Just when we think a child has mastered separation, she reminds us that it's a tough process!

The Teacher's Story

BECKY WAS completely engrossed in the story, her big brown eyes fixed on the picture book I was reading. Although it was only her second week here, and her second day without her mom present, she seemed completely at ease. I marveled at the three-and-a-half-year-old's capacity to concentrate.

Our program has a gradual separation policy, but after the first week Becky's mom and I agreed that she was doing so well there was no need for her to stay. And Becky didn't protest about her leaving - in fact, she was so immersed in block play that she barely acknowledged her mom's good-byes. She's accepted the idea of sharing and plays happily in groups. Becky couldn't wait to join the pretzel-making group this morning and was delighted at the sight of the brownish twists emerging from the oven in time for snack. She's also willing and eager to try activities on her own. And what a curious little girl she is, never hesitating to ask about new things she spies around the classroom.

Everything had gone so smoothly for Becky that I was more than a little surprised to see her fall apart when her mom arrived yesterday. She burst into tears at the sight of her mother and had a near temper tantrum when she said it was time to go home. This afternoon she was just as reluctant to leave. Becky refused her mom's offered hand and wouldn't even look at her. Her mom seems bewildered. And I'm not sure why this is happening or how to reassure her that - despite their stormy reunions Becky really is adjusting just fine.

The Parent's Story

THE FIRST FEW days of school were easier for my child than for me. Once Becky saw the assortment of toys and all the other young children, she was great. She acted as if she had been coming to preschool and loving it - all her life.

I was so relieved to see how easily Becky accepted my leaving yesterday. I'd been prepared for some clinging and sadness since we've never been apart like this before, but she was just fine. I couldn't wait to get back at the end of the day to hear how things had gone. I expected Becky to rush into my open arms. Instead, she cried when she caught sight of me and kept saying that she didn't want to leave.

It was embarrassing that the teacher whom we'd met only recently had to persuade my child to go home with me. She was very helpful and mentioned some fun things Becky could look forward to the next day. And she offered me reassurance, saying that Becky had had another splendid day. But the same thing happened again this afternoon. Becky cried at the sight of me and walked away from the hug I offered her. I must admit I'm upset. Becky seems to prefer being with her new teacher now.

And leaving school isn't the only problem: In the first hour or so at home, she's been "fixing for a fight," grabbing things that aren't hers, and swinging her dad's big umbrella around and poking the dog with it. She ignores what I say and, later in the day, she's cranky and whiny. Becky's formerly robust appetite has diminished too.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Behavior like Becky's is common among young children in the early weeks of school. She's excited about all the wonderful new experiences, but regretful about losing the safety and warmth of having her Mom around.

During the school day, Becky works hard to contain any negative feelings about separating. She doesn't say so directly, but her troubles in reuniting make it clear that Becky has held back those feelings for as long as she can. Once she's alone again with Mom, she feels safe in letting them out. As delighted as she is about all the new fun, she's also regretful - and sometimes even angry - about having to a be a apart from Mom.

What the Teacher Can Do

During these early days of school, it can help to begin talking about going home about a half hour ahead of time. The teacher might mention that mommies, daddies, or other special grown-ups will soon be there to take children home. She can ask one or two children about whom they are expecting.

The teacher can also comment casually to the group, or to Becky alone, that sometimes we get upset with our moms or other grown-ups for leaving. She can reassure Becky that her mother will always come back.

Another ideas is to suggest that Becky show her mom the wonderful she did that day. This could mean a brief tour of drying artwork, buildings in the block corner, gerbils that Becky fed, or plants she watered.

At the earliest opportunity, the teacher should have a brief chat with Becky's mom to let her  know how common and typical Becky's behavior is. And she should reassure her that it is usually quite temporary.

What the Parent Can Do

The parent should feel assured that Becky's way of coping with separating is above all a tribute to her parents. For one thing, the girl has gleaned the kind of behavior that is expected in public places and group situations. She is cooperative and completely engaged in school. The loving guidance she has had for three and a half years has paid off.

But being apart from mom is a new thing for Becky. While a big part of her wants to grow up and is enjoying the independence, another part is dismayed about separating. With time and patience, she will grow increasingly comfortable with her new independent lifestyle and reunions will become easier - even joyous.

The parent can help to make this happen sooner by acknowledging Becky's feelings and showing understanding of how tough it is to be apart sometimes.  Mom should make it clear that she misses Becky, too, but is glad she's making friends. And now they'll always have lots to talk about at the end of every busy day.

The parent might also benefit from reading some helpful books on the topic. Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss by Claudia Jewett Jarrett (Harvard Common Press). Separation by Kathe Jervis (NAEYC), and Starting School by Jannet Ahlberg (Puffin) are all chock full of advice. 

Transition Tips

Here are some ways to help children ease into the new school year.

  1. Pay attention to and accept each child's feelings.
  2. Encourage parents to stay in the classroom for as long as their child needs.
  3. Invite children to bring favorite objects and photos from home.
  4. Suggest that parents create special good-bye routines - and develop your own hello greeting.
  5. Encourage children to share their feelings with one another so they each realize that they're not the only ones who miss their parents.
  6. Let children act out anger and other feelings they might not know how to express.