Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety


      A special challenge for teachers of young children is helping anxious, crying children separate from their caregivers. When I first started teaching preschoolers, I was overwhelmed by a handful of crying children, clinging to their mother’s legs. I couldn’t get the parents to leave and I couldn’t help the children calm down. I’m happy to say I’ve since learned to understand this common response and I’ve developed some effective strategies.
     First, understand that the separation reaction is as much about the mother, grandmother, or the caregiver who drops off the child as it is about the child himself. Many caregivers are embarrassed by their child’s reaction, worried about the extra work it creates for the teacher, or frustrated by their lack of control. I think most are distressed by their child’s sadness, fear, and intensity – feeling those emotions themselves. You can help the caregiver by reassuring him or her that this reaction is common, that it doesn’t bother you, and that you have a plan to help.
     The Plan. Create a drop-off plan together with the caregiver that includes clear routines which will be used every day. Keeping the routine exactly the same is very important for helping the anxious child to be able to predict and trust what will happen each day.  For example, the plan might be as follow:

  1. Caregiver and child come into classroom and put things away.
  2. Child spends 5 minutes showing his caregiver one of the activities he’s going to do that morning.
  3. Teacher joins the caregiver and child while they say good bye with a hug or other gesture.
  4. The child remains with the teacher (perhaps being held if he won’t voluntarily let go of the caregiver) and waves goodbye as the caregiver leaves.
  5. The teacher consoles the child as needed, acknowledging how sad it is to say goodbye and reminding him when his caregiver will return (in concrete terms such as “after small group time”)
  6. The teacher helps the child find a favorite activity to get involved in as a distraction.
  7. The teacher calls the parent after 10-15 minutes to let him or her know that the child is okay and has calmed down – or is calming down and doing better.

     Prepare the caregiver ahead of time that this plan will take a little while to work. Some children need a couple of days – others need weeks to begin to calm down and have some trust in the process.  There are a couple of important aspects to consider in developing your plan. Make sure the caregiver NEVER slips out without saying goodbye to the child. Some caregivers will want to do this because it helps them avoid the clinging and crying. However, this is very counter-productive and it will make the children more fearful of the parent leaving in the future. Be sure to build into your plan a clear process for saying goodbye and waving or watching the caregiver leave. You might want to have a special place in your classroom that is the “Saying Goodbye” spot, such as a window or location by the door that prevents the child from escaping, but allows him to wave goodbye. Finally, remember that the separation is as hard on the caregiver as it is on the child. Calling the caregiver (or having her call you) for reassurance after a short period of time can help this adaptation process go much more smoothly!
     What separation strategies have worked for you? Please share in the comments below!

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Crimfants]