Thursday, June 23, 2011

Separation Anxiety

      A special challenge for teachers of young children is helping anxious, crying children separate from their caregivers. When I first started teaching preschoolers, I was overwhelmed by a handful of crying children, clinging to their mother's legs. I couldn't get the parents to leave and I couldn't help the children calm down. I'm happy to say I've since learned to understand this common response and I've developed some effective strategies.
     First, understand that the separation reaction is as much about the mother, grandmother, or the caregiver who drops off the child as it is about the child himself. Many caregivers are embarrassed by their child's reaction, worried about the extra work it creates for the teacher, or frustrated by their lack of control. I think most are distressed by their child's sadness, fear, and intensity - feeling those emotions themselves. You can help the caregiver by reassuring him or her that this reaction is common, that it doesn't bother you, and that you have a plan to help.
     The Plan. Create a drop-off plan together with the caregiver that includes clear routines which will be used every day. Keeping the routine exactly the same is very important for helping the anxious child to be able to predict and trust what will happen each day.  For example, the plan might be as follow:
  1. Caregiver and child come into classroom and put things away.
  2. Child spends 5 minutes showing his caregiver one of the activities he's going to do that morning.
  3. Teacher joins the caregiver and child while they say good bye with a hug or other gesture.
  4. The child remains with the teacher (perhaps being held if he won't voluntarily let go of the caregiver) and waves goodbye as the caregiver leaves.
  5. The teacher consoles the child as needed, acknowledging how sad it is to say goodbye and reminding him when his caregiver will return (in concrete terms such as "after small group time")
  6. The teacher helps the child find a favorite activity to get involved in as a distraction.
  7. The teacher calls the parent after 10-15 minutes to let him or her know that the child is okay and has calmed down - or is calming down and doing better.
     Prepare the caregiver ahead of time that this plan will take a little while to work. Some children need a couple of days - others need weeks to begin to calm down and have some trust in the process.  There are a couple of important aspects to consider in developing your plan. Make sure the caregiver NEVER slips out without saying goodbye to the child. Some caregivers will want to do this because it helps them avoid the clinging and crying. However, this is very counter-productive and it will make the children more fearful of the parent leaving in the future. Be sure to build into your plan a clear process for saying goodbye and waving or watching the caregiver leave. You might want to have a special place in your classroom that is the "Saying Goodbye" spot, such as a window or location by the door that prevents the child from escaping, but allows him to wave goodbye. Finally, remember that the separation is as hard on the caregiver as it is on the child. Calling the caregiver (or having her call you) for reassurance after a short period of time can help this adaptation process go much more smoothly!
     What separation strategies have worked for you? Please share in the comments below!

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Crimfants]


  1. I have one child who is still crying all the way up to lunch time. She knows the routine inside out mom always says bye we always try to redirect her. I am totally lost when it comes to the student I've tried family tree, parents piece of cloth wardrobe, stuffed animals, and nothing seems to work.

    1. Stacey, My suggestion is to work with her individually (and intensely) on learning how to calm down. Here are some ideas from The Positive Classroom book:

      Breathing exercises

      Controlling your breath is the easiest and most effective way to calm down. These activities can be taught to the entire class and then brief reminders should be used to give individual support when needed.

      Flower and candle. The children hold up their fists and pretend they are flowers. They deeply smell the pretend flower. With the other hand, they pretend their fists are candles. After smelling the flower, they slowly blow out the candles. Be sure to remind them to blow out the candle gently so that they slow down their respiration.
      Three in and three out. Get the children in a relaxed position, then have them close their eyes and breathe in as you count “one.” Then, without breathing out, have them breathe in a bit deeper as you count to “two,” then once more have them fully fill their lungs as you count “three.” The exhale works the same way. You say, “Okay, one, now exhale a little bit,” Next you say, “Two, blow out a little more,” and then, “Three, let out the rest of your breath.” This works best if you model this first a few times and have them do it with you before starting to close their eyes. They can also pretend to gradually blow up a balloon with each breath and then let the air out slowly.

      Blowing bubbles. You will need bubble mix for each child, so this might work best as a small group activity. Have each child practice gently blowing through the wand to create bubbles. Encourage children to make different size bubbles and to slow down. For very young children, this will take some practice. Once the bubble is created, encourage the children to watch it drift away until it pops before blowing the next bubble.

      Snow globe. Shake up a snow globe and ask the child to watch the glitter slowly settle, breathing along with the movement.