By Jan Drucker Ph.D
Learning to be apart from family is a young child's toughest transition. Sensitivity, planning, knowledge of each child go a long way toward helping to ease the pain. Here are some guidelines.
Before School Begins ... if Possible!
Hold a parent meeting. Discuss the many ways children react to separation and why it's important for parents or someone close to the child try to stay until he feels comfortable.
Make home visits. Visiting a child and her family enables the child to see you in a familiar environment and feel you building a positive relationship with parents and other loved ones.
Schedule school visits: A short visit, even 20 minutes, for each parent and child before your program officially begins provides another important building block toward nurturing transitions.
First Days (or weeks)
Stagger enrollment. If possible, start children in small groups and shorten the time they stay.
Provide a place for parents to wait "on call" while their children adjust.
Be flexible. Sometimes a parent simply can't stay. If this is the case, see if she can be at school for 20 or 30 minutes at least once. Then, for the first 10 minutes, spend some time with both. Next, engage the child with Mom close by. That will give you a chance to see how the child is reacting and find something that appeals to her-perhaps another child, a story, or your lap. Then you'll have some clues to build on later.
If you have a deep sense that a child is totally not ready for mom to leave, you have to negotiate what you can do with the parent. Is there someone else who could come with the child for another day or two? Could the parent come earlier, before the other children arrive, and spend some time with the child?
Encourage good-byes. Three kisses on each other's nose; waving from the window-saying good-bye can be less stressful when parents and children create their own rituals. (A parent may think it's better to leave while her child is not looking. Gently explain that letting your child know you are leaving and that you will return is important in building trust.)
Plan for sensitive situations. There comes a time with some children when you need to discuss whether the parent should leave even if the child isn't completely comfortable yet. Ask yourself: Has the child, even if he has had a lot of upset, had times of solidly enjoying something in the room? Has he connected with materials or with another child? Begun to make a transition from a familiar adult to a new adult? If so, he is probably beginning to cope, and you have something you can build on. However, if none of this has happened, he is probably not ready for Mom to leave.
At the same time, consider whether you know a child well enough to offer comfort if he gets upset. Ask yourself if the group is ready for a stressful parting. What will happen if the teacher spends a lot of time with one child?
Pay special attention during transition times. Help by giving children one-onone attention.
Support links to home. Invite parents to call to see how their child is doing.
Developmental Note: At any time between six weeks and three months, some children may suddenly realize: Mom's not here. Many times, they are the ones who handled separation quite smoothly in the beginning. Now, perhaps, something has happened in the classroom that has made them suddenly aware that their parents aren't there. Parents may come back for a few days if possible. If not, someone else very close to the child might spend a few days at school.
Take the team approach.
Our own observations and interactions with children will begin to help us understand who they are. Just as important, and perhaps more enlightening, is what we can learn from parents before their child ever starts school. Here are some effective communication tips to help you know every child in your room!
Sit down together or have a phone conference. Let parents know:" I am here to learn from you about your child."
Begin with open-ended questions. "What's your child like right now?" "What do you like to do together?" "What kinds of activities give her pleasure?" "What kinds of behaviors do you find difficult to manage?" "How will I know what your child is feeling?" What do you think your child is expecting at school?" "What are you expecting?" "Is there anything about your family you'd like me to know?"
Inquire about specifics. "Where is your child in the toilet-training process?" "How might your child respond to rest time?"
Encourage parents to talk about verbal and non-verbal cues their children give. "How do you know when your child is tired? Frightened? Worried?" "What helps her?" "What do you do?"
Communicating through such questions helps convey to parents that you value them as observers and first teachers of their children.
About the Author
Jan Drucker, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and director of the Child Development Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She and her almost-teenage son live in New York City, where she has a clinical psychology practice.