You have a new child starting in your room, their excited, their parents are happy and the family seems to be settling in well with the centre environment. The first day has come for the child to start, parents say goodbye and then the child starts - screaming, crying, pulling, begging their parent not to leave.
Dealing With Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety it affects everyone - the child, the parents, the educators and the children in the room. If the child's distress is not handled appropriately the child may feel insecure and unhappy preventing them from participating in experiences or interacting with anyone. It also may cause a stressful environment for other children. The child's family are also affected and may feel upset because of their child's feelings, their own or both. So, as an educator how do you support a family dealing with separation anxiety…
Having an orientation program in place for each new child starting at the centre is very important. During orientation the parent and child interact together with the group of children, in their room that they will be moving to. The new family get to know the routine, the children in the room and become familiar with the educators in the room. This builds trust and confidence for the child and their family which in turn makes separation a little easier.
When having an orientation program it's no point for a parent to do it only once before their child starts care. Orientation needs to be continued for 2 - 3 weeks prior to starting and the parent and child should be encouraged to come as often as they can throughout the week at different times during the day. They don't need to spend the whole day an hour a day will work as well.
During orientation the room leader should be provided with an opportunity to interact with the parent and child, ask their own questions about the child, answer any concerns parent may have and go over daily routine, programming etc. The room leader should be involved in the orientation process for the family to make it a smooth transition for the child.
It's important for each educator in the room to make the child feel as comfortable as possible. Extra TLC should be given to the child. The family will be watching every move, everything you say, everything that happens so remember to be professional and be supportive.
Supporting Parents With Separation Anxiety
For parents sending their child into care for the first time or starting at a new centre, they will also be dealing with their own separation anxiety. They will have a lot of thoughts going on and just like the child, you need to support parents during the first few weeks of starting at the centre.
Here are some ideas on supporting parents before the separation:
- Speak to parents about separation anxiety and how it is common for a child to display distress when being dropped off.
- Reassure the parent that you're there to support the family during separation and it is normal for them to feel anxious during this time.
- Encourage parents to share what will help them feel more comfortable when leaving their child and what will help their child separate successfully.
- For a child coming only a couple of days a week discuss with the parents if it is possible for the child to attend on consecutive days rather than days spread over the week.
- Suggest that the child brings in a special toy/security object/photo that may remind them of home.
- Set up a routine for the parents and the child. This way everyone knows what to expect.
- Encourage parents to explain to their child about what will happen.
Here are some ideas on supporting parents during the separation:
- It's important to have the same consistent educator spend the most time with the parent and child during the morning separation until the child feels secure.
- Encourage parents to say goodbye to their child, even though this may cause distress for the child.
- Try not to have the parent linger around too long while leaving their child. Parents are welcome to stay and play but the longer they hang around the worse it is for the child.
- It's best to encourage parents to do a quick drop off following a routine.
- If a child starts screaming/ crying during separation, the educator should hold the child while the parent leaves. Constantly reassure the child as well as the parent that the child will be alright.
- If the parent is noticeably upset when they are leaving, give them a call within half an hour and let them know how their child is managing.
- Let the parent know they can call as often as they want throughout the day to check their child.
- Support the parent to keep calm and relaxed during the separation.
Supporting A Child With Separation Anxiety
No matter how distressed the child is, as an educator you have to be there to support the child. It may take time for the child to settle or you may feel frustrated with the way it's going but you should always maintain a positive relationship for the child to build secure attachments.
Here are some ideas on supporting the child before separation:
- An educator within the room needs to be established for this child and their parents. It should be an educator who is available in the morning of the child's days.
- As the educator for this child, you need to establish a positive relationship and gain a connection. This means engaging with the child in play, talking to the child, getting to know the family.
- Encourage the child to join in group times, during art and craft activities, morning tea etc. Which needs to be done during the orientation visits. On the morning of separation have a few activities available that the child has shown an interest for.
- In book area arrange pillows and stuffed toys which may be needed to comfort the child.
Here are some ideas on supporting the child during separation:
- Greet the child and parents with a friendly and happy smile.
- Take the child to their room and point out all the activities that available for them.
- Have them choose an activity and once they start after a few minutes, encourage parents to say goodbye.
- If the child becomes upset and distressed, have the parent give a quick hug and kiss as they are leaving as you comfort the child.
- Comfort and re-assure the child that their parent will be there to pick them up after afternoon tea for example.
- Respect the child's feelings and allow them to miss their parents. Reassure them that it's OK to cry and feel upset.
- Once the parents have left, redirect the child's attention by engaging the child. Read them a story, off them a soft toy to cuddle etc.
- Don’t force the child to participate. If they don’t want to then let them be. Don't attempt to pick them up, they will join once they are ready.
- Let the child deal with their grief. For a child this may be sitting where mum and dad was and crying. Let them for a few minutes and once they realise that their parents aren't around to react to their crying they will usually settle. At this time, step in and engage with the child.
Separation Anxiety is a hard issue to deal with. However with time and patience it does resolve itself and the child does settle down (parent as well). During this time, it can be hard to handle. The child always crying, calling out for their mum/dad it can be heart breaking to watch. Having strategies put into place to deal with separation anxiety enables you to provide consistency and familiarity to help the child settle more quickly into care. Each individual child differs in how long it takes them to settle down but usually within a couple of weeks. It's essential that during this time that you provide support to the child and their family.
Lebaeau, Mary Dealing With Separation Anxiety, Early Childhood News
Irrisitable Ideas, Separation Anxiety Tips For Teachers, 2011.
Montessori Teaching Training, Coping With Separation Anxiety