As school has started back in our preschools, as well as different childcare situations, we might hear that when young children separate from their parents at the classroom door, they do so with tears and crying.

As adults, we can all remember those days as we think back to those first days of school or going into a new situation. We may have had butterflies in our stomachs or were worried about the dreaded separation from the familiar to the unknown. In early childhood, this is know as “separation anxiety.” Here at the beginning of the school year I wanted to review some earlier suggestions that I had made a few months ago to help parents with young children come through the separation anxiety tunnel.

At different ages and developmental stages, anxiety and fear is normal for young children. When young infants cry, when mom or dad leave, it may be due to just normal, healthy bonding from infant to parents. I know first hand as a Mom, hearing your baby screaming when you leave them with someone else can just rip your heart apart. But we early childhood teachers see this stop within three to four minutes after a parent leaves.

In teaching toddlers, which begins around seven to eight months and goes for 24 months, separation anxiety is normal. Young children express this fear because they sense the parents will leave and not return. When younger children wander by crawling or walking away, they may be scared or anxious by the space or distance they are away from their parents. So many times, a young child this age may be having a wonderful day in the preschool classroom, but upon seeing parents return, they are reminded of how they felt when their parents left. When this happens, as a teacher, I explain to the parents that their child or children really had a good time laughing, engaging in learning and doing fun activities with friends. So moms, dads and grandparents, do not worry that your child had a bad time. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is that they reflect upon the separation feeling that came when a parent leaves. Talk to your child’s teacher on how their day went and how you as a parent can work with the teacher as you help your child get through the separation anxiety stage. 

Parents, there is true light at the end of the tunnel of unpredictable reactions from young children being separated from parents. We see the morning tears and crying decrease between the ages of 2 and 3. As an early childhood teacher, I love to see these separation challenges become easier and just disappear. It is so great to see a child wave goodbye to a parent with a smiling child eager to start their day of learning, activities and being with friends.

One suggestion I would like to make that makes it so much easier on the child, the class and the teacher, is to ease out slowly until the child adjusts. As a parent, you have to realize that the class must go on so you become a participant with your child until you see they are fully engaged with what is going on in class before slipping out of the classroom. Sometimes immediate separation is the answer. It depends on the personality and nature of your child, which you know better than anyone. Too, other issues that may be contributing to the separation anxiety are tiredness; illness; major changes in a family dynamic, such as a move, a change in a regular routine or schedule, the birth of a new baby in a family, divorce or death. All of these can contribute to the anxiety a child feels when they are away from their parents. Too, if a child is attending a new daycare center, preschool or has a new childcare giver, this can contribute to separation anxiety.

One thing, as a teacher and parent, that connects a child to that feeling of closeness in going through separation anxiety is to allow a child to bring items from home such as a blanket, pacifier (depending on the age), toy or favorite stuffed animal that they are close to. I love that blankets and pacifiers may be brought out at the beginning of class in the preschool class that I teach at church. But it is so nice that as our toddlers, two’s and three’s get engaged in classroom activities, we can gently fold the blankets back up and put them in their backpacks. Be sensitive to the needs of the teacher and class and try not to send an item or toy that may be disruptive.

Parents with young children in kindergarten, first and second grades, connecting with your child during the day by sending them notes of encouragement in their lunch boxes, backpacks and folders is so helpful. One special book I love to share with this age is “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. This is a child appropriate book that depicts school starting in the forest, however the main character, Chester Raccoon, does not want to go. To help ease Chester’s fears, Mrs. Raccoon shares a family secret called the “Kissing Hand” to give him the security, reassurance and confidence of his mother’s love any time his world feels a little scary — like on the first weeks of school.  As a teacher, when I have read this book to my early childhood classes, I truly see a peace come into little faces. Parents creating and setting up little family assurances, such as carrying your hugs and kisses into the classroom, can help your child physically, mentally and emotionally as they adjust to their new classroom situation.    

I know that I have just touched on a few suggestions to help with early childhood separation anxiety. I hope these few suggestions help here at the beginning of a new school year.    

Wednesday, Aug. 16, is celebrated as “National Tell a Joke Day.” Young children love to tell “Knock, Knock Jokes.” Laughing is definitely a “spoonful of sugar” during these days where the heat of the summer has been challenging. It is contagious among the young and old and across culture lines. Too, among adventure seekers, Wednesday, Aug. 16, is also recognized as Roller Coaster Day, which was patented in 1898.

Have a very good week.

Beth Pinyerd has taught young children in the early childhood classroom for many years. She holds a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Auburn University. The column is provided to enrich the education of our children, youth and families in our community. 

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