EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: Why do some children seem to separate more readily than others? What can teachers do for children who are having a terrible time for longer than usual?

Alice Sterling Honig, PhD: Children differ so much. We have recent research that tells us there is a gender difference here - boys are more likely to bound into the new classroom, while girls tend to stay closer to the nurturing parent for a longer period of time. There are so many reasons why separation can be difficult for children. One reason can be insecure attachment to the parent. If the child is not securely attached to the parent, the idea of being with a new adult, the teacher, can be just too overwhelming. Also, if a parent has incredibly long working hours, a child might have difficulty transitioning to the classroom, resisting any additional time spent away from the parent. We have seen cases where a child's parents have recently divorced and the child fears that a parent will not be there when he gets home from school. This can make separation very difficult. On the other hand, if a child does not have a close relationship with the parent and finds the teacher very nurturing and loving, he may gravitate to her in a very strong and immediate way. When this is the case, the child may have difficulty separating from the teacher and reuniting with the parent at the end of the day.

The ability to separate is also connected to the child's temperament. Although children have many different temperament styles, we see three that appear to be most common. A child who has an easy-going temperament is likely to separate and adjust very easily. A child who is impulsive and irritable, however, may have a harder time. And the child who is fearful, cautious, or slow to warm up almost always has the most difficulty separating and needs the most support. The teacher will repeatedly need to take this child by the hand, slowly and carefully introducing her to each new activity.

ECT: What role can parents play?

Honig: The parent needs to take some extra time to be with the child during his first week of school. This way, parent and child can spend at least the first hour of the child's school day moving around the room together, looking at the toys and materials, finding the route to the bathroom, and so on. The parent's role is vital in making the child familiar with his new environment.

The school shouldn't take an extreme position. By that I mean that the parent should be invited to help the child adjust - but, at the same time, the school should gently and carefully let the parent know if her presence is in any way interfering with the child's progress.

ECT: Are there any ages when it's easier to separate than others?

Honig: It seems to me that it depends on the amount of time the separation will last. Between 8 and 16 months is a hard time because this is the time of extreme stranger anxiety. However, by the time children are 3, they are usually ready to go, go, go-making a comfortable transition to being with their peers and other adults.

Alice Sterling Honig, PhD, a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in working with families with child custody and child development issues. Dr. Honig is the author of many books on infants and toddlers, including Infants and Toddlers (Southern Early Childhood Association, 1996) and with H. Brophy, Talking With Your Baby: Family as the First School (Syracuse University Press, 1996).

This interview originally appeared in the September, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.