As we know well, with the end of maternity leave or even the holidays, that butterflies in the belly comes with the fact that we have to leave our most precious treasures in the hands of other unknown people… And on the other hand, that feeling of abandonment in a place new/unknown (or not) for an entire day?!
It is not only the responsibility of other people’s children lives, but also the physical, mental and emotional fatigue of dealing with everyone’s anxiety at an extremely important stage, as a good initial adaptation will ease and speed up an entire school year and future years insertions in different environments by children (fundamental for their learning and growth!).
So, what can we do to help the little ones (and big ones) to start this new routine / return to the old one:
- Very important! Don’t over-analyze the first day or an isolated moment. It will not be a justification or symptom of separation anxiety. Instead, pay attention to each child’s behavior and changes in the first few weeks after return.
What, then, should we expect from young children when they return to daycare?
According to Neal Horen (2009)*, director of the Division of Early Childhood at Georgetown University, in a study of effective child mental health programs, one thing is for sure: the first few days won’t be exactly what they were before the summer: “I think you’ll see a wide range of behaviors and reactions. Some children will have a lot of anxiety about going back and may communicate these feelings in a number of different ways. Teachers and educators need to be ready for it – the question is how to do it.”
Before we get down to business, it’s worth reiterating that what we are and are going to talk about does not apply to all children. Some will be overjoyed to see their friends and teachers again, and other children may be apprehensive.
And that’s okay… both are acceptable.
That said, let’s get to what brought us here!
What is Separation Anxiety?**
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage. During this stage, children develop anxiety when they are separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Separation anxiety typically starts when children are around eight months old and becomes more intense when children are ten to eighteen months old.
Children aged between 8 and 18 months are often scared when they meet new people or visit new places. When separated from their parents or caregivers, especially when away from home, they feel threatened and insecure, looking to their parents/caregivers for security and comfort. Children of this age who cry when the reference adult leaves their sight, show that they have developed a sense of attachment to them; crying in this situation is a positive reaction.
Separation anxiety continues until children are about 24 months old. There, the children learned the concept of object permanence and developed confidence.
Object permanence is the knowledge that something or someone (like parents) continues to exist even when it cannot be seen or heard, and it is when children understand this phenomenon that separation anxiety resolves. Children learn to trust that their parents will not leave them forever.
In general, separation anxiety is not a cause for concern and does not require medical evaluation.
Separation anxiety differs from separation anxiety disorder, which occurs in older children. Children with this disorder typically refuse to go to daycare, kindergarten, or school. When it’s severe, separation anxiety disorder can interfere with a child’s normal development.
Parents should not limit or give up their independent activities in response to a child’s separation anxiety. Doing so can interfere with the child’s maturation and development.
When parents are getting ready to leave or drop off their child at daycare (for example), they can try this:
- Make sure any eventual caregiver is familiar to the child;
- Limit your response to the child’s crying before leaving;
- Remain calm and comforting;
- Establish routines for times of separation to reduce the child’s anxiety;
- Bring a transitional object (favorite stuffed animal, cloth diaper, etc.)
- Feeding or letting her/him take a nap before going out (because separation anxiety can be worse when the child is hungry or tired).
If the child cries when one of the parents goes to another room in the house, you should call the child’s name from the other room instead of immediately returning to the room to comfort him/her. This response teaches the child that the parents are still present, even though he/she cannot see them.
Separation anxiety that lasts beyond the age of two may or may not be a problem depending on the degree of interference with the child’s development. Most children, for example, feel some fear when they start kindergarten, however, separation anxiety that prevents a child from attending school or preschool, or from playing normally with peers, can be a sign of separation anxiety disorder. In such cases, children should be evaluated by a doctor.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?
Depending on the age of the children in your care, they may not yet be able to recognize and communicate the emotions they are experiencing. So, the way they show feelings will vary greatly. Especially when children return to daycare after their summer break (or for the first time), it’s normal to feel anxious.
But what is “normal” anxiety and when does a child’s anxiety become a cause for concern?
A good way to assess children’s behavior is not to over-analyze specific attitudes, but to observe how things change over time.
In this situation it is worth asking yourself: who is this child in terms of temperament? How does her/his behavior in this back-to-school period compare to what I’ve seen before? What did she/he like or dislike to do?
In the first few weeks, your team (as well as parents and caregivers) should be aware of possible symptoms of separation anxiety in children:
- Problems controlling temper;
- Regressive behavior;
- Depressive sadness or lack of interest in favorite activities;
- Changes in sleep schedule or appetite;
- Self-isolation, or disinterest in social circumstances;
- Abnormal attachment towards a particular parent or caregiver.
The three R’s
Dealing with children’s separation anxiety isn’t just a quick fix. It’s an ongoing process – we have to plan ahead to make the transition out of the home environment as gradual and smooth as possible.
So what does this mean in terms of working as an educator?
Well, Neal, again, suggests that we can think of it in terms of the three R’s: relationships, routine, and resilience.
