Mental Health Mondays: Saying Goodbye at the End of the School Year

By Jennifer Reid |
June 08, 2020 |
Children's Mental Health

Mental Health Mondays:
Saying Goodbye at the End of the School Year

by Jennifer Reid, M.A.
Early School Director/In-School Therapeutic Services Coordinator
Lucy Daniels Center

As what has probably been the most atypical school year any one of us has experienced begins to wind down, it is time to think about how we will help children with the goodbyes to their teachers and classmates this year. Unfortunately, our in-person goodbyes were sudden, unexpected, and, at the time, with no true sense of how long the separation was going to be. And, now we have before us yet another challenge: how to help children say goodbye at the end of the school year to their teachers and peers when we cannot do it in person.

To help parents as they support their children at the end of this school year, we offer the following general guidance about school goodbyes. The ways you can support a more meaningful goodbye will depend on your child’s age as well as the nature of the relationships they shared with their teacher(s) and peers.

Why is it Important to Help Children Work through Goodbyes?
Life – for all people – is full of moments in which we must let go and say goodbye. Some goodbyes are temporary (such as saying goodbye to a parent or caregiver before a school day) while others are permanent (such as the death of a family pet). School goodbyes come every year, giving parents repeated opportunities at different developmental levels to help their children acknowledge and express the losses and gains that come when ending one school year and beginning another. Thinking together about goodbyes provides children with a safe, open space to reflect on the various aspects of the relationships and experiences they’ve shared. At the end of the school year, you and your child can reflect on what was learned, what will be missed, and what he or she will carry with them (internally) into the next year.

Saying Goodbye to a Preschool or Kindergarten Teacher
Preschool and kindergarten teachers share a particularly close relationship with the children in their care. They often step in as parent substitutes throughout the day, helping children with managing and mastering many of their basic needs. In many cases, preschool teachers support their students’ development in significant ways (such as helping them develop enough comfort to say goodbye to their parents for the school day). When a teacher has played such a personal and important role in a child’s life, the goodbye will naturally also be a personal and important one. You can help your preschool child take a more active role in the goodbye by helping him think of the things he liked about his teacher and what role the teacher played in helping him learn new things. Children of this age need a lot of help from their parents to put words to their feelings, so how much this type of conversation is out in the open will depend on how much you keep it going.

Leaving Elementary School
The end of elementary school marks a major shift in a child’s school life. While elementary school teachers do not play the same nurturing role as preschool teachers, they still share a relatively close relationship as a class’s primary teacher. Leaving elementary school means leaving this type of teacher-student relationship behind and moving forward into a world of less personal teacher-student relationships. Children leaving elementary school are well aware of this shift and it can be both exciting and terrifying at the same time. In addition, relationships with peers have become more important by this point in a child’s life and some students may end up in different schools in this transition. Help your child think about the most important people – adults and children – from their elementary years and keep yourself available for reminiscing and talking about the excitement and the worries about moving on.

The end of each school year is going to be a unique experience for every child. You can support a meaningful goodbye for a child of any age by keeping conversations about his feelings – both positive and negative – open. Acknowledge the unusual nature of a “remote” goodbye and think together about how it would be different if the school year were ending in person, as it usually does. Keep your child present and engaged as the last day of school approaches, providing multiple opportunities to share and reflect, and remember that this process of reflection and letting go can extend well beyond the last day of school.

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Lucy Daniels School is a therapeutic day school for children who are experiencing social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties at home or in school.
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