On the first day of kindergarten, Alicia’s mother brought her five-year-old daughter to meet the teacher and the other students. Like the other children, she had a new lunch box and a book bag filled with the necessary supplies. Everything seemed fine - until it was time for parents to leave. Alicia began to cry, clinging to her mother and begging to go back home. Her mother whispered to the teacher, “This is the first time in her life I’ve ever left her with someone. Not even her grandparents have watched her.”
According to many psychologists, separation from parents is one of the greatest causes of anxiety and stress for young children. Teachers and staff of young children can lessen anxiety in both the child and parent by using techniques that help the child cope.
• Speak to the child in a calm voice. Maintain good eye contact and smile. Interest the child in helping with a classroom chore or task. Suggest feeding the goldfish or hamster, placing books on a shelf, or returning blocks to the storage bin.
• Form a “buddy system” in your room where each child is matched with a new friend. For a child experiencing anxiety, choose a youngster who is comfortable in the setting.
• Allow parents to observe and sit down in the classroom for the first few days if needed. Later, advise parents to tell the child they are leaving and will return at a given time. For example: “I must go to work now. I will return at 12.” Make a paper clock showing the position of the hands. Explain that when parents sneak off, the child learns to become more anxious, unsure that the parent will be there if the child relaxes his guard. Also, when a parents announces she is leaving, leave. Coming back in just as the child is calming down “just to check” only reamps the separation. A parent who lingers nervously gives the child the message that there is, indeed, something to be anxious about.
• Help the child and parent establish a ritual, such as one kiss and one big hug when leaving.
• Suggest that the parent “play school” at home. Take turns begin the teacher. Use dolls or stuffed toys for “friends.” Parents may discover the reason for school anxiety, such as a bully, fear of unfamiliar places or riding the bus.
• Ask the parent to make sure the child receives enough sleep at night. Sleep deprived children do not function well.
• Suggest that parents write little notes and place in a book bag or lunch box. In the morning, the parent can discuss how they will share a fun activity after school or a stop for ice cream after work.
• Realize young children may experience a lapse in behavior. Difficulties at home, the death or illness of a family member or pet may cause stress that leads to separation anxiety.
• Know that children have individual personalities and react to separation in different ways. Some children show distress at begin left with a caretaker, others do not. Some children adjust quickly and others need more time.
• Ask parents to pack a reminder of home, such as a small stuffed animal or toy. This will provide a warm feeling of home that is shared by the family. Encourage the child to show the object to his new friends.
Most crying episodes usually stop in a couple of weeks. If the child continues to show undue stress, talk with your school counselor. If you have doubts, you may suggest professional help.
Carolyn R. Tomlin, M. Ed., has taught kindergarten and early childhood courses at Union University, Jackson, TN. She contributes to numerous education publications.