Tips for Teachers
Each fall, young children begin preschool programs around the country with great anticipation, as well as some anxiety and trepidation. It is our responsibility as early childhood educators to support children and their families to work through their feelings about separation as they begin their journey as students.
Frequently, teachers make the mistake of pushing parents out of the classroom as soon as possible, wanting (understandably) to get down to the business of teaching without having parents “in the way.” Unfortunately, this tendency to push parents out of the classroom quickly often undermines the child and parent’s ability to master their feelings about separating from one another.
Sometimes parents can’t wait to drop their children off at school. Desperate for a few hours of peace and quiet, or needing to get to work as soon as possible, parents may attempt to push their child into the doorway and exit quickly. Then again, there are parents whose children are raring to go, ready and eager to separate and involve themselves in the school experience, and the parents cannot leave, cannot stand to let go of their child.
Both of these situations can be quite challenging for teachers. Some general principles to keep in mind about helping children and parents master feelings about separation are the following:
- Encourage parents to spend some time with their children at school at the beginning, and create ground rules that will enable this to work. For example, the first day, parents can be free to interact with their children and move about the classroom with them as the child begins to become familiar with the new environment. After the first day, parents who are able to or need to spend more time with their child can be given a seat towards the back of the classroom, or somewhere a bit removed from the middle of the play area. If the child needs to be with the parent, the child can stay near them, and when the child is ready to play, the child can move away and begin to play.
- Encourage parents to develop a “goodbye ritual” or routine that they do each day with their child. This provides consistency to the separation and will be comforting for the child. It can be reading one story together before the parent leaves, it can be doing a puzzle, it can be just helping the child wash hands and then bringing the child over to the teacher after giving the child a kiss goodbye, but it should be consistent and predictable. When teachers make themselves available to be near a child when a parent leaves, to provide a comforting bridge into the school day, this is very helpful, rather than leaving it up to the child to make his or her way into play totally on his/her own, especially at the beginning of the school year.
- Keep a photo of the child’s family at school, either up on a poster on the wall with pix of the other childrens’ families as well, or individually in the child’s locker, so that if a child is missing a parent, he/she can go and look at the picture, or even carry one around with them in a pocket if need be.
- For some children, it can be helpful to keep a note handwritten by a parent, saying something like, “While you’re at school, Mommy will be going to the store, or at work, or doing the laundry...and after snacktime, I will be so happy to see you again I will give you a big hug!”
- If a child misses his/her parent during the school day, a teacher can write a note dictated by the child to put in the child’s locker and give to the parent at the end of the day...“What would you like to say to Mommy right now?” Then write down what the child says. Validating the child’s wishes and feelings even when one cannot always make them happen is very reassuring.
- For parents who have a hard time leaving, providing them with a separate space to “hang out” a bit without totally leaving the building can be helpful...the director’s office, a hallway with some chairs and perhaps a pot of coffee, can be set up to make parents feel welcome and supported. If a director or assistant director can be available for parents who have a hard time leaving, all the better!
- Talk about parents in front of the children! Don’t think that for children, it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” because it is not. They need to know it’s all right if they think about Mom or Dad or Grandma while they’re at school, and that that’s okay with you and that you can help them if they get sad.
Tips for Parents
Parents often have feelings about separation as well. They want their child to behave appropriately and to be liked, they worry whether their child will be accepted and appreciated and treated well at school, and they want their child to be happy at school. Sometimes the pressures of life may lead parents to rush their child into school, or attempt to leave quickly without a proper goodbye process.
It’s very important for children to know what to expect and to find some consistency and predictability at school. Developing a regular “goodbye ritual” to be practiced at school is very helpful for children. It should be clear and consistent, e.g., “I will help you wash your hands and read you one story, then I will kiss you and say goodbye.” The specifics of the ritual are less important than that whatever it is makes sense to the child and is dependable. If something happens and the ritual has to be interrupted or changed, explain that to the child ahead of time so the child is not surprised.
Letting go can be hard for parents as well...share your concerns with the teacher and enlist his/her help in gradually leaving the classroom. Ask whether the program can provide a space for you to hang around a bit outside of the classroom if you’re not quite ready to leave the building altogether, but your child seems ready to play without you nearby. The teacher can assure you that if your child needs you, he/she can have a visit with you. If that is your plan, do not leave the building without having the director or someone tell the teacher you are leaving.
Spending some time with your child at the beginning of the program is the best way to assure a smooth transition. When the parent provides their “seal of approval” to a program by providing a bridge between home and school and spending some time with the child in the classroom at the beginning, this cements the building of a relationship with the staff and the environment for the child. If you see things happening at school with which you are uncomfortable, ask the teacher if you can talk with him/her about something when the children aren’t there. Teachers can never spend more than a few moments talking with parents in the classroom when they are taking care of children, which is their primary responsibility.
Bring in a picture of your family, possibly a personal note you have written to your child for him/her to keep at school. Be sure to let the teacher know about any special strengths/vulnerabilities your child has, so that you enlist the teacher’s participation in meeting your child’s needs. Sometimes a teacher might not notice that you are about to leave the classroom, and you may have to bring your child over to the teacher so that he/she can be a support as you leave in the morning.
Creating smooth, predictable transitions for your child, both at the beginning and at the end of the school day, will help build confidence in your child and a successful year.