Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Easing the Stress of Separation May 27, 2011

Filed under: Separation Anxiety — Heidi Emberling @ 12:12 am

Starting up my new website and blog.  Hope you find some useful tips for navigating these early learning years with your children and students.  Below is an article I wrote on positive transitions and separation anxiety for the Winter 2011 edition of “Connections” magazine, the quarterly publication of the California Association for the Education of Young Children (CAEYC).
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Carlos walked into the playroom, clutching his mom’s leg.  He peered out to scan the new environment and soon spotted the train table.  His eyes widened and he cautiously left his mom’s side to explore further.  He picked up a blue train.  “Whoo, whoo!” he said, as he moved the train around the track.  Ten minutes later, Carlos’ mom came over to say goodbye.  She would be in the next room, participating in the parent component of our “Terrific Twos” program.  Carlos erupted in tears, screaming “mama” over and over again.  He grabbed onto her leg and she looked up at me with a panicked expression on her face.  “What should I do now?” she pleaded.

For the past six years, I have co-taught the “Terrific Twos” parent/child class.  A one and a half hour program for children between the age of 2 and 3 years old, the class meets once a week in two separate rooms, often serving as a first separation experience for many of the parents and children who enroll.

A few days before class, my colleague calls each parent to chat briefly about their expectations, goals, and any previous experience with separation.  She suggests children may want to bring a beloved object from home to help ease the transition, and answers any questions about the program.   On the first day of class, I gather the parents in the playroom for a short introduction.  We talk about the positive benefits of separation for both parent and child.

-The child is given an opportunity to learn to trust other caring adults
-The child learns coping skills and begins the process of emotional self-regulation
-The child develops healthy peer relationships and learns new social skills
-The child experiences a new environment and routine
-Parents are given the opportunity to renew, refresh, and regroup with other adults
-The parent receives child development information and participates in a group discussion about the joys and challenges of this particular age group

It’s my primary job to make the parent feel secure about separation, so they can be a resource for their child.  To begin earning the parent’s trust, I always talk about my expertise in child development, my years of experience teaching, and my own personal parenting experience with a daughter who had terrible separation anxiety.  We talk about specific things parents can do to prepare and support their children.

-Keep a positive attitude upon separation and reunification
-Remind children in a concrete way when they will return (“Right after you hear a story and sing some songs, I’ll be back!” instead of “I’ll be back soon” or “I’ll be back in an hour”)
-Be clear about where you are going, so the child can use these words for comfort (“mommy’s in the classroom, talking about you!” or “daddy’s at work”)
-At home, talk about the first thing a child might do upon arrival (“When we get to the playroom, should we do some playdough or play with the trains?”)
-Bring a transitional object or “lovey” from home.  (This doesn’t have to be their all-time favorite stuffed friend.  I have seen children gripping a wooden serving spoon from home with all their strength.)
-Bring a family photo or make a photo book of either home or school to look at in the opposite setting.
-Show confidence in the child’s ability to succeed
-Talk honestly with the child about their strong feelings, including negative feelings
-Try to be on time or early
-Talk to the child about the special person who will be taking care of them at school
-Always say goodbye and create a short goodbye ritual

This last tip is a critical one that parents (and some teachers) often want to skip.  It may seem easier for the parent to “sneak away” while a child is occupied, but eventually the child will look up and notice their parents’ absence.  Unfortunately, the pain of separation is only delayed until that moment and the trust between parent and child is damaged.   Often, children whose parents “sneak out” are much more clingy when the parent is around, because they fear the parent may disappear at any moment.  If a parent always says goodbye, the child is still sad, but at least they know there is a predictable and consistent goodbye routine.

We, as teachers, cannot rush this developmental milestone.  When a child feels secure and safe, separation transitions are wonderful opportunities for growth.  But there are specific challenges for teachers when a child experiences difficulty separating.  Here are some things I see when I am called in to do preschool behavioral assessments of children with separation anxieties:

-The teacher is working hard to distract or redirect the upset child
-Teachers may unintentionally minimize the child’s strong feelings of distress
-The teacher may be frustrated that the usual strategies are not working
-The parent is hovering and giving inconsistent messages to the child
-The child has not yet developed sufficient coping skills
-The parent and/or teacher are rushing the child through separation

When a child is experiencing strong negative emotions, redirection and distraction may not work.  For more flexible children, engaging them in a favorite activity may help, but for our spirited friends, we need to give them time and space to fully experience the scary emotions they feel, allowing them to eventually find a way to cope with the disappointment of saying goodbye to a beloved parent or caregiver.

I urge teachers to use a warm and responsive caregiving approach.  Teachers may need to sit on the floor with the child and actively reflect and validate the child’s emotional state.  “You are feeling sad/disappointed/angry that your mommy/daddy/grandma left the classroom.”  Sometimes just sitting with a young child and not saying anything can be a supportive first step.  I am always amazed at how caring other children can be when they see a child in distress being comforted by a loving teacher.  (If they’re not inspired to begin crying themselves, that is!)  Many, many times when sitting with a crying child, I have watched other two year olds bring over their favorite toys to share, or provide a tissue for the crying and sniffling child, or just come over to sit with us and provide quiet support.  Often, I will engage with the child who approached us, hoping that something will capture the upset child’s interest.  I might rub the upset child’s back while talking with other children, explaining that our friend needs some extra time to feel sad before joining into play.

Sometimes a parent needs to be involved in a child’s first separation experience.  If I have more than one crying child in a new class, I will ask parents to stagger their goodbye times.  Once the first child is calmer, I will approach the second tentative child.  With experience, I am able to differentiate between a crying child who is sad, but who is showing some developing coping skills that I can support, and a child who really needs to check in with their parent for help.  In those cases, I have the luxury of being able to call the parent back from the parent classroom to provide some extra support for their child.   Depending on the child, we may attempt separation again within that same day, or we may wait until the following week to try again.

Let’s go back to Carlos and his separation fears.  It took four sessions for him to be able to separate from mom without tears.  We started with short separations, then lengthened the time as he began trusting me and becoming more interested in the classroom activities.  I sat with him as he cried, keeping my voice calm and validating his strong emotions.  I asked him about his “lovey” (which was a book from home in Spanish), kept my voice positive and confident.  I stayed close to him, but also moved slowly towards a nearby activity center to gauge his interest level.  As he and I bonded, he looked around more and stayed close to me when his mom first left the classroom.  By the fifth session, he was able to say goodbye to his mom, who looked immensely relieved and happy.  Carlos’ confidence grew over time, and he eventually blossomed into a leader in our class.  Mom e-mailed me a few months later, thanking me for the extra time and effort it took for Carlos to feel safe in our classroom.  She said his newfound confidence and ability to cope with separation made his transition to preschool a very positive experience.

Books for Parents (if you use these in the classroom, expect some strong emotions to emerge.  That’s why I recommend parents read these at home):

The Kissing Hand, Audrey Penn
I Love You All Day Long, Francesca Rusackas
Will You Come Back for Me?, Ann Tompert
Owl Babies, Martin Waddell
Hug, Jez Alborough

Books for the Classroom (These books are more about the classroom experience):

The Hello, Goodbye Window, Norton Juster
Maisie Goes to Preschool, Lucy Cousins
My First Day at Nursery School, Becky Edwards
D.W.’s Guide to Preschool, Marc Brown

Additional Reading:

Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoints. New York: Perseus Books.
Lieberman, A. F. (1993). The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: The Free Press: A Division of Simon & Schuster.
Newton, E. K., Thompson, R. A. (2010). Parents’ Views of Early Social and Emotional Development, Zero to Three.