Let’s break them down one by one:
- Relationships — When children feel more secure in personal relationships, it gives them a secure base from which to explore the rest of the world. Do personal check-ins with families, just to see how everyone is doing. If some children seem to be struggling, make room for some individual activity time with a preferably adult. If you’re still in the early stages of bonding with families remotely, be sure to maintain virtual uptime to keep those relationships strong.
- Routines — Maintaining routines helps the daycare feel more familiar, safe, and reliable. When the kids get back, take extra time to review the room rules together and talk about the ways that everyday life at school might be different from life at home. Remind children of the daily calendar and post it on the wall so they can structure expectations for what is to come.
- Resilience — Children need our help to learn to be resilient. In education, resilience means helping children identify difficult feelings they may experience, teaching them skills to cope with situations, and showing them where they can go for support.
Working with parent or reference adults
Supporting children also means supporting parents. And parents are likely to be dealing with their own anxieties.
This could result in a few years of pandemic stress, or just the usual unknowns of sending your child into a new school year. Either way, it’s worth being aware of parental stress and knowing that children will naturally reflect their emotions.
In the first few weeks, allow for more time than usual to stay in touch with family members and get to know them better. Here are some ways to get in touch with parents to get them more involved in the transition to the school environment:
Do family check-ins – Schedule family get-togethers as a sort of post-summer “quiz”. It is important to ask parents what happened at home on a daily basis so that we can get an idea of what kind of home environment the child is in transition.
Ask about what was really good, what was challenging and how the children behaved at home so you can help them adjust better.
Give parents resources to use at home – Make sure parents are equipped with the resources they need to support themselves and their children when they are at home. Consider submitting some separation anxiety readings so parents can stay informed too.
ChildDiary Tip: You can share this article with parents! :)
Tips to alleviate children’s separation anxiety
When preparing your back-to-school “manual”, here are some ideas to consider to help prevent or alleviate children’s separation anxiety:
- Allow children to bring a comfort object from home. A non-dangerous toy, stuffed animal, personal blanket, or even a family photo can be powerful sources of comfort for young children. This will help them feel that they bring the comfort of home with them, even away from it.
- Allow family “out of hours” visits. It can be especially helpful for new families to visit the daycare in a quiet, uncrowded setting. We can help parents and children feel the space, and help children feel comfortable with this new environment. It can also be a kind of video tour, if more practical.
- Let the parents stay for a long goodbye. Sometimes it can be helpful for anxious children to have parents stay with them for the first half an hour of the day. But make sure the child knows how long the parents can stay and stick to that deadline, so the child can adjust to their own expectations.
- Focus on having consistent, engaging morning routines. These are especially important in the morning, right after a potentially emotional slump. It’s good to keep children involved in family routines, to keep their minds off a difficult goodbye.
Communicate, communicate, communicate…that’s the only way we can get INVOLVED!
Last, but not least, when we talk about the transition from home to daycare the issue is the involvement of families in the education of their children. Now, for this to happen in a harmonious and collaborative way between educators and parents throughout the school year, there is something that cannot be neglected: COMMUNICATION.
In the initial phase of transition, communication is tremendously fundamental for establishing a relationship of trust between the child’s educational agents. Without this trust there will be no collaboration or involvement.
So, some tips for an ASSERTIVE, CLEAR, EMPATHIC and EFFICIENT communication, we suggest:
- Share anonymously surveys with families throughout the year so that they can fully anonymously express their fears, expectations and desires;
- Provide a monthly schedule for “attendance” to parents who can request it at any time of the year;
- Let them get into your room for the first few weeks. Invite them to sit for a while at the end of the day in an area of the living room and play with their children and other children;
- Make sure that in the first few weeks there will always be one of the adults in the room to receive and deliver the child to the parents;
- Use ChildDiary to share baby/child photos regularly (both in groups and individually);
- Use ChildDiary to engage parents in their children’s portfolio and share evidence of learning with them throughout the school year;
- Use ChildDiary to send and receive messages in private or in a group but without neglecting your privacy and personal time;
- Use ChildDiary to save time in recording daily routines and thus inform parents in detail about the hygiene, sleep and eating routines that concern parents of young children in the adaptation phase.
ChildDiary Tip: In the first few days, send a photo of the baby/child in full play or interaction to the parents and reassure them, especially on those days that they left the daycare with a heavy heart!
* Duran, F. Hepburn, K., Irvine, M., Kaufmann, R. Anthony, B., Horen, N., & Perry, D. (2009). What Works?: A Study of Effective Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Programs. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.
**Based on: Consolini, D., (2020). Separation anxiety and unknown anxiety. taken from the website: [https://www.msdmanuals.com/pt-pt/professional]
Marques, F. (2021). How to deal with separation anxiety. taken from the website: [https://www.medis.pt/mais-medis/gravidez-e-saude-infantil/como-lidar-com-a-ansiedade-da-separacao/]
Early Years Education Specialist and Sales Manager