It’s back to school and along with a million other things to worry about here and there, there can be one looming thing on children’s (and parent’s!) minds: separation anxiety.
It can be extremely difficult for young kids to separate from their parents on the first day of school, especially after all the cuddling and precious family moments spent during the long summer vacation! Here are a few things parents should know to help themselves and their kids ease the anxiety and welcome the new school year with joy.
Dealing with Parental Anxiety
The first question you might ask is, “Who is the more anxious one, the child or parent?” Surprisingly, it is quite often the parent who needs the most reassurance and support during this critical time! It is essential that the child’s new caregiver during the day – a teacher or a nanny, etc. – recognises and respects the anxieties and uncertainties the parent may have about the separation process.
As a teacher, I have had to deal with many parents who are undergoing a whole host of feelings and have questions about the separation process, such as how their child is responding to their new environment and new routine. Practical questions such as, “Have they eaten, how much, did they sleep?” are all common amongst parents who are sending their kids off to kindergarten for the first time – so don’t feel like you are alone in your anxiety! Understand that it is a process and transitional period, and while adjusting to a new situation isn’t always easy, parents and educators are here to help and make the transition as smooth as possible.
From the Kids’ Perspective
For kids, going to school for the first time is essentially stepping into a completely different world from what they’ve known. They are likely to express separation anxiety with outward displays of emotion such as temper tantrums or crying, so it’s important to understand what they’re feeling and what you can do to ease the process. Babies and toddlers are usually very depending on a main caregiver, but there are ways you can start to ease this separation anxiety from a young age. Visiting regularly ‘accompanied classes’ where new experiences and learning opportunities are offered in a nurturing environment helps young children begin to understand that there are ‘others’ outside of their main caregiver.
This also begins to broaden their experiences of positive interactions between their caregiver and others outside of their home environment. From 18 months on, children may explore more independently with a main caregiver present or in another room nearby. Gradual short separations can begin at these times. As children begin to go though a separation process they will often build an attachment to a particular person, this could be a teacher or sometimes even another child. The most important thing is to expose them in their early years to new people, new ways of playing and new activities, and if each of these is met and coped with successfully, they will develop more confidently. With each success comes a boost in self-esteem and self-respect and children will start to feel like valued members of the group and less dependent on their main caregiver.
Supporting Positive Separations from an Early Age Start with short separation times, children need to learn that their caregiver will return. This builds trust and understanding that you will return shortly. Young children do not learn the concept of ‘time’ until they are a little older, usually when they have developed confidence through prior separation experiences. The use of visual objects such as an hour glass or sand-timer to measure time helps children’s understanding. Once these shorter separations are successful, extend the lengths of separation times.
Demonstrate positive interactions between all involved caregivers during the transition times; this promotes a strong feeling of trust to the child. Stay calm! Displaying your own anxieties both verbally and non-verbally can be detrimental in giving mixed messages which children sense very quickly. Consistency is important in the ‘goodbye.’ If you give a quick kiss and a wave goodbye then make sure that the routine is followed next time, even when in a rush. A comforter from home often helps such as a favourite toy or blanket. Comforters such as these have the familiar scents from home as well as the positive feelings associated with them. These can be used for as long as needed until the child has become less dependent.
Tips to Dealing with School Separation
Don’t try to avoid separation anxiety by sneaking away when your child isn’t looking. This may be tempting given their reaction of separation from you, but experts agree that this is more likely to develop or create more anxiety. Instead, say a loving but quick goodbye, even if your child cries or screams. Crying will subside usually within a few minutes. Establish a consistent daily pattern of attentive goodbyes and reunions so your child can build confidence in your relationship. Remember that it is healthy for children to learn to make new attachments with people beyond just their immediate family circle. For children who are pre-verbal, it is essential to share information about how your child expresses themselves and how they like to be comforted. Not all children like to be picked up or hugged, etc. so be sure to express that to the new caregiver. . Ask a lot of questions, such as how flexible they are towards meeting children’s needs, what do they do if a child cries, how long do they expect the child to cry, etc. Ask if visits can be arranged prior to the child starting at a new school and take photos of them playing within their new school. Then, reflect on the positive, fun times had by the child by looking over the photos together. Ask them questions about their new school, teachers, etc., thus reinforcing the fact that it is okay to be embarking on these new experiences. If your child needs a new backpack or lunchbox, go shopping together! Reinforcing school is a positive experience will prepare and calm you and help your child feel confident.
Finally and most importantly, it is important to remember that it is perfectly normal and healthy for children to be upset and / or cry during the initial separation process – they just need a bit of time to start to build new attachments and get used to their new environment. They’ll be ready to let go only too soon, mamas, so be sure to cherish these moments together! Karen
About the author
Karen is Principal of Safari Kid Hong Kong. She has over 20 years of experience in early childhood and special needs education in the UK. Karen has been an Area Special Education Needs Coordinator to the Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council for seven years, and has managed and taught in nurseries in the UK for several years. Karen has a Diploma in Nursery Nursing Examination Board and a BA in Early Childhood Studies from the University of Leeds, and intends to do a PhD in Early Childhood Development at some point when time permits.