It was the first day of preschool and 2-year-old Jessica didn't know any of other children in her new class at B'nai Tikvah Congregation Nursery School. But the child's anxiety paled in comparison that of her mother.
"I worried that Jessica would get her feelings hurt or that she would physically get hurt and I would not be there to comfort her," said Sherri Cadmus. "I am used to protecting her. Now I need to give up some of that control and hope that she will be comfortable enough with her teachers to be comforted by them."
As many preschool teachers know all too well, school separation anxiety is often harder for parents than children. Adjustments to preschool are always difficult, and for children -- and parents -- in Jewish days schools, the interruptions of the holiday often make it harder.
"Sometimes parents worry that they are abandoning their child even though intellectually they know the children needs to be in an environment with [his or her] peers," said veteran preschool director Marla Osband of B'nai Tikvah in Westchester.
To ease the transition easier, Osband encourages parents to visit the school with their child before the child's first official day. When the child starts, Osband's "open-door policy" allows parents to either drop by or call in as often as needed. The staff often helps children write letters to their parents to bring home. Teachers take pictures to show that the child had a successful day. Parents can also leave a "transitional object," like an article of the parent's clothing or a picture, to remind the child that the parent will return.
According to Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, parent educator and school consultant, the length of a child's distress holds important information.
"The key question for the parents to ask is how many minutes does it take the child to recover after the huge show of anguish and agony when parent leaves," Mogel said. "That's always the key indicator for me."
If the child cries for just a few minutes and is soon able to calm down and play or socialize, he or she is probably OK. However, if they child dreads going to school and constantly complains of headaches and stomachaches, he or she might be too young.
Mogel advises parents to be cautious about projecting their own fears.
"Children are wonderful at reading cues and playing a part at full theatrical flourish," warned the therapist.
Since children tend to be more emotional with their mothers, sometimes having the father take the child to school can make for an easier experience.
At some Jewish preschools like Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Early Childhood Program in Encino, life without mom and dad is introduced at age 2 in the toddler-transition program. Since most VBS preschoolers come from this program, which is specifically geared toward separation, starting preschool is usually an easier adjustment.
VBS transition classes are offered two days a week, adding a third day in the middle of the school year. Parents attend the class for a portion of the day with the child and leave together as a group at a certain point. Parents often stay on site to monitor their children's progress until they feel comfortable departing for a brief period of time -- leaving a cell phone number, of course.
"Some children separate easily and some need a longer time," said Michelle Warner, who runs the VBS toddler transition program. "The same goes for the parents."
The school brings in speakers who discuss parenting issues while the parents congregate in another room on site.
According to Mogel "interviewing a child for pain" is a common mistake parents make when a child starts preschool.
"The child comes home at end of day and the parent says, 'How was it this morning -- a little better than yesterday?'" Mogel explained. "If you want to talk, tell them about your day. Be quiet and then they'll tell you about their day."
By Jessica's third day at B'nai Tikvah, she no longer needed her mother to stay with her in the morning. While there were a few small setbacks and meltdowns -- particularly with the interruption of the holidays -- Jessica is now a well-adjusted preschool -- a concept that Cadmus is still getting used to.
"On the first day she stayed alone in the class I gave her a sticker for being so brave," Cadmus said. "Now when she wakes up, she says 'Sticker, no mommy day' and sometimes 'Sticker, no daddy day.' This makes us think of all the experiences she will be having on her own that we will only learn about secondhand."