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Dealing With Separation Anxiety
By Mary Dixon Lebeau

Happy, busy preschoolers played at various stations throughout the preschool, but Matt was having none of that. As his classmates made train sounds and shaped Play-Doh, Matt clung to his mother’s legs, tears welling. “Don’t go!” he cried as his mother tried to break away.

This scene is a familiar one to any preschool teacher – especially at the beginning of a new school year. After all, for many of the children, this is the first time away from their parent or primary caregiver – and that’s pretty scary. Because of this separation anxiety, the child may cry, scream or even throw a tantrum – and it’s all perfectly natural.

So how should a preschool teacher handle separation anxiety? “Always take anxiety seriously,” says Lonna Corder, director of “The Playgroup.” “Talk to the parents about anxiety beforehand, and let them know the drop-off procedure in your school. Also emphasize the importance of letting the child know the parent will return.” If a child knows what to expect, preschool becomes less scary – and anxiety is reduced.

Of course, no amount of preparation will prevent separation anxiety altogether. Here are some teacher-tested tips to reduce the effects of anxiety, and to help the child begin to enjoy his preschool experience as soon as possible:

Do the Write Thing – Before school starts, send a welcoming letter to your students, introducing yourself and some of your plans for the first few weeks of school. Be calm, upbeat and confident. Your feelings will be contagious!
Be a Tour Guide – Invite your students to visit the classroom and tour the school before the first day. Children are most afraid of the unknown. Allow them to get to know the school, the rules – and you! This will help ease the first day concerns.
Familiarity Breeds Comfort – Allow the child to bring a familiar object, such as a toy or a picture of mom and dad, to help with the transition. “I let the children share what they brought during our first circle time,” says Nancy Preston, a Pennsylvania preschool teacher. “I’ve found that a transitional item, like a stuffed toy or picture, can be comforting, and I allow the kids to hold it whenever necessary. Fortunately, most of the kids forget about the item after the first week – and many put them aside the very first day!”
Emphasize Short and Sweet – The best goodbyes are short and upbeat. Let the parent lead the child to an activity, engage the child, then let the child know she’s leaving. This isn’t the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet – goodbyes should be brief and definitive, not lingering “sweet sorrow.”
Be Flexible – Some children need more transition time than others. Although the “short and sweet” rule works best for most children, teachers should be flexible and realize some parents will have to stay longer than others. “I encourage parents of apprehensive children to stay for as long as it takes,” says Rhode Island teacher, Kate Wotsetter. “Some kids are slower to warm up to new situations. Give them the time they need.”
No Slip Sliding – “I never let a parent slip away without saying goodbye,” says teacher Heidi Angelini. “If the parent sneaks out, the child ends up spending time looking for the parent. I encourage parents to say goodbye firmly and definitively – and to reassure the child she’ll be back. I ask parents to tell the child that they will be back at a certain time – for example, in my classroom, many parents and kids say, “See you after circle time,” as mom heads out the door.”
Have A Plan – and Have It Posted – Experts agree most children will adjust quickly to a routine. So post your daily and weekly schedules in your classroom, and explain them to your students. Remember to point the schedules out to the parents (or, better yet, give them a copy to take home) so they can discuss the day with their child.
Engage! – The best way to get a child to forget her anxiety is to get her engaged in an activity as soon as possible. Have a variety of appealing offerings available for the child as soon as she walks in the door. A table full of puzzles, a kitchen corner full of play breakfast foods, and a carpet full of colorful blocks will catch the child’s eye – and will often keep it dry as well.
Be Confident – Don’t let a child’s tears or tantrums make you lose your cool. Just project confidence as you take the child’s hand and say, “Good morning. We’re going to have so much fun today. Let’s say bye to mom and see what the other kids are doing.” Your confidence will be comforting to the child (and to mom, who may be the most anxious of all).
Invite Parental Involvement – The children will feel more connected to their own parents if they see parents in the classroom. Set up a volunteer schedule or invite parents in to help with crafts or read to students. “Just make sure you do this on your schedule, so it doesn’t interfere with your lesson plan,” says Angelini.
Be Prepared For Relapses – Sure, most incidents of separation anxiety occur during the first few days of school. But making it to October doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with sad goodbyes for the rest of the year. Often a long break (like the winter holidays) or something going on at home will make the child anxious about school all over again. Use the same techniques you used in September to ease difficult drop-offs and help the child feel confident again.

Remember that separation anxiety is usually just a reaction to the unknown for the child. As he becomes more familiar with his new surroundings, he’ll begin to accept his time at school – and, yes, even look forward to it. In fact, by the end of the year you may even see some tears as the children are separated from you.

SIDEBAR – Books About Separation Anxiety
One good way to ease your students’ anxieties is to share a book about the subject. “That way, the child learns he’s not the only one feeling this way,” says Wotsetter. “It also allows the child to hear the happy ending, and be assured of his own.” Some good books about separation anxiety for preschoolers include:

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas
My First Day At Nursery School by Becky Edwards
Don’t Go! by Jane Breskin Zalben
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg