The Teacher's Story

Francesca had been so independent last year that we never expected her to have difficulty going back to preschool this fall. But on the first day, she clung to her mom, and I couldn't console the sobbing three-and-a-half-year-old The first week, of school, Francesca wanted only Mommy close by. Then our new teaching intern, Molly, arrived. Almost immediately, Francesca climbed up on her lap during story time as if they had known each other forever. During free play, the little girl took the lead, and she and Molly "got to work" in the housekeeping corner. And when Francesca's mom approached her to announce that she was going out for a quick cup of coffee, Francesca waved a cheerful good-bye: "You go now, Mommy." Could it really be that Molly had rather effortlessly brought to an end this rocky start? As the days went by, that seemed to be the case. I was relieved until I remembered that Molly was scheduled to be with us for only five more weeks-long enough for Francesca to become even more attached. But then what? Would Francesca be doubly sad, first about separating from her mom and then about separating from Molly?

The Parent's Story

 I couldn't believe how upset Francesca got about going back to school. She adored the place last spring and had never been clingy, even when school was new to her. I tried to make sense of the change: "Maybe she misses all the family fun we had this summer, or maybe she's older and wiser now and realizes that school means there's no choice about being away from home for hours each day." Whatever the cause, it was upsetting to see my cheerful little girl suddenly so sad. Then, just when I had resigned myself to a slow adjustment, a new teaching intern arrived and instantly won Francesca's heart. I won't deny having mixed feelings at the time: relief tinged with just a little jealousy. But it was wonderful to see Francesca perk up. She brightened up and chatted easily with Molly. Soon we all agreed that she didn't need me there anymore. My child felt safe with Molly. Now I've learned that Molly is scheduled to stay only for six weeks, and I'm concerned about what will happen when she leaves. Francesca is already so attached to her.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

 A relatively smooth adaptation to school one year is no guarantee that a child will separate easily the next. Any kind of change can be challenging, at any time. That's why it's best that separation be a gradual process for young children. Happily, Francesca's teacher and parent understood this; they quietly arranged for Francesca's mom to stay in the classroom while they encouraged the friendship with Molly.

What the Teacher Can Do

 The teacher should help Molly prepare Francesca for their eventual separation. The intern might say to a group of children, "Most of the leaves will have fallen from their trees when it's time for me to have a turn being in another school." Also, facts about Molly's temporary stay should be mentioned casually, in many different contexts. She might explain that taking turns at different schools helps her learn how to be a teacher. She might mention how much fun it is making new friends and subtly suggest that Francesca do the same. Whenever Molly can, she should encourage Francesca to invite other children to play and help any budding friendships along. She can also inspire the child's trust in the other adults in the classroom.

What the Parent Can Do

In her contacts with the teacher, the parent should inquire about any flourishing friendships and invite those new children over to play. Parent and teacher should also meet to plan ways to help Francesca with Molly's leave-taking. Alone with her daughter, Mom should matter-of-factly inquire from time to time about Molly and other people in the classroom. Francesca may mention Molly's upcoming departure, but the most meaningful expression of her feelings is likely to be through imaginative play, not just at school but also at home. Also, a growing parent-teacher partnership might go a long way toward building a bridge secure enough to endure long after Molly is gone.