Every preschool teacher has been there. School has just started, you have a new group of children, everyone is excited and a little anxious about their new environment, new friends, new teacher, new everything!
Separation anxiety is a very normal part of early childhood development and it happens at all ages and stages. Handling separation anxiety isn’t only about managing an individual child, it is also about working with their parents through it all, creating a safe and welcoming environment for your kids to come back to, and most importantly, teaching the children how to process, articulate and work through their feelings!
The Facts By Age Group
Separation anxiety develops as a child begins to understand the concept of object permanence, which is the idea that something continues to exist when it can’t be seen or heard.
The thought process goes something like:
Wait, dad were there a second ago. I know he’s somewhere, but where is he now? Will he come back? Where is dad?!
It can be pretty stressful on a child and affect their mental health, but the good news is that it will pass and there are systems in place that you as an early childhood educator can use to help teach them that it’s okay! While it is common for separation anxiety to be most prominent between 18-months and 3 years of age, children of all ages go through it to a certain degree.
Separation Anxiety in Babies
4-5 month old babies can show an understanding of object permanence, but 9 months is usually when they start responding to it. Separation anxiety in this case is often associated with tiredness, hunger or illness. Short transitions and a consistent routine is key to help babies feel better as they experience these emotions.
Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
As a baby grows into the toddler stage, separation anxiety becomes more difficult, especially around the 18-month mark. We are all familiar with the Terrible Twos and separation anxiety can be particularly challenging at this age. This is primarily because toddlers are exploring their independence at the same time as becoming more aware of being separated from their parents or guardians.
So, while they want their own space, they aren’t quite ready for it too! They are also more vocal about their feelings. This can be an emotionally challenging time for the children (and adults). Rest assured though, it is only a phase and this is part of understanding boundaries as a little human.
Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers
By the time they turn 3, most children will grasp an understanding of how their behavior is affecting the adults around them. Consistency is key at this stage as young children can and will push their boundaries by pleading with their parents or throwing tantrums to get their way.
Setting clear boundaries and expectations will help preschoolers navigate their emotions. The more consistent adults are at this stage, the better children will understand that their parents are coming back and can shift their attention to other (hopefully fun!) things.
What Can I Do As A Preschool Teacher?
Now that we’ve gone through what to expect at each stage, let’s look at what you can do as a teacher to work through separation anxiety when it does happen!
Clarify Expectations To Parents And Preschoolers
Sometimes, parents can encourage separation anxiety without intending to. The first day of preschool is an emotional day. However, by indulging their child’s plea to stay longer, they are prolonging the feeling of anxiety and disrupting the class. As a teacher, your room is your space and setting the expectation for everyone to respect the space and schedule is key. Be firm, but kind – reassure them that their child will be totally fine and having a great time with their friends until pick up time. A great way to give parents peace of mind is to send secure update photos so that they can see all the fun that their child is having!
Encourage Goodbye Rituals and Transitions
Part of being a preschool teacher is supporting new young parents too! You can suggest goodbye rituals that are fun for kids and parents to take the stress out of having to leave. Make sure to have a quick transition to circle time ready so that the children can shift their attention to being in your class! Transitions are everything when it comes to running your classroom. Don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad day or two (they happen), just keep at it and it’ll help even your most difficult child work through their anxiety. Being consistent here is the key to success!
Be Attentive And Present With Young Children
Drop-off is one of the most hectic parts of the day in child care. You’re talking to parents, checking the kids in, making sure everyone is accounted for and settling everyone down. Take a breath here and be present with your classroom. Get their attention to signal that the next activity is about to start and encourage everyone to participate as a group. Starting the day off with circle time is a great idea so that your class can shift their focus from their parents to their community. This is also a good time to go over the plan for the day and ask any questions.
Once The Preschool Activity Starts, It Starts
We’ve all been there when there’s a parent who comes back for their child. This usually happens after a rough drop-off and if the child is having a particularly rough morning. While having their parents comfort them is a well-intentioned idea, it will only make the drop-off experience more complicated by extending the anxiety and disrupting the class. Communicate this with parents so that they will understand the boundaries (and the longer-term benefits of building a child’s confidence and independence).
Talk About Emotions With Young Children
Okay, so tantrums happen and sometimes they happen a lot. That’s totally normal! Set your kids up for success by talking about their feelings. Do this consistently as part of your teaching process a few times a week. This will help them think about how to react when they feel angry, frustrated or upset. Giving them the tools to say how they feel is the first step to helping them work through these scary feelings of separation anxiety.
Know Your Preschool Group
The start of each new school year brings a new group dynamic for you to navigate. Knowing each child in your class is important – what delights them, what triggers them and how they prefer to be comforted is so key to working with your children and their families. Most times, redirecting the attention away from the trigger is better than damage control after a tantrum! To do this, you need to have a good pulse on when a child is about to become upset and then approach them to talk about it.
Keep Your Cool
Things can quickly get out of hand if you have a hysterical child. But remember, it’s your classroom and you are in control. Keeping your cool and remembering that the kids are just figuring things out is so important. Create some space by having a calm zone in your classroom where an overstimulated child can remove themselves from the group and calm down. Make this space known to the group as somewhere they can go to be alone if they need some space.
Once the child has calmed down enough to have a conversation, address the elephant in the room and talk about the outburst. It’s not always easy, but this helps with a child’s socioemotional development. Explain that their parent will come back for them just as they did yesterday. Maintaining empathy and relating to the child helps them feel supported and safe in your class!
Building a trust-based relationship is important to make sure that everyone (parents and kiddos) is feeling alright at drop-off. What are your strategies for supporting children with separation anxiety? Do you have fun activities or smart transitions that you use? Comment below or share this with someone who might find it helpful!
To learn more about the origin of early childhood education and the many influences that make the field what it is today, check out our post about the history of early childhood education.