instill in my son.
The Kissing Hand by Audry Penn is an absolute favorite for school anxiety. Chester is a raccoon who like most of us doesn’t like change. In his case, it’s starting school. He wants to stay home with his mama and play with the friends he already has instead of going to school away from her and his friends. So his mama explains to him the magic of the kissing hand. The real magic is the message that we have to do things that scare us sometimes but that the love of our family is always with us to help us through. Get this book.
My Somebody Special by Sarah Weeks is a sweet and simple book about that feeling when everyone else has been picked up from school or daycare except you. The illustrations accurately depict a preschool, and I relate very well to and know many children will as well. Of course, the last parent comes running in, and all is well, and a good reminder to children that sometimes parents are late but they will be there as soon as they can.
Mama Always Comes Home by Karma Wilson was a last-minute grab at the library that I am so thankful I saw. It starts off with animal mothers leaving their babies, for all different reasons. A bird gathering food, a dog greeting his master and more. The animal mothers leave, but they also always return to their babies. Then it switches to a child and mother. She reassures the child that she will be back, and we watch her leave and return.
I loved this book because my son isn’t the best when I leave him. He related to this book immediately and was repeating “Mama always comes home!” halfway through. Though not specifically about school anxiety, it is a great tool.
*I originally reviewed this in 2009 and have since read it many times to my daughter. Sometimes she needed its gentle reminders that I would always return.
Jake Starts School by Micheal Wright is such a great book that has just the right amount of sarcasm for the adults reading it. Plus a great message about school anxiety and humor for the kids too. Jake is a little scared about his first day at school. He decides to hold on to his parents and not let go. The day wears on, and his parents’ patience is wearing thin as they do everything stuck together including recess. But a great teacher finally gets Jake to connect with a book and become her helper. Finally, he lets go of his poor aching parents.
I really enjoy this author/illustrator because I relate so well to his characters. Jake who is anxious and his parents that love him and will support him. ( But aren’t necessarily thrilled to be sitting at his desk in his kindergarten class.) I thought it was touching and my son thought it was funny, so it was a win-win for us.
What tips do you have for separation and school anxiety?