your daughter sounds like a very sensitive child, and perhaps a child who experiences more anxiety than most girls her age. What you are experiencing is what psychologists call 'school refusal', and if it is any comfort, you and your daughter are not alone (I just wrote an article for my clinic website on this topic called 'Unhappy at School.' You can read it by going to www.mindwellpsychology.com). Anxiety around school is fairly common, though this does not mean it is to be ignored. School refusal is often caused by some sort of precipitating event, such as the loss of a pet or family member, a move, parental separation or divorce, or anything that would make a child feel fearful about leaving home.
In your daughter's case, school refusal may be related to the transition of moving from kindergarten to first grade. This is a huge deal for a little child, something most adults have forgotten. It is not unusual for children to be overwhelmed by the new demands of first grade. Consider, your daughter is in a new room full of strangers. She is trying to learn what is expected of her in a completely new environment, where the rules are very different from what she had before. She is also being expected to sit still, work independently, and master her impulses as never before. This is lots of stress for a little person.
You will want to walk a fine line between helping her cope while still giving the right level of support. You and the adults who work with your daughter want to help her find healthy ways of managing her feelings. I am sure her teacher did not mean any harm, but her approach was not a helpful one. Commanding children to stop crying rarely works. A punitive or shaming approach only makes them cry harder because they feel overwhelmed, embarrassed, and misunderstood. On top of that, your daughter now fears that her teacher does not like her and that she has done something wrong. Neither of which are likely to help her calm down, as you have seen for yourself.
When you intervene, tread carefully with the school staff. School staff around the country are increasingly stressed due to budget cuts (this is also nothing to take lightly) and may be facing the school year with fewer staff, inadequate supplies, or even pay cuts. You want to advocate for your daughter in a collegial, respectful way that focuses on 'how can we work together solve this problem?' Focus on the win-win without blaming (though I am sure you were tempted to give the teacher a piece of your mind). I would ask for a meeting to focus on 'getting things back on track.' Ask to have the school guidance counselor or psychologist attend (or an administrator if they suggest it). Having extra staff there will encourage the teacher to want to look good in front of her colleagues, and will help by bringing in fresh ideas. Be prepared to listen to the teacher first before you speak, and try to avoid immediately becoming defensive.
Now that said, I am not suggesting that you are to accept anyone shaming or punishing your daughter for her feelings. You want to advocate for her, and you do not want to end the meeting without a concrete, written plan for what to do. If you are met with the "well I don't have the time to give every child special treatment" argument, try steering the conversation back towards the topic of what CAN be done.
Here's some ideas for items that might go on the 'action plan.' First, have your daughter paired with a kindly, calm, socially successful ambassador student (a girl of course). Make a plan for what your daughter can do if she needs to cry that is not punitive but also not so good as to be too much of an attractive alternative to leaving the classroom. For example, she may have a special corner in the classroom where she can hug a soft pillow or stuffed toy when she needs it. She may step out for a drink, sit in the guidance counselor's office for a little while, or sit in the library until she can calm herself down. Encourage staff to avoid insulting her by calling her names or by saying critical things (e.g. "Don't be a baby"). Have them say things to her like "Ok, honey, you take a little break and then come right back because we will be doing things you won't want to miss." I would also give her objects in her desk to handle that are soothing, such as a squashy ball, little 'guardian angel' doll or a piece of velvet.
At home, let her know that you met with her teacher and that things are going to be ok. Emphasize that she is not disobedient and not a bad kid. Let her know that starting school can be tough, and there is nothing wrong with her feelings. Tell her that lots of kids feel nervous about starting first grade, but that she will start to feel better soon. Tell her stories of when you were worried as a child and how you resolved it. Help her practice taking deep belly breaths with a pinwheel so she can learn to regulate her breathing. Let her draw pictures of how she feels and read books on the subject (I like Ramona the Pest very much). Try a kid's yoga class. You can also get lots of books online about worries. The books 'When My Worries Get too Big', and 'David and the Worry Beast' are good. There is also a nice kit called 'Be the Boss of Your Stress, Self Care for Kids' that teaches kids relaxation and comes with all sorts of cool stuff.
If she starts to get worse (look for trouble sleeping or eating, complaints of feeling ill, picking her skin, or toileting accidents) then seek professional help sooner rather than later. Anxiety responds very well to psychotherapy. A child psychologist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy can help immensely.
Disclaimer: This post was written for informational purposes only. It is never intended to replace face to face psychological or medical care This post is not intended to create a patient-clinician relationship, nor to give or rule-out a diagnosis.
Thank you so much for your detailed and helpful reply. There are a lot of suggestions here that I can use. My daughter will probably respond very well to the books. Also the pinwheel idea is helpful--I'd tried to get her to do some deep breaths the other day, and I think the pinwheel would help her with that. Also, I sent her to school with a pretty little stone she can keep in her pocket. I "put my love in it" for her to carry around. She likes that. Also, I appreciate the ideas about what alternative activities can possibly be done at school, and your ideas for meeting and discussing this with the school staff. I'll also check out the article you mentioned. Much appreciation!